This report was funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and examined the discrimination faced by atheists and humanists in eight counties around the world. To launch the report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, joined the reports lead authors Gary McLelland and Emma Wadsworth-Jones, to unpack the report and ask some questions. You can watch the event on YouTube. Below is a transcript of that event.
Dr Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (UNSR):
Greetings to all. I am the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in that role I undertake a range of activities to promote respect for freedom of religion or belief around the world, among these are monitoring trends with regard to respect for freedom or belief and I advocate on behalf of individuals or groups of individuals who face persecution, harassment on account of their religious beliefs or philosophical convictions.
Today I’m delighted to hail the 2020 Humanists at Risk campaign launched by the Humanists International, and to present to you a report compiled by Humanists International for this campaign called the Humanists at Risk Report. The report highlights trends, patterns and cases from around the world and focuses on eight countries: Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka. The report draws attention to the plight of humanists in these countries and refers to trends elsewhere as well. I’m very happy to meet the lead authors of this report Gary McLelland who is the chief executive of Humanists International and Emma Wadsworth-Jones who is the Humanist at Risk Coordinator they have kindly agreed to discuss with me some of the key findings of the report and highlight what can be done moving forward.
I’m especially pleased to meet the lead authors of this report as I am myself planning to write a report for the UN Human Rights Council in 2022 on the freedom of thought. Good morning Emma, good morning Gary, our first of all, congratulations on the excellent report and thank you so much for inviting me to this platform to pose some questions to you about the report, but before I do that may I perhaps invite you to present on the key findings in the report to our audience.
Absolutely. I will do that, thank you so, Ahmed, for your time, for speaking to us. It’s a real privilege to be able to speak to you. So the presentation should be loading now, and what I thought I’d do is just walk through how the report came about, the findings of the report and where we hope to go with it.
So as you mentioned the report profiles the treatment of humanists and other non-religious individuals in eight countries; Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka and using personal testimony and by highlighting emblematic cases we’ve been able to expose the lived experience of humanists on the ground and through analyzing that we have been able to make recommendations that are specific to each country. The recommendations vary and sometimes it’s about legislative reform, constitutional reform or even in some cases it’s about full investigations into attacks. For us, we’ve received an increased number of requests from humanists at risk around the world seeking assistance over the last few years, which for us represents evidence of a targeting of these individuals on the basis of their rejection of majority religion, or their promotion of humanist values.
But there’s a problem; there’s a lack of systematic research into the issues. So I’m really pleased to hear that you will be reporting on this in 2022. So this modest report is essentially a scoping exercise to see what the potential is for further researching the area to hopefully promote and encourage others to conduct further research, and to shine a light on the situation in the eight countries that we have picked.
This map here shows you just this year the country of origin of the individuals seeking assistance from us. So as you can see the majority of our requests come from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and the most of all requests are from Pakistan where we’ve received 14 so far this year.
And I think the following quote goes to explain why where one of our respondents said “…generally we can say that to be a humanist, you must have the courage to lose everything”.
The report was funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and it gave us the opportunity over two months to conduct our research sending out surveys to members and like-minded individuals in the eight target countries. We chose the countries we chose because we had a limited time frame and we wanted to make sure that our research was as robust and detailed as possible.
So we looked at where we had a decent presence on the ground and where there was good information available. We received 76 responses to our questions. Our questions were largely open questions intended to allow us to capture robust rich qualitative data and then that was in turn supplemented by the research we do annually for the Freedom of Thought Report and our End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
And the information that was given to us from our survey respondents has helped to inform the recommendations that we’ve made and it’s very clear that depending on the country the recommendations do need to be different. For example, this quote from Indonesia shows that what has to come first and foremost for humanists in Indonesia is actually just the mere recognition and acknowledgement and respect of the fact that they exist before you can even conceive of legislative change.
So despite the differences in the different countries in terms of the political landscape, cultural, religious demographics, we have found common threads in terms of the tactics that are used against these individuals to limit their rights. All too common is bullying, discrimination, ostracism and social isolation both from family but also from the wider society, and this is often exacerbated by the privileging of states of one religion, or maybe some religions, over others or lack of faith entirely and that can lead to discrimination in terms of access to public services and also in terms of employment.
A very worrying trend also highlighted in the report is the failure of states to bring perpetrators of violent acts against humanists and non-religious individuals to justice, and this can be for a variety of reasons, it could be slow judicial processes, it could be failures of investigations but the actual effect itself is very similar throughout. Impunity leads to a vicious cycle in which perpetrators seeing that there are no consequences for their actions are emboldened to continue perpetrating acts against humanist individuals.
