The British Humanist Association at the United Nations

by Amelia Cooper

The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the Palace of Nations, as used by the United Nations Human Rights Council

The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the Palace of Nations, as used by the United Nations Human Rights Council

Representing a non-partisan organization such as the British Humanist Association at the United Nations Human Rights Council comes with certain frustrations at the increasingly politicised atmosphere in which we work. The Council was established as the global authority for the protection and promotion of human rights, yet its mandate is often undermined or obstructed by its members, as demonstrated by the recent election of new member states, in which human rights violations are not only commonplace but legally sanctioned. Similarly, the presence and objectives of certain interest groups, such as the new, moral-sounding Friends of the Family coalition, seem to run counter to the principle of universality that human rights are based upon.

However, despite despairing at certain elements of the Council, the past session has been an undoubted success for the BHA, with four formal speeches being delivered, one State reply, international media coverage, a film premiere, and positive connections being made with a range of other like-minded NGOs.

Following the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief’s annual report, which focused on collective religious hatred, the BHA emphasised the importance of correct and inclusive reference to non-believers in legislation. The Special Rapporteur’s report had set a significant precedent for this, referring explicitly to non-believers as common victims of narrow identity politics, and advocating secularism in saying that ‘it seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an application of the concept of an official “state religion” that in practice does not have adverse effects on religious minorities, thus discriminating against their member.’

The BHA, citing the Human Rights Committee’s 22nd General Comment, which states that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ include‘theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs,’ reminded the Council that:

‘Creating de jure equality for all members of religious and belief minorities, regardless of the State’s religious preference, is essential to establish a framework in which equal rights can be enjoyed. ‘Oppression of thought…is a sign, not of strength, but of egomania and cowardice’. [1]States have a duty to remove any obstacles to freedom of religion or belief from their constitutions and penal codes. Failure to do so violates their international obligation as formal guarantors of equal human rights for all.’

This speech was reinforced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, who spoke on the importance of reference to non-believers in UN documentation.

The second speech by the BHA, on anti-homosexuality legislation, warranted a response by the Nigerian delegate, and received coverage that was reproduced internationally. The BHA disproved the notion that there is no international legal agreement on, or ‘legal backing’ for, equal rights for homosexuals:

There is no legitimate justification that can be used to undermine the universality of human rights. Fetishizing the origins of homosexuality negates from the fact that imprisoning someone on the basis of their sexual orientation is a violation of human rights, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

  • Article 1 of the ICCPR states that there will be no distinction ‘of any kind’[2] in the application of human rights.
  • Human Rights Council Resolution 17/19[3] is the international agreement to prioritize equality for LGBT.[4]
  • The High Commissioner herself noted that there is no room in international law or UN Documentation for exclusion.’[5]

The Nigerian response hinged upon misquoting our speech, and the fact that their bill was voted in democratically, yet did not address our principal arguments that any discriminatory legislation – regardless of how it is passed in to law – violates international human rights law.

Our third speech addressed the abuses of freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia, the gravity of which is often underestimated.  Just last week, for example, 114 Shias were arrested for commemorating a Shia festival – including a four-month-old infant.[6]

  • Registration of religion on state identity cards[7] is obligatory, and only certain classical religions are recognised.[8]
  • Ethnic Malays are automatically considered Muslim[9]: conversion is almost impossible,[10] and apostates subjected to punishments such as enforced rehabilitation[11].
  • A fatwa declaring Shia Islam a deviant ideology has been incorporated into the legislation of 11 of Malaysia’s 13 States.[12] 
  • ‘Offenses against religion’ are punishable by up to three years in prison and a $1000 fine.[13]
  • Proselytizing is constitutionally restricted to Sunni Muslims by Article 11.4.[14]

We joined the international call for constitutional amendments, emphasizing that ‘Malaysian legislature remains the greatest obstacle to freedom of thought and its concomitant rights.’  Unfortunately, Malaysia refused to accept the recommendations made by both states and NGOs regarding freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief within the country.

Our final speech was on the pernicious instrumentalisation of cultural prejudices and traditional values in the social and systematic denial of equality to women, and the necessity of creating de jure equality, supported by implementation, to combat impunity:

It is incumbent upon States, regardless of their internal socio-culture, to respect international legal obligations, and to repeal or amend domestic laws discriminating against women, for example those inherent in the application of Sharia law.[15] Secondly, this must be supported by real enforcement. The UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific found that between 72 and 97%[16] of the men studied who had perpetrated rape did not experience any legal consequences, while until an international petition was launched, the punishment given to a gang of rapists in Kenya, whose violent abuse paralysed a sixteen-year-old girl, was to cut the grass at the police station.[17] These cases are demonstrative of the worldwide climate of impunity surrounding gender based violence.’

We called upon States to renew their 1993 commitment to the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and to do so with ‘an introspective examination of both their legal systems and the quality of their law enforcement.’

This speech chimed with the screening of Honor Diaries that we co-sponsored with US Center for Inquiry and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The film explores the concept of honour and its impact on equality (or the denial thereof) for women. The screening was followed by an engaged and practical discussion on how best to promote gender equality, with Paula Kweskin, the producer, and Raheel Raza, one of the activists featured in the film and a representative for CfI, as panellists. Raza was also able to present the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, with a scarf signed by hundreds of women calling for gender equality.

Humanist principles are repeatedly proven to be deeply intertwined with human rights. At the Human Rights Council, we will continue to advocate these principles in the creation and implementation of international legislation; such that one day all people are able to fully enjoy the basic rights established in the UDHR more than sixty years ago.


[1] Kacem El Ghazzali and Alber Saber, as quoted in ‘Freedom of Thought 2013’, International Humanist and Ethical Union, available to download at, p.13
[2] Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
[3] A/HRC/RES/17/19, adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2011.
[4] ‘Expressing grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity…How international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity…Further decides to remain seized of this priority issue.’ A/HRC/RES/17/19
[5] Navi Pillay in her response to the States during the Interactive Dialogue, 6th March 2014
[7] National Registration Department (NRD) (known as Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara, JPN in Malay)
[8] This violates General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Council: ‘Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief’
Article 160 of the Constitution: ‘”Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and – (a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or (b) is the issue of such a person’
[10] The case of Lina Joy, who applied to have Islam removed from her MyKad, as detailed in the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s ‘Freedom of Thought Report 2013’, p.146. The report is available to download here:
[11] Freedom of Thought Report 2013, International Humanist and Ethical Union, p.146. Available to download This report also noted that ‘The state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu passed laws in 1993 and 2002, respectively, making apostasy a capital offense. Apostasy is defined as the conversion from Islam to another faith. No one has been convicted under these laws and, according to a 1993 statement by the Attorney General, the laws cannot be enforced absent a constitutional amendment’. While the legality of these laws is unclear, they are demonstrative of the attitudes held by some Malaysian states regarding religion.
[12] ‘Shia Malaysians on Trial’, Wall Street Journal, published 15th December 2013
[13] Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian penal code,[14] Article 11(4):State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Lubuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.’
[15] ‘Women’s Rights Under Sharia’, The Clarion Project, 19th February 2014
[16] ‘Why do some men use violence against women, and how can we prevent it? Quantitative findings from the UN Multi Country Study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific’, 2013, p.3