Letter from AAI to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Update, October 2016

Atheist Alliance International (AAI) recently received a reply to their (and our) question about atheist refugees. A letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, dated 7th October 2016, confirms that “people who are persecuted based on their absence of religious belief may fall within the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, where they meet all the eligibility criteria in the definition of a refugee […] claims based on “religion” may involve religion as belief, or non-belief. This is further interpreted as including inter alia nontheistic and atheistic beliefs.”

The following is a letter—to which our organization Atheist Freethinkers is signatory— from Atheist Alliance International (AAI) to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The letter requests that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) improve the language it frequently uses to describe the religious persecution of persons requesting asylum: instead of employing the term “religion,” a more general term should be used, a term which explicitly includes non-believers as well as believers, because atheists and other non-religious persons are often persecuted because of their non-belief.

To this end, the letter suggests that the term “religion” be replaced by a more appropriate and neutral phrase, such as “philosophical conviction.”

(At AFT, we are aware that some may interpret the term “conviction” as implying an unsubstantiated belief or article of faith, similar to a religious belief. As atheists, we consider it very important to distinguish between faith-based religious belief and our evidence-based atheistic non-belief, and for that reason we would have preferred a slightly clearer formulation. For example, the expression “religious beliefs and non-beliefs” would remove any remaining ambiguity in the expression “philosophical convictions.” However, this is a secondary detail.)

We whole-heartedly support AAI’s efforts, as expressed in the following letter, to encourage the UNHCR to employ language which explicitly recognizes the rights of atheists and non-believers who are often the targets of vicious persecution.

Atheist Alliance International, for a secular world

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, Chairman, Atheïstisch Verbond
  • Onur Romano, President, Atheist Alliance International
  • Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, Council of Ex Muslims of Britain
  • Michael Nugent, Chairperson, Atheist Ireland
  • Kato Mukasa, Executive Director, HALEA, Uganda
  • Maria Theresa Termulo, Director, Philippines Atheists and Agnostics Society
  • Chris Street, President, Atheism UK
  • Marek Łukaszewicz, President, Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation, Poland
  • Leo Igwe, Founder, Nigerian Humanist Movement
  • Ghulam Sakhi Kaianoosh, Director, Afghan Atheists Organization
  • Fariborz Poona, Director, Bread and Roses TV
  • Brian Lemaire, Secretary, Secular Humanist Society of New York
  • Eli Vieira Araujo, International Relations Director, Secular Humanist League of Brazil
  • Jacek Tabisz, President, Polish Rationalist Association
  • Melissa Pugh, President, Atheist Alliance of America
  • Yarovinskiy Mikhail, President, Society of Atheism and Humanism, Russia
  • Robert Bwambale, Founder and Executive Director, Kasese Humanists, Uganda
  • Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, British Columbia Humanist Association
  • Petr Tomek, President, Atheists of The Czech Republic
  • Colin Morrison, Chairperson, Atheist Northern Ireland
  • Muhammad Saad Ilyas, Director, Pakistani Atheists and Agnostics
  • Sami Abdallah, Director, Freethought Lebanon
  • David Rand, President, Libres Penseurs Athées
  • Nada Peratović, President, Center for Civil Courage, Croatia
  • Nabeel Khalid, Activist, Pakistani Atheists, UK
  • Steve Marton, President, Sydney Atheists
  • Erkki Hartikainen, Chairman, Atheist Association of Finland
  • René Hartmann, Chairman, Bund der Konfessionslosen und Atheisten
  • Tatt Si Tan, President, Humanist Society Singapore
  • Christine Shellska, Director, American Humanist Association


The above letter is also available as a PDF document.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Print This Page Print This Page