Which in turn then leads to self-censorship and a stifling climate for the humanist community. And legal provisions contribute to that too in countries where blasphemy, apostasy, laws, religious insult laws, are in place you find that people feel less able to express themselves and to express themselves openly and say I am atheist.
I am a humanist, in fact in some cases that can carry with it a death sentence. And even in constitutionally secular states like Colombia, you still see that religious belief is influencing laws to the detriment of the wider community as a whole, not just humanists.
So through our research we’ve been able to make some more generalized recommendations as well, so one of those is to the international community to conduct more research into the treatment and experiences of humanists and other non-religious individuals and that will help us inform how we can support them better, how we can protect them. We call on states to repeal all laws and policies that criminalize blasphemy, religious insult, and apostasy, and further we call on civil society actors and States to engage in projects that promote dialogue between different religious and belief communities, with the view to promoting social cohesion, respect, tolerance. In terms of what’s next for us, I think that we hope very much that our members will use this report in advocacy as we will be doing in our own we are very committed to working to support and protect humanist at risk of cross all of our work, including by supporting platforms and initiatives for humanist at risk to live really and to share their experiences and in the coming months we look forward to relaunching reinvigorated End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
Well thanks so much. That’s such a good overview of the report. If I may ask some questions, the first one is more motivated by my own background. I come from a country called the Maldives and as you well know, to be a freethinker, to be humanist in the Maldives is like getting a death sentence on you, and there have been cases of this.
The first question is in terms of compiling a report of this sort, and you mentioned questionnaires and so on and so forth, just how difficult is it, or how is how easy is it, therefore to get information on what’s going on on the ground?
I think that’s a very good question. For us, we were delighted to have the opportunity from the Foreign Commonwealth Office in the UK to produce this report. But it is difficult, as Emma mentioned, and as you’ve just mentioned Ahmed, it requires a great deal of trust from our members and supporters that they can, you know, trust us to give to give this information fairly and accurately and the report obviously in many areas is anonymized because the whole purpose of this report is to try and bring to our other reports and research a more human dimension, to pass on some of these experiences and testimonials, and of course we have to do that in an incredibly sensitive way and so we rely on the very close relationship that we’ve built up with our members and supporters over, you know, almost 70 years, for them to trust us to share that information.
So it’s easy in one sense and that where we have members and supporters we have a very good relationship where we can speak to people, you know, openly and quite easily. The difficulty is, as this report shows, and as other research into the humanist community has shown, many humanists and non-religious people face an experience of invisibility in their countries.
Sometimes this can be official invisibility, such as states that do not even acknowledge the existence of non religious people, but in other cases it can be from severe social stigma or fear of reprisals and violence. So part of what we’re seeing in this report is that these are the testimonials and the experiences that we’ve been able to get, which we think are quite striking and worthy of more investigation.
But what we’re also saying is that we know that there are more people out there who are part of this community and we are not able to access them partly because of these barriers that exist in this invisibility that they face, and I don’t know if you want to add anything else Emma?
No, I think, part of it is that there are just some things that we just can’t talk about either. As we have anonymised a lot of information as Gary says but in terms of cases that we could highlight there are quite a few which we would like to highlight but we’re not in a position too for their own security.
Yeah, this point about invisibility is quite an important point I think. I mention this because this year, we mark the 60th anniversary of the publication by the UN of its first ever report on the question of religious minorities, the so-called Arcot Krishnaswami report. And it’s about religious minorities and we have in Article 27 of the ICCPR, protection for religious minorities.
And in the discussion about humanists, how much does this legal framework ever offer protection to humanists, or is it is it a community that is still being ignored or is an afterthought or how much does that invisibility to actually impact on the ability for the community to exercise their rights and also be protected by those like you who want to be supportive of everybody?
Well I think that it generally does tend to adversely affect individuals who are humanists or non-religious. I think that if you look at the case of Indonesia, for example, or other other states, where they recognize specific religions, but they don’t recognize atheism, immediately your ability to access services, to have access at a political level, any form of access, actually is massively reduced and in some cases you’re held to legal standards that are related to your cultural inheritance as opposed to your own beliefs.
So for example Sharia courts in Malaysia, so I think it does have a big effect and the invisibility,y ignoring the fact that atheists are targeted, non-religious people are targeted, or exist even, what ends up happening is that they are subtly discriminated against and it can be very difficult to make it very public which is why you know this report I think is, is so important right now we are finally able to to let their voices come out and show look this is what we are facing and it is significant it, is significant the, discrimination the threats.
