The UN’s Silence on Discrimination and Violence Against Non-Believers

March 18, 2013

Note: the United Nations Human Rights Council this Friday will close its monthlong 22nd regular session in Geneva, Switzerland. Three secularist groups — the Center for Inquiry, International Humanist and Ethical Union, and British Humanist Association — have been active at the session, delivering statements and lobbying on issues such as freedom of conscience. CFI’s main representative in Geneva is Dr. Elizabeth O’Casey. The following is a report from Ms. O’Casey regarding efforts by CFI and the IHEU to include in a resolution on freedom of religion or belief language referencing non-religious persons. 

By Dr. Elizabeth O’Casey 

At the end of last week, the European Union (EU), supported by the South American group, tabled a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Now, whilst any resolution that highlights the importance of protecting every individual’s right to freedom of religion or belief is always extremely welcome, what is shamefully inadequate about this resolution is that it expressly excludes any concern regarding discrimination and violence against non-believers.

I attended one of the informal consultation meetings on this resolution and argued for ‘non-believers’ as a category meriting explicit mention within the context of discrimination, particularly given the severity and breadth of such discrimination against non-believers and people of no religion around the world. In a follow-up email, sent on behalf of the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), we suggested that a mention of non-believers might be included specifically in a paragraph on violence against individuals. Where the original paragraph expressed deep concern at “the increasing number of acts of violence, directed against individuals, including persons belonging to religious minorities,” we thought it apposite to mention non-believers as amongst such persons.

The EU’s rather unconsidered reply to our suggestion was that non-believers are already covered in the resolution, by the ‘right to belief.’ In response to this almost flippant, if true, statement by the EU, I want to note two things.

Firstly, it might be pointed out that whilst the rights of religious minorities are, as with non-believers, covered by the right to freedom of religion or belief, in their case the authors of this resolution saw fit (rightly) to mention explicitly this group of people in order to highlight the types of discrimination they suffer from. I am left baffled as to why the authors did not treat non-believers with the same consideration.

Secondly, what the EU representative and her colleagues have failed to understand is the importance, within the context of this type of resolution, of expressly underlining the institutionalised persecution and discrimination that non-believers are subjected to globally, as well as making explicit ‘non-believers’ as a category of persons who come under the protection of any right to freedom of religion or belief. The necessity to make this fact plain is demonstrated through the apparent ignorance of it by so many governments across the world; an ignorance manifested through, for example, the use of the death penalty as a potential punishment for atheism in seven countries, and the effective criminalisation of atheism in many more.

In specifically excluding non-believers within the context of violent discrimination, the EU’s resolution fails to acknowledge the bravery and resilience of millions of non-believers. One example of such a non-believer is Kacem El Ghazzali, a colleague of mine at the UNHRC. Kacem is a Moroccan refugee now living in Switzerland who, after posting several articles online about his atheism, was a victim of death threats, physical violence, and discrimination by agents of the Moroccan State. Kacem and the many others like him deserve recognition in forums such as the UNHRC. The EU’s refusal to include any direct reference to non-believers as a group meriting special protection from religious intolerance fails people like Kacem. It also fails the one in six people across the globe who do not self-identify as religious. That’s a lot of people to fail.