Humanists attack blasphemy and offence laws at UN Human Rights Council

17 September, 2014

Humanists have spoken out against blasphemy or offence laws at a meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. These laws, typically used to protect religious sensitivities, but consistently denounced as inconsistent with international human rights law, are increasingly being used to silence debate and to curtail the activities of human rights defenders. The British Humanist Association (BHA) intervention called for immediate steps to end state impunity regarding human rights abuses and for the adherence of international obligations.

Amelia Cooper, representative of the BHA, used her speech to highlight how online activists are regularly targeted by blasphemy laws, as in the case of Saudi Arabian Raif Badawi, whose punishment for establishing a liberal website includes 1000 lashes. These could begin imminently, due to the recent failure of his appeal. Amelia also reported on the plight of a student in Morocco, Abdessamad Haydour, who remains in jail on a three year sentence for ‘insulting the King’ in a video posted online, despite the 2011 constitutional guarantee to protect ‘freedom of thought, opinion,and expression in all its forms’.

It was stressed how there is no recourse to justice for those accused of blasphemy, given that the existence of the notion in national penal codes undermines human rights law. Badawi and Haydour have been adequately processed through a judicial system, yet to call their sentences ‘justice’ is laughable. Rather, they are illustrations of the institutionalized disregard held by some Member States of the fundamental principles of this Council.

Ms Cooper restated the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression, saying ‘Laws that prescribe or criminalise beliefs…[and] criminalise language on grounds of ‘blasphemy’ or of offence to beliefs and values impede human freedom and should be abolished’. Furthermore, she declared that ‘nobody – King nor common man – has the right not to be offended. To enshrine such a principle in law necessarily undermines the universality of Article 19 of the Human Rights Declaration and stifles free public debate.’

In concluding, she urged states to align their domestic legislation with their international obligations; to end impunity regarding human rights abuses, notably the arbitrary use of blasphemy laws; and to ensure existing human rights instruments, from fundamental ICCPR principles to conventions such as the Rabat Plan of Action, are adhered to.


For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs, at or on 0773 843 5059.

Read the BHA intervention:

The UN Human Rights Council:

Raif Badawi:

Abdessamad Haydour:

Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression:

UN declaration of human rights:

ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights):

Rabat Plan of Action:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.