General Statement of Policy

  • Date / 2015
  • Location Ratified / Manila, Philippines
  • Ratifying Body / General Assembly
  • Status / Current

The General Assembly adopts the following IHEU General Statement of Policy of the International Humanist and Ethical Union as an open, working document.

The proposal for a new comprehensive, consolidated policies statement should be presented at the 2016 IHEU General Assembly in Malta for adoption.

The General Assembly believes that:

The General Assembly therefore resolves to:

“5. Policy

5.1 The official view of IHEU on humanism and on important issues of public concern consists of (i) IHEU policy and (ii) IHEU position statements.

5.2 IHEU policy is agreed and may be amended by the General Assembly. The Executive Committee keeps policy under review to ensure that it still represents the consensus position of IHEU members and is relevant to the major issues of contemporary concern.

5.3 Position statements elaborate on existing policy in a way that is consistent with all existing policy. They are adopted and may be revoked by the Executive Committee.”

Annex: General Statement of Policy of the International Humanist and Ethical Union

This General Statement of Policy, agreed by the General Assembly in 2015, is based on policy resolutions and statements adopted and issued by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) between 1952 and 2014.

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural accounts of reality.

Humanism’s reliance on the application of reason, free enquiry, and science to draw conclusions from the available evidence (a method it finds justified by the generally reliable conclusions it produces) leads humanists to reject both dogmatic views and theistic beliefs. Humanists conclude that this is the only life we have, and that a moral sense is part of human nature, derived from our evolution as social animals. We adopt ethical positions based on this-worldly considerations of the inalienable dignity and worth of the individual, the value of autonomy and liberty combined with social responsibility, the reduction of suffering (of all sentient creatures, not only of humans) and the pursuit of equity, human fulfilment, and happiness.

Human dignity in normal circumstances requires individual autonomy – every individual’s life is their own to shape, as they will, and this includes the right not to conform to one’s ethnic, religious, or cultural background. But experience shows that life is best lived in society with others and this requires cooperation, tolerance, and forbearance.

From these values flow most of the beliefs of humanists and policies of the IHEU, among them strong support for human rights, for good governance based on democracy and rule of law without undue privilege for any group, for education, scientific and cultural endeavour, and for equitable sharing of the world’s resources with full regard to the interests of future generations.


1. Human Rights and Non-discrimination

The autonomy that humanists attribute to every individual person can be delivered only by collective agreement and action to guarantee that all people enjoy certain freedoms and rights, commonly known as ‘human rights’, by virtue only of being human.

Such rights were set out in 1948 in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have since been elaborated and in some cases made justiciable in many supplementary and regional conventions. Governments signatory to these declarations and conventions have bound themselves to guarantee these rights for every single person and must deliver them even in the face of pressure from nationalist, racist, populist, bigoted, or religious sources. Even where legal enforcement of human rights, equality, and non-discrimination has been introduced in some states, there is often a need for campaigns to promote the value of human rights and for education about them in schools.

Humanists recognise that some human rights do sometimes need to be qualified so as to safeguard overriding social goods and the rights of others. This is in line with the existing human rights framework, including the Universal Declaration itself, which already includes provisions regarding our shared responsibilities to uphold and defend our universal rights, as well as a distinction between absolute rights (such as the right not to be tortured) and qualified rights that are subject to strictly defined exceptions.

Some human rights are of particular importance to humanists by virtue of our commitment to reason and free inquiry, others because they are often threatened or curtailed by religious pressure. These include the following:

Protection of these rights requires tolerance of the expression of views and the practice of religions or beliefs one does not share or even deplores.

People typically have many diverse characteristics and ‘identities’ and such diversity can be and usually is a source of strength for a society. A diversity of ethnic, cultural and religious traditions has value for members of a community. Groups of people sharing some goal or interest have the right to organise themselves, and those having a distinct socio-cultural and/or ethnic character have the right to preserve and develop their patterns of life and behaviour as long as this does not act against the human right of self-determination of their own members or the rights of other members of society. (Correspondingly, every individual has the right to identify him or herself with a group or groups defined by such an identity, but also the right not to join and the right to leave. In particular, members of groups defined by or sharing a religion have the right to disbelieve, to dissent, not to conform, and to leave.)

At times, however, diversity may be a source of division, leading to discrimination based on generalisations that are usually false and often self-serving. Differences then need to be mediated by political processes in order to protect the interests not only of minorities but of society as a whole. Such diversity and such processes are characteristic of democratic states.

So as to minimise the risk of conflict we need to transcend religious, ethnic or cultural chauvinism and xenophobia, and to declare and promote the value of tolerance and fellowship, so essential to the ability of societies to extend peace, protection, freedom, and dignity to all their members. Discrimination on irrelevant grounds in areas such as employment, education, and provision of services is to be deplored and preferably prohibited by law.

