UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

This page contains extracts from the reports of the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2007. The three Special Rapporteurs to hold this position have all argued for abolition or repeal of Blasphemy laws by all States and Territories. 

Not all Special Rapporteur reports are included on this page. For a full list of reports see: Annual Reports to the Human Rights Council, Commission on Human Rights and General Assembly.


The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. The mandate holder has been invited to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles.

Historical background

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights appointed further to resolution 1986/20 a “Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance”. In 2000, the Commission on Human Rights decided to change the mandate title to “Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief”, which was subsequently endorsed by ECOSOC decision 2000/261 and welcomed by General Assembly resolution 55/97. On 23 March 2016, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 31/16, which, inter alia, extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a further period of three years.

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UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion,
Asma Jahangir (2007)  

Ms. Asma Jahangir (Pakistan), served as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion from August 2004 – July 2010.

In her last report in July 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ms Asma Jahangir made interesting observations on blasphemy laws. Ms Jahangir agreed with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which recommended in 2007 that blasphemy as an insult to religion should be decriminalised.

Ms Jahangir deplored the fact that blasphemy laws are used in a discriminatory and disproportionate manner to punish members of religious minorities, dissenting believers and non-theists or atheists, and to censure all inter-religious and intra-religious criticism.     (Quoted from the Venice Commission (2009) report.)

In a report on Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance in August 2007 Ms Jahangir reiterated that criminalizing “defamation of religions” can be counterproductive, since it may create an atmosphere of intolerance and fear and may even increase the chances of a backlash. Accusations of “defamation of religions” might stifle legitimate criticism or even research on practices and laws appearing to be in violation of human rights but that are, or are at least perceived to be, sanctioned by religion.

Ms Jahangir concluded that Blasphemy laws and the concept of “defamation of religions” can be counterproductive since they may create an atmosphere of intolerance or fear and ultimately might establish a normative hierarchy of beliefs.

Read the 2007 report: – A/62/280 20 August 2007

Reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt  (2013-2015)

Mr. Heiner Bielefeldt (Germany), served as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief fbielefeldtrom August 2010 – October 2016. Extracts from his reports follow with links to his full reports.

2013 Report

24 December 2012 

(Focus: Freedom of religion or belief of persons belonging to religious minorities)

2. Domestic legal provisions

B. Communications

6. The Special Rapporteur continues to receive many complaints about human rights violations perpetrated against individuals and groups from various religious or belief backgrounds. These allegations include physical attacks, arbitrary detention and involuntary disappearances of individuals belonging to religious minorities or belief communities, “apostasy” and “blasphemy” charges against converts or dissidents, public manifestations of religious intolerance and stigmatization of persons based on their religion or belief, and attacks on places of worship and religious sites, such as cemeteries or monuments of other historical and cultural value. In addition, there are reports of individuals being deported from some States to their country of origin where they may face religious persecution and serious punishment. There are also concerns about forced conversion, targeting members of some religious minorities.

(l) Criminal sanctions

53. Persons belonging to religious minorities are frequently exposed to increased risks of criminalization. Some domestic criminal law provisions specifically target members of minorities or persons otherwise deviating from the predominant religious or belief tradition of the country. When manifesting their religious or belief convictions, persons belonging to minorities may run the risk of being accused of “blasphemy,”* a charge which in some countries carries harsh sanctions, including even the death penalty. At times the mere possession of certain religious literature has given rise to criminal prosecution leading to long-term imprisonment. Furthermore, members of minorities have been tried for engaging in non-coercive communicative outreach activities which some Governments negatively brand as “proselytism”. There are even cases in which persons who had converted away from the dominant religion of the country were accused of “apostasy”46 and condemned to death, in disregard of, inter alia, the right to conversion, which constitutes an inextricable part of religion or belief. In general, the threat of criminal sanctions typically has far-reaching intimidating effects on members of religious minorities, many of whom may decide to hide their convictions or refrain from practising their religion or belief.

*In Pakistan, the implementation of the blasphemy provisions has allegedly triggered a general atmosphere of fear (A/HRC/18/51, p. 38); for example, a member of the Christian minority was given a death sentence for blasphemy in 2010 (A/HRC/16/53/Add.1, paras. 326-335).

B. Recommendations 

2. Domestic legal provisions

66. States should repeal any criminal law provisions that penalize apostasy, blasphemy and proselytism, as they may prevent persons belonging to religious or belief minorities from fully enjoying their freedom of religion or belief.

Read the 2013 report: – A/HRC/22/51

2014 Report

26 December 2013

(Focus: Tackling manifestations of collective religious hatred)

D. Responding to advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence

2. The interdependence between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression

59. In its assessment of existing legislation and jurisprudence on this issue, the Rabat Plan of Action observes a broad variety of statutes and case law, often enacted on an ad hoc basis and lacking in consistency. This can lead to arbitrary reactions and also to overreactions, with chilling effects on freedom of expression or on free manifestations of religious or belief convictions, in particular as regards religious minorities or people with dissenting views. In this context, the Rabat Plan of Action provides: “At the national level, blasphemy laws are counter-productive, since they may result in de facto censure of all inter-religious or belief and intra-religious or belief dialogue, debate and criticism, most of which could be constructive, healthy and needed. In addition, many blasphemy laws afford different levels of protection to different religions and have often proved to be applied in a discriminatory manner.”25 The Rabat Plan of Action therefore recommends that “States that have blasphemy laws should repeal them, as such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, and healthy dialogue and debate about religion.” The Special Rapporteur would like to confirm that, according to his experiences, blasphemy laws typically have intimidating effects on members of religious minorities as well as on critics or dissenters. 