And I think that you find that it gets worse where the human rights record of the country is worse, because of course as soon as you criminalize thought; that’s it.
Yeah I think I would add as well that in terms of the international context, the UN Human Rights Council has been… [UN Human Rights] Committee, rather… has been very clear in its General Comment 22 that the right to freedom of religion or belief includes the right to leave, change a religion, to have no religion, and to express those non-religious beliefs in accordance with the other rights that exist, in a balanced way.
But I don’t think that that message is being received loudly and clearly enough by several states and by other international partners, and I think partly what we’re trying to do in this report is to express that view, that yes the international law and policy does protect your right to leave a religion, to join a new religion, to change your mind, or to be non-affiliated, or a humanist, and I think that the reason that we’re trying to add this report to the body of of current work is that – and we go to great lengths in the report itself to say that this should not be seen as a way of trying to compete with, you know, the discrimination faced by other religious minority groups.
All we are trying to say is that freedom of religion or belief, if it’s to be valued, must be valued for everybody and the point of this report is to say that we think that the group of people called humanists, or freethinkers, atheists, non-religious, haven’t been sufficiently valued as a protected community that needs support through freedom of religion or belief, and we think that freedom of religion or belief for all is a fairly uncontroversial point and that we would like to see a greater acceptance from States and other international partners that it is so, and I think yeah yourself and your colleague Special Rapporteurs have been very clear about that in the past both yourself and your predecessor have been very clear to reiterate General Comment 22 and to say very clearly that freedom of religion or belief does extend to these groups.
Thank you and indeed. I want to stress that you know, international law does not give priority to religious beliefs or non-religious beliefs, you know, protects everyone’s equal right to hold or not to hold whatever belief they want to. This takes me to the next question I actually want to ask of you, you know, your report covers a diversity of regions, civilizations, cultures, contexts, and so on and so forth, and you mentioned some common threads like impunity, would that be the common threads or are there other common threats that run across all these different cases?
I think there’s a few common threads that run throughout this report. I think one is definitely the idea of impunity or, invisibility for humanists and non-religious groups, and I think the other one would be the targeting of minority opinions, you know, so where we see – and I think this would be true of religious minorities and many countries that when particularly when a conservative type of religious theology has a hold over vast swathes of social or political power in a country, it’s very often the minorities that will suffer, and that includes religious minorities and non-religious minorities, and I think that the message that we’re trying to get across is that you’ll often see that states in their foreign policies will object to blasphemy laws because very often they will see that when it affects their citizens abroad, where they may be going from being a majority belief folder to minority belief holder, they recognize that being in the minority is a significant disadvantage when it comes to blasphemy laws and religious offence laws etc, so what we’re trying to do I think is echo back to those parties to say that you know, we need to be aware of the effect it has a minorities as well and I think too often the defence of and ‘social cohesion’ is used by states to defend laws which persecute minorities and I think what we’re very clearly trying to say to States and other international organizations is that you must do the work to foster community relations and simply trying to persecute and silence people on the basis of their beliefs is not the way forward.
Would you say that inclusion or lack of inclusion becomes a significant – if you like – marker in the extent to which States can respect, because I raise this point because the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) goals, it has a major tag-line “leave no one behind”. And I think in all cases you refer to there’s an element of leaving behind or excluding humanists. Would that be a fair come to make?
Yes, I think so definitely. In terms of the the discrimination that that we’ve seen they absolutely are being left behind. They don’t have the same access to services to employment, to a way of life as as other individuals, including other religious minorities, and so definitely that is inclusion is key.
So let me obliviously ask you about this broader campaign that you’re launching, the Humanists at Risk Campaign 2020. What are the key goals, key activities of this campaign and also what would you regard to be an indicator of success for the campaign?
I think basically we want to try and show the world that there is, in almost every country in the world that we’re aware of and every region of the world, there exists communities of people; humanists, freethinkers, rationalists, etc and they’ve existed in many cases throughout history in these communities and what we’re trying to say is that these communities should be recognized as a valid partner in international aid projects for example or as a valid subject of social study and understanding how different communities work.
And in many cases humanist individuals and humanist groups have been very influential in the social history of many countries around the world. So, I think it’s partly trying to raise awareness that this community exists and should be understood and part of the discourse around religion and social makeup and so on.