Discrimination against particular groups

Some groups of people are particularly liable to suffer discrimination or even persecution, among whom the following are our principal concerns: women and girls; children and young people; and minority groups, including those characterised by race or ethnicity, religion or belief, caste, gender, sexual orientation, or those with a disability. IHEU also deplores the pervasive discrimination against Dalits or ‘untouchables’ derived from the caste system in Hinduism and Sikhism.

Women and girls must have full equality in education and employment and in public life. In the family men and women should be able, if they wish, to share equally in the paid and unpaid labour so that they can bring up their children in a spirit of equality of the sexes.

Women have the right to live in a world free of all forms of sexual coercion, and violence against women in any form is strongly to be condemned. Full access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is of particular importance for women and girls.

IHEU supports the work of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, and calls for the full implementation by all states of the requirements of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Most religions are traditionally patriarchal, according a subordinate or special place to women that limits their personal development and their contribution to society. Opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights also usually comes from illiberal religious sources.

IHEU deplores the many traditional and religious practices which amount to a gross abuse of the rights of children. Such practices include:

Some religious institutions – notably but not exclusively the Roman Catholic Church – are also complicit in sexual abuse of children, covering it up rather than discovering and eliminating it. Fuller appreciation of children’s rights as human rights must be promoted to combat this tendency.

IHEU endorses the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) which defines “racial discrimination” as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Even in states where there are laws guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief, too often a bias is built into the law or its implementation that favours the religious over the non-religious. This is true even of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) (which otherwise IHEU endorses) since it does not mention the right to have no belief or the right of children to freedom of religion or belief. IHEU in particular deplores the widespread bias in favour of religion in educational systems across the world.

It is also unacceptable that public provision is often made for religious people (for example, in the employment of chaplains) at public expense when no corresponding service is provided for the non-religious.

Issues concerning the human body and the beginning and end of life

Humanists promote and defend the autonomy and worth of every individual person. Everyone finds and expresses their identity and character in their actions, which should be constrained by law or social sanction only when there is a clear justification. Apart from the importance of these principles in the sphere of politics they have significance in personal life, in particular in matters concerning the beginning and end of life.

As part of the solidarity we feel with our fellow men and women, IHEU recommends that humanists should donate organs after death and blood while alive for the benefit of other people.

Reform is all the more vital because advances in medical science mean that people are being kept alive against their will who would without such intervention die relatively soon. We are convinced that adequate safeguards can be provided to prevent abuse of this right and to provide rights of conscientious objection for doctors or others concerned who on religious or other grounds wish not to take part.

We deplore religious opposition to the necessary legal reform, seeing it as an attempt to impose religious values on everyone even in societies where many or most people do not share those values.

2. Governance

Humanist views on the governance of our communities spring from the need to reconcile individual autonomy and human rights with the need to live together despite the recognised differences between us – differences the existence of which we value as part of our freedoms.

The governance of any society that is not a dictatorship involves politics, but there are many models of political government. Humanists advocate democracy – but democracy also comes in many forms and is indeed a way of living as much as a way of governing. The essentials go well beyond the holding of periodic elections, among them being:


Secularism is the sense of separation of the state from religion or belief – or at least the neutrality and impartiality of the state and its institutions in their attitude and actions as between alternative religions and beliefs.

In particular, any link between the state and a religious belief implies the superiority of that religious belief over others and over all non-religious beliefs. IHEU not only rejects this implication as being untrue but believes that it is wrong for the state to purport to judge in such matters which lie outside its competence.

Humanists hold that there must thus be no privilege for any religion or belief since these are matters where there is no final arbiter, however convinced some may feel of the correctness of their ideas. The state must on the one hand guarantee freedom of religion or belief to all, including the practice by any individual or group of their religion or belief so long as it does not infringe the rights of others, while on the other hand ensuring that no individual or group imposes its religious or belief-related values upon others. The state must therefore have the right and responsibility to intervene to protect human rights from violations based on religious doctrine. It must also protect the individual’s right to leave his or her belief community without the fear of violence or severe reprisal.

At international level, the unique privilege of the Roman Catholic Church in having membership, in the shape of the Holy See, in the United Nations and other international treaty bodies should be ended forthwith.

No ideas or practices should be held immune from criticism since human progress requires a free marketplace in ideas. Humanists oppose all legislation against blasphemy or to suppress criticism of any ideology or doctrine, including religions and their prophets, messengers and leaders. State functions should not be devolved to religious bodies because of the risk of prejudicing the interests of those of other or no religion.

Secularism is a pre-requisite for the full enjoyment of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Rule of law

Democratic institutions alone are insufficient for a well governed society. There must also be a guarantee of rule of law. This many-faceted concept requires, among other things, that:

Crime and Punishment

No one must be deprived of their liberty except in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law, such as their lawful detention after conviction, or for non-compliance with a lawful court order, or following lawful arrest on suspicion. Everyone who is arrested shall be informed promptly of the reasons for his arrest and the charge against him, and shall have access to legal advice and representation. Those charged must be brought promptly to trial. All convicted persons must have the right of appeal.

