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UN should show more respect for non-religious philosophical convictions

An Open Letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Sunday 29 May 2016, by siawi3


22nd April 2016

Mr Filippo Grandi
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Case Postale 2500
CH-1211 Genève 2 Dépôt

Re: Respect for non-religious philosophical convictions

Dear High Commissioner Grandi,

When documenting both the goals of your organisation and also the details of your ongoing activities, you frequently employ the term “religion” as a reason for persecution and consequently as a possible reason for a person to be granted asylum. For example, within The Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, it states that:

“A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

We believe that your repeated use of this term in such contexts, is inconsistent with your Human Rights obligations. People with non-religious philosophical convictions, such as secularists, atheists and humanists are persecuted for their beliefs in many countries. This persecution includes imprisonment, torture and execution.

As per Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in executing your mandate you are obliged not to discriminate against people based on their religious opinions. This includes the opinion that all religions are false and it also includes the right of persons not to have any religion at all.

By insisting on using the term “religion” in this manner, you are providing an impetus either towards discrimination against the non-religious, or else towards a requirement that the non-religious must instead consider themselves religious in order to enjoy the same protections as others. The UN Human Rights Committee, in General Comment 22 on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, says that:

1. “The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18(1) is far-reaching and profound… The fundamental character of these freedoms is also reflected in the fact that this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency, as stated in article 4(2) of the Covenant.

2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community.”

In this context, it is also worth noting that atheism, humanism and secularism have been determined to be philosophical convictions that are on a par with religious beliefs. The European Court has found that secularism is a philosophical conviction protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court in the “Lautsi v Italy” case in 2011 stated that:

“58. Secondly, the Court emphasises that the supporters of secularism are able to lay claim to views attaining the ‘level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’ required for them to be considered ‘convictions’ within the meaning of Articles 9 of the Convention and 2 of Protocol No. 1 (see Campbell and Cosans v The United Kingdom, 25 February 1982, § 36, Series A no. 48). More precisely, their views must be regarded as ‘philosophical convictions’, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 …”

Non-religious philosophical convictions are often not taken seriously during asylum procedures and the misuse of terminology can even lead to reduced chances of asylum, or exclusion from certain asylum procedures, for those persecuted due to their non-belief. Your misuse of terminology makes it more difficult for non-religious people to have their Human Rights vindicated and we are aware of national asylum procedures that are inheriting such repeated misuses of terminology from UNHCR documents.

The philosophical convictions of non-religious people are not included within the term “religion”. Instead, we suggest that in all future UNHCR documents you replace this term with a more appropriate and neutral phrase, such as “philosophical conviction”.

We the undersigned, believe that such a policy will help ensure the vindication of Human Rights for the non-religious and the recognition of the UNHCR as a body that accepts the equal protections and entitlements that should be afforded to those of no religious belief.

Yours Sincerely,

Peter Waterdrinker Onur Romano
Chairman President
Atheïstisch Verbond Atheist Alliance International

Maryam Namazie Michael Nugent
Spokesperson Chairperson
Council of Ex Muslims of Britain Atheist Ireland

Kato Mukasa Maria Theresa Termulo
Executive Director Director
HALEA, Uganda Philippines Atheists and Agnostics Society

Chris Street Marek Łukaszewicz
President President
Atheism UK Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation, Poland

Leo Igwe Ghulam Sakhi Kaianoosh
Founder Director
Nigerian Humanist Movement Afghan Atheists Organization

Fariborz Poona Brian Lemaire
Director Secretary
Bread and Roses TV Secular Humanist Society of New York

Eli Vieira Araujo Jacek Tabisz
International Relations Director President
Secular Humanist League of Brazil Polish Rationalist Association

Melissa Pugh Yarovinskiy Mikhail
President President
Atheist Alliance of America Society of Atheism and Humanism, Russia

Robert Bwambale Ian Bushfield
Founder and Executive Director Executive Director
Kasese Humanists, Uganda British Columbia Humanist Association

Petr Tomek Colin Morrison
President Chairperson
Atheists of The Czech Republic Atheist Northern Ireland

Muhammad Saad Ilyas Sami Abdallah
Director Director
Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics Freethought Lebanon

David Rand Nada Peratović
President President
Libres Penseurs Athées Center for Civil Courage, Croatia

Nabeel Khalid Steve Marton
Activist President
Pakistani Atheists, UK Sydney Atheists

Erkki Hartikainen René Hartmann
Chairman Chairman
Atheist Association of Finland Bund der Konfessionslosen und Atheisten

Tatt Si Tan Christine Shellska
President Director
Humanist Society Singapore American Humanist Association