How universal are our human rights – the case of Mubarak Bala

  • blog Type / Casework blog
  • Date / 27 June 2022
  • By / Emma Wadsworth-Jones

On 4 June 2022, Humanists International’s Casework & Campaigns Manager, Emma Wadsworth-Jones spoke at the International Humanist Conference organized by Humanist Society Scotland. What follows is her speech, reflecting on what the case of Mubarak Bala tells us about the universality of human rights.

Mubarak Bala’s arrest came just one day after I joined Humanists International as its new Humanists at Risk Coordinator. An ambition held since 2016, the role was created in acknowledgement of the growing number of requests from non-religious people across the globe who sought help from Humanists International. The nature of the threats faced by our community means that their cases are often complex, and require multi-faceted and considered responses. And for this, I am here.

Mubarak Bala’s case is just one example. An example of where the Kano State government has been able to systematically violate Bala’s rights as enshrined in the Federal Constitution of Nigeria with impunity. Where the Federal Government, in its failure to intercede in Bala’s case and ensure that his rights are upheld, has failed in its duty to respect and protect the rights of those within its jurisdiction as required by treaties under international law to which it is a State Party and therefore bound.

Just six weeks after the birth of his son, Mubarak was arrested at his home in Kaduna, a state in Northern Nigeria. Shortly before his phone was confiscated, he managed to get the message out that he had been detained, and that he needed help; he needed a lawyer. At this point, no one knew how long he would be held or how his case might develop. That Mubarak’s wife, Amina, would be left to raise their son, Sodangi, on her own for more than two years.

This was a time of paralysis, where COVID-19 prevented all movement within Nigeria.

Those first few days passed quickly as we sought to gather information and establish precisely what had happened in an ever-evolving case. We knew that a group of lawyers in Kano had filed a complaint arguing that his recent Facebook posts were liable to cause a public disturbance due to their “blasphemous” nature.

In this time, Mubarak was moved across state lines and into the custody of Kano State. This much, we knew. But we didn’t know where he was being held; we didn’t know how he was being treated. According to the country’s own laws, Mubarak should have been notified of the charges against him in writing within 24 hours. This did not happen.

All the while, there were threats against Mubarak’s life being voiced by his detractors. Threats to burn down the police station in which he was being held. Threats that if he were to return to Kano – the place of his birth – he would be killed.

Among those threatening to kill him was a sergeant attached to Bauchi State Police Command, who, according to the newspaper Sahara Reporters, is notorious for using a fake Facebook accounts where he spreads hatred and religious bigotry, and encourages his 160,000 followers to attack Christians and others, who don’t share in their extreme ideas.

For more than five months, Mubarak was consistently denied access to his legal representatives in spite of the issuance of court orders mandating that he be allowed to meet with them; a clear contravention of his rights to a fair trial and equality before the law.

I am sure that some would argue that COVID-19 was responsible for such delays; however, while it certainly played a part, it was not the only factor. By July, the courts had resumed operations and the Inspector General of Police had been issued with the court order mandating that the lawyers be given access to their client, and yet he still failed to comply. Two more months would pass before Mubarak would be permitted to meet with his lawyers. Why?

Eight of the United Nation’s Special Rapporteurs – independent human rights experts mandated to investigate and advise on human rights issues – came together and determined that Mubarak’s treatment amounted to “persecution of a non-believer”. They saw his treatment for what it was: discrimination in the application of rights owing to the fact that he was non-religious. Non-religious in a highly volatile ethno-religious environment.

Nigeria is a religiously pluralistic country in which an individual’s ethnicity has a bearing on religious demographics. The Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, which is most populous in northern Nigeria, are predominantly Muslim while the Igbo, a major ethnic group in the south, is predominantly Christian. An estimated 10% of the population are non-religious. So, no single religious group is in the majority throughout the country.

The deep entanglement of religion and state perpetuates parallel legal systems for different religious and ethnic groups, where penalties for the same crime can vary dramatically. It is this deep entanglement that has had such a bearing on Mubarak’s case.

In December 2020, the Federal High Court of Nigeria ruled that Mubarak’s ongoing detention without charge represented a violation of his fundamental rights and ordered his immediate release on bail. The Kano State government failed to comply. Instead, Mubarak was held in a state correctional facility and denied access to necessary medical care.

Mubarak remained in detention for 644 days before he was formally arraigned in court. Charged with 10 counts of causing a public disturbance under sections 114 and 210 of the Kano State Penal Code.

By the time his case came to trial on 5 April 2022, 8 more charges had been added to the charge sheet. Mubarak had been subjected to such pressure that he felt forced to plead guilty, hoping that this would afford him leniency, as is customary in the Nigerian court system. It was not to be. That same day, Mubarak was sentenced to an unprecedented 24 years in prison.