Punishments should be regulated with a view to rehabilitation of offenders as well as to signal society’s disapproval of their acts and should so far as possible incorporate some form of recompense for victims of crime. IHEU is intransigently opposed to capital punishment, to torture and all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments and to corporal punishment of children.

Peace and Dealing with International Conflict

IHEU recognises that ethical principles can only play a partial role in dictating international relations but insofar as possible it advocates the use between nations of the same principles as it supports for individual states. It supports the application of non-violent equitable solutions to international conflicts, their resolution by negotiation, making use of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice and other international bodies, in accordance where relevant with human rights treaties. It holds that it is both rational and ethical to work for greater trust between nations and for the transfer of more resources to and development of trade with Third World countries subject to need and sufficient internal good governance.

IHEU urges that dogmatically held religion or belief should not be made the cause or excuse for resort to violence. It condemns all use of violence subject only to the right of self-defence recognised by international law. Similarly it condemns resort to terrorism, but it urges states so far as possible to treat terrorist incidents as crimes rather than occasions for military strikes which are the occasion of so many innocent deaths.

IHEU calls for continued moves towards disarmament, in particular as regards nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

3. Education and Scientific and Cultural Endeavour

The purpose of human rights and good governance of our communities is to enable people to live fulfilling lives, to achieve their ambitions and to help others to do so too. There is huge variety in what individuals find fulfilling, what ambitions they have, and this variety is welcome, both because people are inherently different in their talents and inclinations and because it allows different experiments in living, trying different models that feed off each other and lead to a diverse and interesting and flourishing human society.

Across the world and across the ages mankind has developed a huge variety of cultural activities. As Humanists we uphold and value knowledge and scholarship, artistic freedom, value creativity and imagination, and recognise the transforming power of art. We affirm the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

Our reliance on the application of reason and free enquiry leads us to value the scientific method as the best available to draw conclusions from the available evidence – a method justified by the generally reliable conclusions it produces and by the self-correcting nature of science. Subject to a proper allocation of resources, scientific enquiry is justified by the innate curiosity of mankind to understand the universe we live in. Ethical standards must apply to scientific enquiry and experiment when human welfare and individual rights are at risk, but science must not be inhibited by dogmatic religious considerations that would seek to stop some developments (such as work with embryonic human stem cells) as being impious for mankind to pursue.

Education for children and young people is justified not only by providing useful knowledge and skills but for those who wish it by achieving academic excellence and scholarship – and for all by imparting the knowledge and skills needed to make good citizens and to enable them to live fulfilling lives. The communication of values by schools should be strengthened and developed by emphasising the ethical ideals that many religious or philosophical groups have adopted. Education must also seek to overcome the nationalistic bias and lack of historical perspective found in too many countries.

The purpose of education is to fit the individual for life as a full participant in society, and to teach self-respect and respect for others. IHEU endorses the purpose of education as set out in Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which may be summarised as follows:

To develop the child’s personality, talents and abilities to their fullest potential; to develop a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations; to develop respect for the child’s parents, cultural identity, language and values, and for civilizations different from his or her own; to inculcate a spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of the sexes, and friendship among all peoples, and to develop respect for the natural environment.

A vital part of such education is to develop a critical and discerning mind, not least as regards claims that are advanced without adequate evidence. It is particularly important that, although parents have the right to impart their own values and religious beliefs to their children, States have no obligation to support them in doing so but do have a responsibility to provide information and education to children about all widely or locally held religions and beliefs, their histories, values, similarities and differences. Teaching that one religion is the truth whilst ignoring all others, or teaching that they are false, is not education but indoctrination. The public funding of schools run by religious institutions is therefore questionable.

4. Human development and the environment

Humanists assert the value of the individual living in society and accept a responsibility for cooperating in building a more humane society for all based on social and economic justice. Every member of society should be equipped to participate in the life of the community to the fullest extent that they are able. It is thus a requirement on the community and our social responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to food, safe water, shelter, education, employment and healthcare.

Humanists deplore the present grossly unequal distribution of wealth and resources, not just on the principle of fairness, nor just from the duty we accept to relieve suffering and destitution, but because of the growing empirical evidence that inequitable distribution of incomes in itself produces damaging results for all concerned, including the rich.

We realise that we are all totally dependent on the natural world for our life and well-being. Furthermore we acknowledge an obligation to bequeath to our descendants an earth that offers as good or better an environment for living as we enjoy. But unless we learn to take better care of the Earth’s environment we will put at risk the health and well-being of many living today, and the very survival of those who come after us. Caring for the environment requires attention to the advice of scientists who have studied the ecology of the planet and is likely to include control of the size of the population and reduction of the emission of “greenhouse gasses” and management of resource extraction and use, with a view to the long-term survivability of life on Earth.


Adopted by the IHEU General Assembly, May 2015

Suggested academic reference

'General Statement of Policy', Humanists International, General Assembly, Manila, Philippines, 2015

WordPress theme developer - whois: Andy White London