Advocacy statements

The role of secularism in the protection of human rights

  • Date / 2016
  • Location / France
  • Relevant Institution / UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Item / Item 2: Annual report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 33rd Session (13th September – 30th September 2016)

General Debate on Item 2

We thank the OHCHR for its report on the panel on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism. We still share the concerns articulated by many CSOs[1] at the time of the panel concerning the lack of agreed definitions, and room for human rights abuse when it comes to “prevention.”

As an organisation specifically tasked with promoting human rights within a secular context we are also deeply concerned at the way in which in some states have been dealing with extremism by instrumentalising and distorting the concept of ‘secularism’ in order to undermine the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

In some Central Asian states, particularly Tajikistan, we have seen how the notion of secularism has been mixed with measures seeking to combat extremism leading to crackdowns on wearing Islamic dress, sporting beards, practising religious rituals in public spaces and imposed compulsory religious censorship.

The banning of the ‘burkini’ by local authorities across France is another stark example of a harmful conflation of anti-extremism and secularism and based on double standards in curbing the rights to free expression, religion and belief. Talk from the French authorities about “provocation,” “offence” and “public morals,” are mirror images of the type of rhetoric we have highlighted at the Council before in terms of being used by authorities in many Islamic states as justification for enforcing conservative dress codes.

Properly understood, political and legal secularism is the best potential framework in which to provide the conditions for the flourishment of human rights since it insists on all people are seen as human rights agents, regardless of their beliefs. Disproportionately limiting the right to freedom of expression through bans on clothing, veils or facial hair – particularly when targeted at one minority – devalues and debases the value of secularism.

We again we ask that the OHCHR explores the role of secularism in the protection of human rights, in the hope of preventing this harmful instrumentalisation of secular values in order to pursue and oppressive agenda or undermine human rights.


[1] https://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/38248/en/un-hrc:-58-ngos-warn-of-harmful-impact-of-%E2%80%9Ccountering-and-preventing-violent-extremism%E2%80%9D

Suggested academic reference

'The role of secularism in the protection of human rights', Humanists International

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