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UN expert warns against religious hatred and intolerance during COVID-19 outbreak

22 April 2020

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GENEVA (22 April 2020) – States must ensure COVID-19 measures are not twisted for economic or political gain and clamp down on hate speech blaming religious or ethnic groups for the crisis, a UN expert said today.

“The pandemic has caused a flare-up in existing religious intolerance in many countries. I am alarmed to see the upsurge in incitement to hatred, scapegoating religious or belief communities, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims for the spread of virus,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed.

“Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from different minority groups have also been similarly stigmatised,” he said. “Those targeted also have faced verbal abuse, death threats, physical attacks and experienced discrimination accessing public services, including denial of vital health services.”

“Any incitement to hatred or violence based on religious, belief or ethnic identity is simply not acceptable,” Shaheed said. “To combat disinformation, it is critical that States establish effective strategies and channels of communication to provide accurate and reliable information to the public,” Shaheed said.

“The firm commitment by political leadership to curb hate speech that stigmatises people on the grounds of their religion or belief is essential in this regard,” he said stressing that religious leaders can also play an important role. “Solidarity among people of all faiths and none has never been more critical in living memory.”

The Special Rapporteur noted not all religious or belief communities or those living in marginalised conditions can access online information regarding COVID-19 and best practices to avoid transmission. “I urge civil society and faith-based organisations to widely communicate and assist those in vulnerable situations, regardless of their belief or ethnic background.”

“States must also be non-discriminatory in assisting those in need and ensure that everyone has fair access to all public and health services,” Shaheed said.

“Inclusive dialogue will ensure that all communities implement and adhere to the required public health measures voluntarily, including by analysing how religious practices may be adapted in response to COVID-19 preventive measures, such as organising virtual religious services.”

“States, all religious leaders and faith actors should step up in promoting social inclusion and solidarity as well as combating incitement to hatred through engagement and education,” Shaheed said.

Resolution 16/18United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, Rabat Plan of Action, #Faith4Rights toolkit, Fez Plan of action and UNESCO’s programme to prevent violent extremism through education are some useful tools for such engagement and education.”

“I appeal to States, faith leaders, civil society, media and general public to reject hate and exclusion and provide support and solidarity to those who could be victimised at this difficult time,” the Special Rapporteur underscored. 


Mr. Ahmed Shaheed (the Maldives) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr. Shaheed is Deputy Director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, UK and Senior Fellow of the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Centre in Canada. He 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.

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.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact Chian Yew Lim (+41 22 917 9938/ [email protected])
For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, contact Xabier Celaya (+41 22 917 9445 / [email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts

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