Should atheists be explicitly protected in human rights instruments?
31 May 2012
Writing on the Richard Dawkins website, humanist campaigner Leo Igwe-Ieet declares that there is a gaping hole in the protections listed in international rights instruments.
I have heard it proclaimed at the UN that the rights of women are human rights. I have also heard it proclaimed that the rights of gay people are human rights. These proclamations changed the way human rights are perceived around the globe. Personally I have yet to hear it proclaimed at UN, or at our regional and national human rights bodies that the rights of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are human rights. I do not want these rights to be implied or assumed as currently the case in most countries. I want them to be expressly declared as universal human rights.
The reason why such explicit protection is urgently needed, the writer claims, is because non-believers are particularly vulnerable in some parts of the world, notably Africa. In parts of Africa where fundamentalist belief holds sway, “religious non-believers are treated as if they are not human beings, as if they do not exist or do not have the right to exist.” The right to freedom of religion is of no avail to those who wish to eschew faith altogether. On the contrary,
freedom of religion is often understood as freedom to profess a religion-the religion sanctioned by the state, by one’s family or community- not freedom to change one’s religion or freedom not to profess any religion at all as contained in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Leo Igwe is well qualified to take a position on this issue. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, working to end a variety of human rights violations that are rampant in Africa, including homophobia, witchcraft, “child witch” superstition, ritual killing, human sacrifice, “untouchability”, and anti-blasphemy laws. He points out in another post that witchcraft is the very manifestation of lethal superstition that Christianity has fostered in some parts of Africa, reminding us of the tragic death in the UK of 15 year old Congolese boy Kristy Bamu, tortured to death by family members who believed he was a ‘witch’ and that he should be suffered not to live as stated in the Christian holy book.
What Kristy Bamu went through in the UK is what many children, women and elderly persons across Africa are suffering at this moment.
Whilst such an extension to the European Convention, or the various Bills of Rights sections of national constitutions across Europe, may seem an unnecessary luxury, there is certainly a case for fortifying the protection of such people via the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the South African Bill of Rights and possibly even the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Would it make much of a difference? Probably not, but it would certainly lend legal clout to anti-witchcraft campaigns, and give defendants in anti-blasphemy prosecutions something with which to shield themselves.
It is not such a far-fetched question and certainly worth pondering, even in the “enlightened” West, where fundamentalism threatens to encroach on many freedoms.
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