- The Honorable Zeid Ra'ad Al HusseinUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Abolish Blasphemy Laws
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Blasphemy laws are used to infringe upon human rights. They frequently lead to arbitary arrest, detention, poor treatment in custody including torture, dubious legal procedures and poor application of justice. The definition of the offence can be in the hands of police and judicial authorities. Governments have used blasphemy laws to silence political opponents. Individuals have fabricated blasphemy charges against others in communal disputes. Religious extremists have used blasphemy laws to attack opponents. Religious authorities have used blasphemy laws to impose orthodoxy on members minority religious groups with the sanction of the state. And people accused of blasphemy have been subject to violence by unofficial mobs.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Honorable Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein
Office of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights
Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Re: Freedoms and Rights for Nonreligious and Secular People Worldwide
Dear Mr. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein:
We the signers humbly ask you to consider both a human rights petition and concern shared by a growing number of people persecuted for non-belief in religious dogma, including millions of atheists, agnostics and secularists around the world. Both the petition and the concern regard the enactment and enforcement of so-called blasphemy laws and their offshoots, such as defamation of religion and religious-insult “hate speech” legislation, in member states. The reality is that these blasphemy laws and “hate speech” legislation violate the cornerstone rights of freedom of expression, thought and conscience, tenuously upheld by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), Articles 18 and 19 in particular.
Advocates of blasphemy legislation and its offshoots argue that these laws protect the harmony of pluralistic societies. However, as demonstrated by a number of conclusive studies (available upon request) the enforcement of blasphemy laws actually deepens divisions among religious and secular groups, creating unnecessary civil unrest.
Discrimination and Dictatorship
In practice, blasphemy laws are used to infringe upon basic human rights, often utilized in a discriminatory and dictatorial manner, as they bestow upon inhumane leaders the legal means by which these rulers can persecute both religious minorities and non-religious groups alike.
Such legislation frequently leads to arbitrary arrest; detention; poor treatment in custody, including torture and death; dubious legal procedures; and poor application of justice. Additionally, the definition of an alleged blasphemy offense often lies in the hands of police and judicial authorities, again wielded arbitrarily and dictatorially.
Abuses of blasphemy legislation include the following:
• Governments have used blasphemy laws to silence political opponents.
• Religious authorities employ blasphemy legislation to impose doctrinal orthodoxy on members of religious groups, often with the sanction of the state.
• Religious extremists utilize blasphemy laws to attack other sects, critics and nonbelievers, frequently fatally.
• Unscrupulous individuals have fabricated blasphemy charges against others in local, communal disputes.
• Vigilante mobs have committed violence against innocent and/or defenseless individuals accused of blasphemy, whether or not truthfully.
(Specific instances of the above-mentioned abuses are also available upon request.)
Moreover, blasphemy and “religious insult” legislation often is discriminatory based on social class and status, since it creates provisions whereby a skilled and educated defendant stands far less chance of prosecution than a less educated and privileged individual.
Suppression of Basic Freedoms and Other Objections
Even in relatively democratic regions, blasphemy and religious-insult “hate speech” laws have a universal “chilling effect” upon normal freedom of expression, including and especially free speech and the right to dissent.
Blasphemy legislation is a species of libel with no real rules of evidence or proof.
Blasphemy laws are either exclusive, favoring one religion over others, or else try to be inclusive, in which case they may be inadequate for protecting religious beliefs in conflict with one another.
Moreover, the legal criteria for recognition as an authorized or accepted religious group—where laws do not protect a specific, established religion—can be problematic and often are defined poorly.
Petition by Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists
To oppose arbitrary and barbaric blasphemy legislation, our organization Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists has created a petition, attached below, appealing to the United Nations to amend Articles 1.3, 13.1 (b), 55 (c) & 76 (c) of the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the International Court of Justice to include the non-religious and secular as an expressly protected group.
In so amending, the United Nations would be sending a clear message to its member states that imprisoning, torturing, executing and otherwise molesting secularists and nonbelievers such as atheists and agnostics is incompatible with basic human rights. As it presently stands, there are 13 countries around the world that can execute secularists and nonbelievers, along with many others that prescribe imprisonment and/or issue fines to those who do not share the majority religious view of the state or who are accused of “religious insult” or “hate speech.”
The primary aim of this limb of our petition—which has the support of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ricky Gervais, Roseanne Barr and other secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu signatories—is to bind member states that have refused to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976). Our petition also aims to implore the United Nations to amend the ICCPR by narrowing and tempering the restrictions on freedom of expression enunciated in Articles 18.3 and 19.3 (a) and (b), as well as Article 20.2.
In this regard, our petition is in line with the proclamation made in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which declared that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [ICCPR].” (See; Human Rights Committee, “General comment no. 34, Article 19: Freedoms of opinion and expression,” UN Doc. CCPR/C/GC/34, para. 48; 2011.)
We thank you for your time and hope that you give this matter the attention that it deserves, on behalf of millions of human beings globally.
Founder and Co-Chairperson, Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists
Co-Chairperson, Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists
Chairperson of Atheist Ireland
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