Each year Humanists International, a non-governmental organisation championing secularism, human rights and equality, publishes a very comprehensive and influential report titled “The Freedom of Thought Report”. The 2019 edition is available and contains a few surprises.
Let’s take a look.
What exactly is this report all about?
This is a comprehensive report on “discrimination against humanists, atheists and the non-religious”. It centres around a “Country Index” with a textual entry for every sovereign state and ranks each one using a clearly defined criteria.
Why do this?
For multiple reasons including …
- Leveraging public criticism against countries on human rights grounds.
- In the days after the first report was published, the election of Mauritania and the Maldives to the vice-presidency of the UN Human Rights Council was criticised, their inclusion in the Freedom of Thought report cited as evidence of their human rights failures. Mainstream media in countries which were criticised in the report, for example Indonesia’s Jakarta Globe, not only covered the launch but were prompted to look in particular at the country’s freedom of religion or belief violations.
- Influencing the international expert debate and opinion.
- In 2017 the Freedom of Thought Report was cited by the new UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in his inaugural report. Our report was the only civil society publication to be cited in this way: a measure of its uniqueness and importance. The Report is increasingly cited in discussion of non-religious rights under ‘freedom of religion or belief’, for example in this academic volume due out in 2018 on human rights and “freedom from religion”.
- Highlighting individual’s stories.
- The report includes verified cases of violations again individuals. This serves to coney how bad laws can affect people, as well as corroborating those individual’s cases in a human rights context. On this site we provide resources and a walk-through of the United Nations complaints mechanism for people whose rights may have been violated.
- Providing a tool for activists and civil society.
- Moving the report online has made the material more accessible than ever before. Every country has its own page and we publish all the data under a Creative Commons license.
- Opening up discussion of persecution against the non-religious more generally.
- Around the publication of the report our representatives discussed the issues in article and live appearances and we worked to ensure that mainstream media reported on the publication (e.g. Reuters, Washington Post). The news was also taken up by citizen journalists (e.g. Examiner.com), popular general interest sites (e.g. Slate.com) and many widely read special interest blogs (e.g. Friendly Atheist).
What does this latest 2019 edition reveal
Blasphemy, the “crime” that has no victim, is becoming an increasing problem.
Eight countries have abolished ‘blasphemy’ laws in the past five years.
69 countries still retain such laws. The penalties and prosecution are hardening in a number of states.
States such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are noted as “perennial” blasphemy prosecutors. Despite the well-publicised release of Christian farm-worker Asia Bibi, the ongoing imprisonment of several accused atheists and many others in Pakistan, as well as extrajudicial violence against both humanists and religious minorities related to blasphemy accusations is condemned.
Both Brunei and Mauritania have increased the penalties for ‘blasphemy’ and ‘apostasy’ in the past two years.
Brunei’s new 2019 penal code renders blasphemy and apostasy, as well as other hudud crimes such as adultery and homosexuality, punishable by death. Mauritania introduced a mandatory death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy in April 2018.
High-profile ‘blasphemy’ prosecutions are cited as cause for concern in Indonesia, as is the backlash against demonstrators protesting forced hijab in Iran, and prosecutions and intercommunal violence related to Hindutva beliefs demonstrates a deteriorating situation in India.
Europe does not entirely escape criticism, despite the overall positive trend in the region, with Italy and Spain singled out for prosecutions against artists and protesters in recent years.
Humanists International president Andrew Copson comments:
“Blasphemy and apostasy laws are an injustice in themselves, but they also lend a false legitimacy to those who commit acts of murder and terrorism in their name. As our report notes, when governments prosecute under these laws it only exacerbates the problems of religious extremism. Repealing these laws as per the human rights treaty obligations that nearly all countries are signed up to must be a priority. It will not solve all the various other forms of discrimination against humanists and other religion or belief minorities that our report documents. But it will begin to de-legitimize the religious extremism that threatens so many societies across so much of the planet.”
Some big Surprises
Look at the list of nations and ask yourself some questions. Who ranks at the bottom and top? Where in that list do nations such as the US and UK rank?
At the bottom the worst of the worst are perhaps not a surprise …
At the other end of the scale we have the best of the best, and this is the surprise …
Where is the US? It ranks 32.
Where is the UK? It ranks 132.
Why does the US rank 32?
What can I say except to welcome you to Trump making America great.
Why does the UK rank 132?
Looking across the pond we have the UK seeing what Trump is doing and playing “hold my beer”.
The details are here.
We can do better
If you asked people to name the nation states that offer the most freedom, then I suspect many would suggest the US, the UK, or perhaps Canada (it ranks an abysmal 118).
The objectively measured reality is that it is nations such as Belgium, and the Netherlands that are at the top. Doing far better than either the US or the UK are nations such as Estonia, Uruguay, and even Albania and Mexico.
Can we not do far better?
Freedom of Thought Report – Further Reading
- You can download the full report from here.
- Politics UK (14th Nov 2019) – The war against the non-religious: Blasphemy laws on the rise
- Humanists International press Release