Statement delivered at the UN highlights restrictions on freedom of belief in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

UNPlenary

At the 32nd regular session of the UN Human Rights Council, the British Humanist Association teamed up with Arab Humanists to deliver a joint statement about freedom of association in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Cordelia Tucker O’Sulivan, the BHA representative,  spoke out against the laws being used to silence dissenters and the grave human rights violations targeting non-religious individuals in both states. In Egypt, the state sponsored an anti-atheist hate campaign which started in 2014 and has led to two activists, Sherif Gaber and Karim al-Banna, being arrested and sentenced to imprisonment in 2015. Both went into hiding following their trail but the charges against them for ‘crimes’ such as denying miracles and affirming gay rights have not been dropped. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, associating with atheist or humanist thought in any form is considered ‘a criminal act of terrorism’ and deviation from orthodox religious views often leads to imprisonment and execution.

Restrictions on the freedom of expression or association with ideas deemed unacceptable by the state have also been used to silence numerous human rights defenders in Egypt who have suffered from legal penalties, including asset freezes and travel bans.

The statement stated that ‘States cannot claim to uphold assembly and association rights when they criminalize freedom of religious (or irreligious) expression and thought’ and called on those states to repeal legal codes which mandate and/or condone the persecution of political dissenters, human rights defenders, and religious and belief minorities.

Such oppressive laws which are in place to protect religious institutions, doctrines and authorities have a stifling effect on the open dialogue that is much needed in the Arab world today. As Arab humanists we aim to challenge these restrictions on freedom of expression, give a voice to those who are being silenced and encourage public discourse where people can freely exchange ideas without fear of coercion or persecution.

The full statement follows below:

United Nations Human Rights Council, 32nd Session (13 June – 1 July 2016)
Item 3 General Debate
20 June 2016
Speaker: BHA representative, Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan

Thank you Mr. President.

I am delivering this statement on behalf of the Arab Humanists and the British Humanist Association.

We welcome the report from the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, in particular his insistence that ‘States cannot claim to uphold assembly and association rights when they criminalize freedom of religious (or irreligious) expression and thought.’

The human rights situation in Egypt is gravely concerning; the anti-atheist hate campaign of 2014 has continued, with prison sentences being handed down to two individuals in early 2015 for allegedly ‘spreading immoral vales and abnormal thoughts’, ‘defending homosexuality’ and ‘insulting the divine’. Numerous human rights defenders have been subjected to harassment from Egyptian authorities and legal penalties, including the freezing of assets and travel bans. This infringes a myriad of rights which extend to all, including individuals who form ‘associations with goals that may be perceived as “political”’.

In Saudi Arabia, ‘public non-Muslim places of worship are not allowed’, and blasphemy and apostasy are criminalized, with the latter being punishable by death. It is a criminal act of terrorism for an individual or association to call for atheist thought in any form, borne from the ‘intractable connection between state identity, the ruling royal family and the religious establishment’. This intolerance has resulted in several prolific imprisonments, including that of Raif Badawi and his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who began a hunger strike earlier this month to protest the prison authorities’ refusal to provide him with adequate medical care.

The targeting of human rights defenders and severely restricting freedom of religion or belief has direct implications for the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and a plethora of other human rights. We call on those States whose legal codes mandate and condone the persecution of political dissenters, human rights defenders, and religious and belief minorities to repeal these oppressive laws, and ensure that their fundamental human rights are promoted and respected.

Thank you.