12/17/2013 06:36 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

Believe or Die: 4 Member States of the Human Rights Council Where Apostasy Means Death

I'm the editor of a report launched last Tuesday by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, to mark Human Rights Day. The report assesses every country in the world, focusing on the legal treatment of the non-religious.

We found that the great majority of countries exercise some form of religious privilege, such as seats in government reserved for religious leaders, or state-funding for exclusively religious institutions.

We also found 46 countries had what we called "Severe Discrimination." For example, laws restricting inter-religious marriages; laws which prohibit "blasphemy" or "insult to religion" punishable by prison (38 countries); laws taking children away from fathers who are "apostates."

A further 31 countries we classed as perpetrating "Grave Violations." For example, states that punish apostasy or blasphemy with death (13 countries); states restricting government office to members of one religion; and state complicity in violence against atheists.

Of course, most of these laws also impact on religious people.

What the report itself did not do was to compare these 77 countries posing "severe" or even "grave" problems, with the member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Let's do that now!

Nine states which "severely discriminate" and eight which commit "grave violations" are currently members of the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC). That's 17 of the most problematic countries in the world for atheists.

The eight grave violators include: Indonesia (where atheism is essentially illegal under the state ideology of Pancasila); Morocco and the Maldives (two popular tourist destinations that can put their citizens to death for apostasy); United Arab Emirates (the global business gateway that can execute its ex-Muslim citizens); Pakistan (where the idea of criticizing blasphemy laws has itself been declared 'blasphemous'); Kuwait (whose parliament passed a death-for-blasphemy bill last year, still pending); Saudi Arabia (don't even get me started), and China (which found itself in the worst class for severely suppressing freedom of thought and expression and specifically religious belief).

So a total of 17 current members of the HRC have serious problems. In eight of those states the problems are among the most grave.

And in four of those states you can be put to death for leaving religion (Maldives, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and UAE).

It's nothing new to criticize the HRC for including members who abuse human rights. We know already that serial human rights abusers are elected because the regional groups rig "clean slate" elections, removing the incentive for states to actually uphold human rights. It's like playing a game for toddlers: if you break the rules, the adults just nod and smile, and everyone wins every time.

We also know already that many states on the Council have serious human rights issues on a huge range of topics. But I think the four states with death-for-apostasy inject a fatal dose of fresh hypocrisy. For three reasons:

First, it's pathetic. There is no self-defense justification for killing someone who holds a metaphysical belief that is contrary to a metaphysical belief that you hold. It is definitively wrong.

Second, it's indefensible. The ignorance and inhumanity of death-for-apostasy is matched only by its decisive arbitrariness. There are many fallacious rationalizations for why countries with terrible rights records pervade the HRC; "every state has problems", "that crackdown on protest was necessary for security", "you say this is censorship I say it's a firewall against immoral ideas..." But death for apostasy isn't like that. It has no rationalization other than to stubbornly and selectively cite the Koran or Hadith (all of the states that have death for apostasy are Islamic).

Third, free thought is a right. Death for apostasy targets people for something as deeply personal as the views they've arrived at about life, the universe and everything. Philosophical views are not 'intrinsic characteristics' like race or sex, but they may be deeply formative, meaningful, and moreover they should be fully protected under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This, then, is the special contribution that the membership of death-for-apostasy states should add to the debate about the failures of the Human Rights Council: we are permitting the election of states who nakedly tell their population what not to think, in clear contravention of human rights, with no possible defense. Therefore they should be rejected from the Council.

Here is the argument, in five easy steps:

1) The mandate of the HRC decrees that "members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights".

2) Freedom of thought and belief is a human right (Article 18, UDHR).

3) States which threaten or actually sentence people to death for thinking or believing, are violating that right, not by accident, not occasionally, but ingrained in the law of the land.

4) Other countries do not have capital punishment for thoughts or beliefs (i.e. they have higher standards).

5) Therefore, death-for-apostasy states are not upholding the highest standards, they are in fact making an infantile mockery of these standards, and they ought to be thrown off the Council.

This is theoretically possible. Member states can be suspended from the Council by a two-thirds majority vote.

However, the problem is that states with poor human rights records make up the majority of member states of the Council. Therefore one cannot attack another for fear of immediate reprisals. It's Mutually Assured Destruction, except instead of preserving us all from annihilation, it preserves all them from accountability.

This is not sustainable. There must be some issue, some clear and definitive human rights violation, that could set off the first glorious missile of criticism. So I'll ask this question: Would any delegate of any other HRC member state care to explain how "Believe or die!" is ever an acceptable way for a supposed paragon of human rights to behave?

The report "Freedom of Thought : A Global Report on the Rights, Legal Status, and Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious" can be found at