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Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief
05 October 2021
76th session of the General Assembly
Issued by Special Procedures
Religious freedom, Religious intolerance
In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, examines the theoretical scope and potential violations of the first right in article 18 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: freedom of thought.
The Special Rapporteur is seeking to explore "freedom of thought" as both a distinct and foundational aspect of international human rights law, focusing on what the freedom encompasses, how it is protected and how it relates to other fundamental rights and freedoms.
Freedom of thought is an absolute freedom that is enshrined in Article 18 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR"), as a discrete but closely interrelated part of the right to "freedom of thought, conscience and religion". As a fundamental element of one's forum internum, one's freedom of thought cannot be limited or restricted in any way. Under international human rights law ("IHRL"), its scope and nature of protection is far-reaching and profound as freedom of thought extends to thought "on all matters" and no one be "compelled to reveal their thoughts." Freedom of thought may also protect one's thoughts from unlawful or coercive interference, consistent with its status as an absolute freedom.
Yet notwithstanding this guidance, the content and scope of freedom of thought is largely unclear and unknown. Compared to other freedoms listed in Article 18 of the ICCPR (freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion or belief), freedom of thought is underdeveloped in theory and practice alike.
Freedom of thought bears a close – if underexplored – relationship with other fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion or belief, privacy and freedom of opinion and expression. Consequently, a more comprehensive understanding of freedom of thought would bolster the framework for protecting and promoting human rights as a whole.
Many stakeholders also have reported that freedom of thought faces current and emerging pressures. Advances in digital technology, neuroscience and cognitive psychology may present novel challenges for protecting our private, innermost thoughts. Moreover, dissenters from majoritarian religions and authoritarian regimes report experiencing such pressure.
By exploring this pertinent topic, this report aims to:
In accordance with the mandate's practice, the report also will apply a gender perspective in collecting data, analysing freedom of thought and making recommendations.
Please find below a non-exhaustive indicative list of issues that the Special Rapporteur seeks information from individuals and organizations. It is not necessary to respond to all the issues listed below and it would be greatly appreciated if submissions could focus on the following areas:
1. What is the content and scope of freedom of thought? For example:
a) What does freedom of thought encompass?
b) How have regional human rights courts, UN human rights mechanisms and domestic courts interpreted and applied freedom of thought?
c) How could this freedom be protected in law and policy, noting inter alia that rights-holders may be at different stages of cognitive development or have varying levels of cognitive functions?
2. What does it mean in practice to respect, protect and fulfill a freedom not to:
a) disclose one's thoughts (mental privacy);
b) be penalized for one's thoughts; or
c) have one's thoughts free from coercive or other interference?
3. How and to what extent do other fundamental rights and freedoms (including but not limited to freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion or belief in Article 18 of the ICCPR, and the rights to privacy (Article 17 of the ICCPR), opinion and expression (Article 19 of the ICCPR)) either depend upon, support or otherwise relate to freedom of thought?
4. Is there a difference between "freedom of thought" and "freedom of belief"? If so, what is the distinction?
5. Is there a difference between "freedom of thought" and "freedom of opinion"? If so, what is the distinction?
6. What is the relationship between the forum externum of a rights-holder (e.g. manifestations of one's religion or belief, or expression) and freedom of thought (part of one's forum internum)? Would violations or limitations of the former affect the latter? If so, how does this occur and is it permissible under IHRL?
7. Do certain self-expressions (e.g. one's diary or digital footprint, language and non-verbal expression) ever constitute "thought" in and of themselves? If so, how and under what conditions?
8. How could the law assess whether attempts to unduly affect one's freedom of thought are impermissible under IHRL? To this end, what principles or factors could be considered? Are there any aggravating or mitigating factors?
9. Are there evidentiary challenges for proving a violation of freedom of thought? If so, what are they and how could they be overcome?
10. Do certain practices and policies have undue influence on "freedom of thought"? If so, which ones, why and in what circumstances? This may occur in various contexts – whether offline or online, involving State or non-State actors – such as in media and technology, healthcare, national security and education sectors.
11. What is the effect (if any) of the following on freedom of thought:
a) misinformation / disinformation;
b) proselytism or "anti-conversion" efforts; or
c) "treatment" for one's thoughts – including for mental health reasons.
d) If there is an effect, how and when does this occur?
12. Information about what practices and policies may unduly affect freedom of thought of individuals in vulnerable situations, including:
a) refugees and migrants;
c) girls, women, and LGBT+ persons;
d) disabled persons;
e) the elderly; and
f) members of minority religious or belief communities.
13. What steps could States take to ensure that an individual's freedom of thought is not unduly affected by certain practices and policies? For instance, it is recalled that the Committee on the Rights of the Child has encouraged States to take certain measures with respect to the digital environment.
Good practice for identifying, responding to and mitigating violations of freedom of thought:
14. Civil society / National Human Rights Institutions:
a) Information on measures they have adopted that effectively (i) promote freedom of thought (e.g. educational and interfaith initiatives); (ii) identify and monitor practices or policies that may unduly affect freedom of thought; or (iii) support those who have been subjected to practices or policies that may unduly affect their freedom of thought;
b) Information on tools for defining and respecting parameters of freedom of thought in theory and practice; and
c) Information on how to mitigate practices or policies that may unduly affect freedom of thought for girls and women.
15. International organisations:
a) Efforts taken by international organisations to (i) monitor and analyse practices or policies that may unduly affect freedom of thought; or (ii) mitigate such practices and policies, including in relation to the technology sector; and
b) Examples of how international organisations are engaging and supporting those who have experienced practices or policies that may unduly affect their freedom of thought (e.g. access to justice, public forums, intergroup dialogues and consultations etc.).
16. Other stakeholders:
a) Examples of professional bodies (e.g. psychologists) adopting restrictions on certain conduct that may unduly affect freedom of thought.
The Special Rapporteur will study and analyse the submissions, from which, some information may be referenced or illustrated in his report as appropriate. Please note that submissions and inputs are considered public records unless expressed otherwise by the submitting individual or organization. The submissions will subsequently be published on the website of the Special Rapporteur.
CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4 paras 1, 3.
CRC/C/GC/25 para 62.