And the second thing, as I sort of touched upon earlier, is to really say that to especially, you know, people like yourself and other Special Rapporteurs and governments around the world, that when they’re looking at the persecution of minorities and especially religion or belief minorities that again humanists are a category of people who are routinely and regularly violently attacked and persecuted simply because of the beliefs that they hold and their struggle to express those beliefs. And that those beliefs are positive.
They are firmly held, a coherent set of world views, and the international law and policy does protect them, and to try and raise awareness of that point. I think the third point really is a call for further research, you know, we make very clear in this report that this report only touches upon eight countries and it’s, you know, it’s a thorough report, 72 pages, but there’s clearly much more room for research in these areas and basically this is a challenge to other governments perhaps, who may want to fund for the research into this area, or institutes and and further researchers, to say look this is an area which is being thoroughly under-research in the past and we think is right to be further explored in the future.
You mentioned about the contribution the humanists have made to you know to their lives, and so on, in the current COVID-19 pandemic we see in you know, we see a rise of intolerance towards people of all faiths and none we’ve also seen a mobilization of faith-based actors to help with the with the response to this. What can you say has been the impact on freethinkers, and also what has been the role of freethinkers in response to the pandemic.
Well I think that in terms of humanists at risk, or people of no religion who have been placed at risk, the effect has been very, very severe there are lots of people who are at risk who were in the process of travelling, of getting away, and now might be stuck and isolated in second countries, others weren’t even able to get out. Then you have cases like the Iranian cases that we have, where they are stuck in prison in conditions that are overcrowded and cramped and likely to aid the spread of COVID-19, their well-being is already at risk and so their ability to fight off COVID-19 would be high too so. Because of their expression, because they are prisoners of conscience, they’re not being released, so the effect has been quite severe in that respect.
Gary would you like to add anything?
I think the other element from the humanist point of view, we’ve like other excuse me communities around the world tried to make available support to our members around the world so we’ve made available several funds for humanists around the world to access because although this report makes it clear that humanists face significant and ingrained discrimination and COVID-19 as it has made life difficult for everybody, has made life even more difficult for humanists, so we’ve tried to make available some funds for general humanitarian purposes for our members around the world in addition to the grants that we make available every year, and I guess like all religion or belief communities we are trying to do what we can to support our members but also to support the wider society that they operate in.
Thank you, if I may ask one final question of you. You’ve already identified some of the key gaps that exist in legal frameworks in the common policies or the protection that I available, are there any specific actions that you would recommend say to specific actors especially say parliamentarians, diplomats and religious leaders because many of them are active in organizations around the world in promoting different aspects of freedom of religion or belief, so are they specific asks from you of these specific actors.
I think many states will already be aware of the best practice when it comes to freedom of religion or belief internationally and perhaps whether they apply that, that good practice in their own states is maybe a separate question. But I think and you know, the good practice has been widely established. One thing that I would say which states around the world could do which would make a significant impact on the experiences of all religion and belief groups is to urgently call upon the repeal of all blasphemy laws worldwide, and any other law or policy which criminalizes religious offense, and the damaging of religious feelings for example. Now that’s not to say that social cohesion and hate crime are not important issues, they certainly are and legislators and policy makers have a very important job to make sure that hate crime is not condoned or permitted, however.
We know the blasphemy laws are simply bad laws, we know that they are only ever used politically to target freedom of expression of political minorities, belief minorities etc and even in countries in Europe and North America, for example where blasphemy laws to start an extent still exist in dead letter format or paper format, we still continue to call upon these countries to repeal them not just because it’s the right thing to do and these are bad laws, but also to send a message to the rest of the world that in countries like Saudi Arabia.
For example, the fact that a blasphemy law may exist, and well that the most recent country in Europe to announce that it’s going to repeal its blasphemy law is Scotland, so that the fact that a blasphemy law exists in Scotland is no excuse for your own blasphemy law. So I think, for me, that is one action that states can do and I think increasingly are doing that to show that intolerance towards religion and belief minorities is just not acceptable.
Right thank you so much, they are very important lessons I think to all of us from what you’ve said now as in the report. I have read the report. It’s a great research product and like you say it’s a good conversation starter and I hope that more rights defenders will look at the report and engage with it. Thank you once again for giving me a chance to speak to you about the report and thank you for the report.
Thank you, Ahmed, it if I can just add a very big thank you to you and your office for all the work that it does around the world to highlight examples of discrimination against religion and belief groups and to promote good policy for all states around the world.