Some have asked me why there is less coverage and noise about Mubarak’s case on the ground in Nigeria. For an answer we need look no further than the statements of the judge in court; in reaching his verdict, the judge stated that “He should go and believe in his own faith and allow others to believe in their own faith. There is no compulsion in religion not to take of insulting any particular religion for that matter. I hope his stay in a correctional centre would sure serve him a great lesson and others.”

He hoped that this sentence would serve as a lesson to Mubarak and others not to question or criticize religion.

The injustices that have been allowed to prevail in Mubarak’s case have emboldened those who would threaten and target members of our community. The systematic violation of his rights by the State has sent a signal to hardliners that it is acceptable to persecute the non-religious. Many members of our community in Nigeria who have spoken out on Mubarak’s behalf have received credible threats. While members of religious communities who have been supportive of our cause in private, feel that speaking out on Mubarak’s behalf in public is just too big a risk to take. And so, my focus has been on bringing pressure to bear from the outside, particularly by seeking to remind the Nigerian State of its obligations under international law.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which is now treated as customary international law – states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Article 2 goes on to enshrine the principle of non-discrimination for any reason – be it race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, among other characteristics.

Human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated.

Certain rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, may be subject to limitations. The right to Freedom of Religion or Belief is similar: the ‘inner’ freedom to choose one’s religion or belief is absolute, meaning that there are absolutely no circumstances in which it can be limited. However, the ‘outer’ element (i.e. one’s right to manifest their belief) may be subject to limitations. Limitations may only be imposed provided that they are proportional, necessary and provided by law. Can we say that this is the case here?

The maintenance of public order – along with public health, morality and the protection of the rights of others – is one of the legitimate reasons that may be used to limit external manifestations of one’s freedom of religion or belief. On the surface, Mubarak’s case would seem to fit under this rationale. After all, Mubarak’s case centered on the argument that he had promoted a public disturbance.

However, Humanists International would argue that his case is representative of a broader trend, antagonistic to human rights, in which authorities invoke threats to public order, social cohesion, or the avoidance of mob violence in order to limit the rights to peaceful expression and assembly of minorities.

Freedom of Religion Belief does not grant special privileges for religious people, but rather extends broad protection to everyone equally. There is nothing inherently threatening in Mubarak’s posts, unless you subscribe to the incorrect belief that freedom of religion or belief protects religions from questioning or criticism.

The fact is that, like so many of his peers, Mubarak’s non-religious identity – and his peaceful exercise to his right to freedom of expression – is the true reason for his arrest.

The attempt to undermine the universality of human rights is a tactic employed by opponents of the human rights agenda, and has taken various forms over the decades. However, defenders of human rights have long held that their universality should not be up for debate.

It is worth noting that some of the very states that seek to undermine the human rights movement with arguments of cultural relativism, were instrumental in the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights itself from which other, binding, instruments have followed; China, for example. Skeptics might therefore question the reason for exceptionalism now. Is it perhaps a political tactic to bolster state sovereignty and resist international denunciations of internal repression.

One of the clear dangers of a relativist position, is of course that culture is perceived as homogenous and static, where all individuals belonging to that culture implicitly believe or want the same thing. Cultures, however, are much more dynamic, evolving systems; such arguments become barriers to those attempting to gain access to their rights, particularly for those already marginalised within society.

The suggestion that all followers of a particular religion or belief system must necessarily subscribe to the same (often extremist and patriarchal) interpretation of a religion amounts to an erasure of individual identity and of individual rights. Abandoning the principle of universality of human rights in certain circumstances, bowing to religious or cultural specificities, is equivalent to stating that certain human lives are worth more, or are more deserving of rights, than others.

We see this in the cases of those who reach out to us, and in conducting our research for the Freedom of Thought Report. The right to Freedom of Religion or Belief itself is instrumentalised to undermine the rights of others, be it the rights of the non-religious to exist, women to access abortion, children to a meaningful education free from religious dogma, including their access to comprehensive sex education, or the rights of the LGBTI+ community.

Since I joined Humanists International a little over two years ago, we have received more than 530 requests for help from fellow humanists in every region of the globe. Together with their families we can conservatively estimate that it amounts to more than 1,000 people needing help in the past two years.

What does this tell us? To my mind, it tells us that something is fundamentally wrong. Am I trying to claim that our group among all religion or belief groups is the most persecuted? By no means; however, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief once said: “humanists, when they are attacked, are attacked far more viciously and brutally than in other cases.”

Social scientists would argue that the pursuit of human rights is itself a continuous process of ever-changing and inter-related global and local norms, and that in order to further human rights we must work to promote mutual respect – if not uncritical acceptance of different moral communities- and promote cross-cultural dialogue and negotiation, work that our Members and Associates are doing on the ground across the globe, often in contexts hostile to their very existence.

As humanists, we believe in the universality of human rights; we believe that everyone should be able to live a life of dignity where human rights are respected and protected, and we work towards this goal.

Today, as we assemble in this hall, we cannot say that human rights are afforded to everyone equally, however, change takes time, and dialogue and respect are key.

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