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UN expert hails US move placing atheists on equal footing with faith groups

GENEVA (28 December 2016) – The new United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, has welcomed amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act signed on Friday by US President Barack Obama, which recognizes non-believers and atheists and their right not to profess or practise any religion.

“This is an important development, as believers, atheists and non-believers must all be equally protected,” said Mr. Shaheed. “Many humanists and non-believers are still widely stigmatized and persecuted around the world.”

In some countries, the promotion of atheist thought in any form is considered an act of terrorism. In others, any expression of non-belief or atheism is condemned as blasphemy or apostasy and receives harsh punishment, including the death sentence or attacks by vigilante groups.

“People often do not fully understand the scope of the international human right to religious freedom. It is not just about religions or beliefs, but it also covers the right to freedom of thought and conscience as provided by the Universal Declaration for Human Rights,” noted the Special Rapporteur.

The human rights expert said the terms “religion” and “belief” should be understood in a broad sense to include theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.

“All of them have important roles to play in building pluralistic and inclusive societies for the 21st century that are peaceful and prosperous,” Mr. Shaheed stressed.

“In the face of increasing diversity, the freedom of religion or belief can be upheld only with the acceptance and full inclusion of atheists and non-believers,” the Special Rapporteur concluded.

Mr. Ahmed Shaheed (the Maldives) is a Visiting Professor at Essex University, UK; a former member of the Maldivian presidential Commission Investigating Corruption; and a foreign policy advisor to the President of the Maldives. Mr. Shaheed was Foreign Minister of the Maldives from 2005 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2010. He led the country’s efforts to sign and ratify all nine international human rights Conventions and to implement them in law and practice. Mr. Shaheed is the former Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/FreedomReligionIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Read the latest report to the UN General Assembly by the former Special Rapporteur: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/A-71-269_en.pdf

UN Human Rights, country page – United States:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/LACRegion/Pages/USIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 928 9310 / clim@ohchr.org)

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Mr. Xabier Celaya – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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