We work internationally through the European Union, the Council of Europe, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and elsewhere. Our Chief Executive is currently the President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and we are also a member of the European Humanist Federation (EHF).
We work on all of our policy areas internationally – on education, secularism, human rights and equalities, and ethical issues – as well as on a number of areas that while being less prevalent within the UK, cause problems elsewhere globally – for instance, on witchcraft, slavery, and the caste system.
In addition, some issues are more pressing globally than domestically, such as freedom of religion or belief versus the threat of discrimination and apostasy laws; freedom of speech and expression versus blasphemy laws; women’s rights, particularly sexual and reproductive health; and LGBT rights.
As well as lobbying the UK Foreign Office and European Union on matters of concern, we also are accredited at the UN Human Rights Council – the only national humanist group to hold such accreditation – and make interventions there every session. We contribute annually to IHEU’s Freedom of Thought Report, and are part of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
Internationally, threats to the freedom of the non-religious come from a wide range of sources, from individuals and groups wishing to censure freedom of thought, or criticism particularly of religion, through to powerful nations seeking to outlaw and criminalise any perceived negative discussion or criticism or portrayal of religion.
The questions of apostasy and blasphemy are of major importance – and if pursued without care they may become the most significant threat to freedom of expression to have emerged in modern times. In 13 countries, apostasy is punishable by death, while in nine the same is true for blasphemy. That’s why we’re part of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign.
On top of that, other countries have seen ongoing threats to the freedom of the non-religious, such as Bangladesh, where over the course of 2015 four humanist bloggers – Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman , Ananta Bijoy Das, and Niloy Neel – and the secularist publisher Faysal Arefin Dipon were all hacked to death with machetes. Nazimuddin Samad was similarly murdered in 2016, and several others have also been injured in this way. We have been putting pressure on the UK Government and through the UN Human Rights Council to see these attacks stopped. We have hosted three of the bloggers – Asif Mohiuddin, Bonya Ahmed, and Arif Rahman – in speaking out at events in the UK, as well as arranging meetings with them and relevant government ministers and special advisors.
We have serious and ongoing concerns about the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). There are regular attempts by a number of Islamic states – members of the HRC – and their allies to restrict human rights, in particular the rights to freedom of expression and speech, and to belief.
For a number of years until 2010, an annual resolution seeking to criminalise ‘defamation of religion’ and to further engage the machinery of the UN High Commission on Human Rights in a witch hunt against any criticism of religious ideas and, in particular, Islamic ones, was passed by the Council. These resolutions sought to intimidate voices critical of Islamist abuses in democratic states and to encourage policies of appeasement by democratic governments.
However, support gradually eroded for the resolutions over the years, until in 2011, in the face of failure, the resolution was changed to protection of believers, not beliefs. This resolution was reaffirmed in 2012 and 2013. In 2015 a further attempt was made to introduce a ‘criticism of religion’ resolution, but this too was withdrawn.
We are an active member of IHEU (our Chief Executive is its President) and the EHF (our Director of Public Affairs and Policy is its Vice President). We contribute information on the UK for the IHEU’s Freedom of Thought Report, and help to promote this important worldwide research. The report has been published annually since 2012 and is the first comprehensive report on freedom of the non-religious globally. The 2015 report highlights the deteriorating situation in Islamic State, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
Along with IHEU and the EHF we are among the founding partners of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, which has achieved success in encouraging European countries like Iceland, Norway, and Malta to repeal their laws. It remains the case that 74 of the 193 UN member states have blasphemy laws on the books, including 13 where it is punishable by death. 22countries have apostasy laws on the books, with six punishing it with death.
UN Human Rights Council
We are the only national humanist or secularist organisation that is accredited to speak at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, something we were granted in 2012. IHEU, the EHF and the Center for Inquiry are also accredited. We have used our accreditation to consistently speak out on matters of concern at the council sessions, which happen three times a year.
In March 2013 we spoke out on freedom of speech, apostasy, witchcraft, free expression in the OIC, and abortion. In June we spoke out on persecution of the non-religious in Bangladesh, and discrimination against the disabled. And in September we spoke out on freedom of belief and the OIC and child, early, and forced marriage.
In March 2014 we spoke out on LGBT rights in Nigeria, Russia, and Uganda, freedom of religion or belief and expression in Malaysia, and women’s rights. In June we spoke out on blasphemy laws (twice), violence against women, religious discrimination and sectarianism, free expression in Vietnam, caste discrimination, and child, early, and forced marriage. In September we again spoke out on child, early, and forced marriage, blasphemy laws, human rights abuses in Brunei, and twice on witchcraft and violence against children.
In March 2015 we spoke out on blasphemy laws (twice) and on Kazakhstan. In June we spoke on discrimination against women and on Bangladesh. And in September we spoke on persecution of the non-religious and secularism.
In March 2016 we spoke out on blasphemy laws, with a particular focus on Russia, and against the mistreatment of refugees. In June we spoke on sexual and reproductive health and rights (twice generally, and a third time on Paraguay) human rights abuses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and separately in Bangladesh, LGBTI rights in Latvia, and political populism and xenophobia in Europe. In September, we called out LGBTI persecution in Egypt and Tunisia, racist hate crime in the UK, abortion rights in Ireland, Hungarian human rights abuses of refugees, and the blasphemy law in Greece.
Let us know if you hear of actions internationally which threaten free speech and the criticism of beliefs, especially those actions by states or institutions such as the UN.
You can also support Humanists UK’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead, or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.
You can also sign up for news on international Humanism directly from IHEU.