Should atheists be explicitly protected in human rights instruments?

31 May 2012 by

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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  1. Alex Bailin QC (Matrix) says:

    The ECHR already protects atheists:

    In Kokkinakis v Greece (1993) 17 EHRR 397 at para. 31 the ECtHR explained the ambit of Art 9 ECHR: ‘It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned’.

    Indeed during the drafting of Art 9, freedom of thought was specifically added to religious convictions in order to protect agnostics and atheists.

  2. Kay says:

    I don’t think we need more legislation. Nor do we need the rights of atheists to be put above or apart from other minority groups in Africa. The main problem is implementation, which is part of good governance, and public education.

    Freedom of religion includes the right to manifest one’s religion, but also to change one’s religion and to be free from coercion to be religious, to not believe. Not only under the UDHR but the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights as well. The Christian Right has completely hijacked and skewed this issue for their own ends in the USA. So, no to more legislation explicitly protecting atheists in Africa.

    Secondly, human rights work together. Freedom of religion cannot really work without freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and thought etc. Instead of isolating one issue and trying to ram it through, we should be looking at advancing the entire menu of rights. All of it. One cannot work alone in a vacuum. And atheists are not the only persecuted minority – there are homosexuals and others who not only come under fire legally but in society as well. In countries where civil society is struggling, free press is under fire and other minorities live in fear, trying to work on one issue makes no sense. If other freedoms are under fire, creating more legislation doesn’t help. We need all human rights to be recognised and implemented. The co-operation between gay rights groups and the NAACP in the USA on gay marriage and stop and frisk is an example where groups pushing for rights can and should work together.

    On culture: This takes longer to change. Hence the need for public education and for governments to be pushed on implementation and recognition of the full menu of human rights. Views within Africa on religion/belief are shaped by the dominance of Islam, Christianity and traditional beliefs, with many people historically believing in one thing or another. Many people can’t understand someone who does not believe anything at all – and so unbelievers face alienation at the very least, often from family or community, and violence at worst. That will hopefully change in time – but good governance, including govt protections of rights and freedoms will help greatly.

    On witchcraft: I think there is some prejudice here. It’s a crime: It has nothing to do with Christianity – in the same way that Catholicism is nothing to do with paedophilia and Islam is nothing to do with grooming girls in Rochdale. True believers don’t do this, but some will use this as a fig leaf for their actions. Witchcraft in particular was and is doing just fine without Christianity. Important too to remember that many Africans have blended beliefs, much like in South America where Catholicism is mingled with traditional beliefs. Nevertheless, it is a crime and should be treated as such. Beliefs/religion isn’t the problem; as usual, humans are. And we always find a rationale for our actions. Bringing that issue up here is a bit of a red herring.

    Let’s talk about human rights, all human rights. Let’s push on the full menu. It’s ridiculous to push for one group over another, and worse, counterproductive. Especially as naysayers often decry minority views as “foreign” and against African culture. Making a group a pet case of the West plays into this and does nothing to help with changing the views of wider society. As a Malawian, I have watched with dismay as our country is pushed on gay rights alone, while the head of our human rights commission was recently in hiding and had his offices firebombed and where a journalist was jailed for mocking the (now, ex, thankfully) president. And not because I’m against it – it’s just that they cannot work in a vacuum. We musn’t let African leaders say that this or that minority is a “pet project of the West”. They get to play the nationalist card and obfuscate the issue. We must push forward, together, for the implementation of ALL rights for ALL citizens, because human rights complement, overlap and reinforce one another.

  3. fredanch says:

    This issue is clear and expressly cited in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 1 which stipulates:

    “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…

    I presume Mr Dworkin agrees that this universal declaration applicable to all ‘human beings’ alas is inclusive of people of all religions (see Article 2), belief, color or creed. The attempt to highlight the issue surrounding minorities, sects or atheists is nothing new, we can go back to slavery to the days of which craft.

    Further more incorporating these fundamental rights as sacrosanct in a bill of rights is not going to prevent issues such as those highlighted above from being made to courts whether religious persecution, discrimination or other forms of abuse see the United States.

    The danger of highlighting or specifically expressing individual rights such be it atheist or women or otherwise is that this creates division and stems away from the notion of ‘human rights’ applicable universally to ALL human beings- though issues remain such as the rights of unborn. As nations work together, come closer through policies, treaties, through debates and due process we come closer to understanding and respecting universal rights.

  4. Ben says:

    This looks like a bit of a non-sequitur. How does an explicit protection of atheists in a human rights instrument offer protection to those accused of witchcraft? There is no suggestion that Kristy Bamu was attacked because he was an atheist.

    I can’t see such an amendment doing anything to hamper an anti-witchcraft campaign as there’s no suggestion that the definition of a witch is an atheist. Nor does it appear that it would offer any protection in a blasphemy trial over and above Art. 19. Blasphemy is fundamentally about the expression of opinions, rather than the right to hold them. If it’s a matter of Art. 18 “manifestation”, that’s already covered as manifestation of belief.

    This is especially so given that Mr Igwe’s complaint is that the rights infringed are those already recognised (“their right to life, freedom of expression, freedom from torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, freedom of association, freedom of conscience etc. “). How adding extra verbiage achieves that doesn’t appear to make much sense.

    I understand that this is the running together of two posts, but it doesn’t look like the one adds to the other.

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