IV. Conclusions and recommendations

(e) Policies of preventing, or reacting to, incidents of incitement to acts of discrimination, hostility or violence, should include a broad range of measures. Restrictive measures, if deemed necessary, should be the last resort and must comply with all the criteria set out in the respective international human rights standards, including in articles 18, 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. States should repeal blasphemy laws, which typically have a stifling effect on open dialogue and public discourse, often particularly affecting persons belonging to religious minorities;

Read the 2014 report: – A/HRC/25/58

2015 Report

29 December 2014

(Focus: Preventing violence committed in the name of religion)

I.    Introductionbielefeldt

2. In its resolution 25/12, the Human Rights Council condemned “all forms of violence, intolerance and discrimination based on or in the name of religion or belief, and violations of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as well as any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audiovisual or electronic media or any other means”. Against that background, the present report, in its section II, focuses on preventing violence committed in the name of religion and, in its section III, includes specific recommendations addressed to all relevant stakeholders.

II.    Preventing violence committed in the name of religion

7. … violence in the name of religion also affects followers of the very same religion, possibly also from a majority religion, in whose name such acts are perpetrated. Voices of moderation or critics who actively oppose the abuse of their religion for the justification of violence bear an increased risk of being accused of “betrayal” or “blasphemy” and having retaliatory penalties inflicted upon themselves.

Root causes, factors and political circumstances – Policies of exclusion 

35. … A factor that further increases the likelihood of harassment is anti-blasphemy laws or anti-proselytism laws, which may threaten criminal punishments for vaguely circumscribed “offences”. Countless examples demonstrate that such laws disproportionately affect minorities. Meanwhile, they may encourage self-appointed vigilante groups to commit acts of violent aggression, frequently with direct or indirect support by law enforcement agencies.

Obligations and responsibilities under international law  – Overarching obligations of the State (Obligations to respect)

42. … Moreover, the State should repeal anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws and criminal laws that discriminate against certain people according to their religious affiliations or beliefs or criminalize their “dissident” practices. Apart from further increasing the vulnerability of marginalized groups or individuals, these laws may give a pretext to vigilante groups and other perpetrators of hatred for intimidating people and committing acts of violence.

43. In order to operate as a credible guarantor of freedom of religion or belief for everyone, the State should not identify itself exclusively with one particular religion or belief (or one particular type of religions) at the expense of equal treatment of the followers of other faiths [or beliefs].

III.    Conclusions and recommendations – Recommendations to different State institutions 

94.  States should repeal anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws and any other discriminatory criminal law provisions, including those based on religious laws.

Read the 2015 report: – A/HRC/28/66

Reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Mr Ahmed Shaheed (2016-2017)

Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief © UN Photo/Amanda VoisardMr. Ahmed Shaheed (Maldives), has served as the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 1 November 2016. He has continued to argue for the repeal or abolition of Blasphemy laws. Extracts from his reports follow. Links to his full reports are provided.

2016 Report

2 August 2016

(Focus: The broad range of violations of freedom of religion or belief, their root causes and variables)

Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance

C. Patterns of State-induced violations

45. Still broader is the scope of anti-blasphemy laws. What constitutes an offence of “blasphemy” frequently remains merely vaguely circumscribed, thus giving Governments carte blanche to apply such laws in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner. Not only verbal or other statements, but also certain acts of conduct, such as eating in public during the fasting season, may be deemed as “blasphemous” in some countries. In countries that do not have anti-apostasy or anti-proselytism laws, the criminalization of broad blasphemy offences can serve as a proxy that basically fulfils the same function. Numerous reports have given clear evidence that members of religious minorities typically suffer disproportionately from such laws, which also target converts, dissidents, non-believers, critics within the majority religion and individuals engaging in unwelcome missionary activities.

46. While anti-apostasy, anti-proselytism and anti-blasphemy laws more or less openly carry “religion” in their titles, other criminal laws do not directly display an intention to curb religious dissidence or criticism and yet may have such consequences in practice, for example, overly broad anti-hatred laws (see A/HRC/13/40/Add.2, paras. 46-48). While article 20 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliges States to prohibit “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”, anti-hatred provisions often lump together a wide range of different “offences”, thereby opening the floodgates for arbitrary applications. Penal law provisions sometimes even criminalize religious superiority claims, thus hypothetically threatening sanctions against all individuals or groups who publicly bear witness to their convictions. Countless examples have proven that such vague provisions are used mostly to intimidate unwelcome minorities, converts, atheists, agnostics or dissidents, including critics belonging to the country’s majority religion. Further examples of prima facie “neutral” criminal law provisions are laws that, by criminalizing alleged acts of eroding national security, may threaten punishments against conscientious objectors to military service.

IV. Conclusions  

76. Violations of freedom of religion or belief can originate from States or non-State actors, or a combination of both. While some State-induced infringements, such as the criminalization of “apostasy”, “proselytism” or “blasphemy”, openly display the intention of controlling religion, other measures do not show any relationship to religion or belief on the surface and yet have a negative impact on freedom of religion or belief. Encroachments may also include bureaucratic stipulations that impose unreasonable burdens on certain religious communities, for instance by requesting them to undergo complicated administrative procedures in order to be allowed to exercise any community-related aspects of freedom of religion or belief. State-enforced family laws may discriminate against persons on the basis of their religion or belief, thus effectively preventing certain individuals from changing their religion for fear that it could result in a loss of inheritance rights or the denial of custody of their own children. School education is another area warranting systematic monitoring, since it may expose children from religious minorities, for example, to a non-accommodating national curriculum, to the authority of teachers or to pressure exercised by fellow students.

Read the 2016 report: – A/71/269

2017 Report

17 January 2017

(Focus: Perspective and vision for the mandate by new Special Rapporteur)

A. Role of the Special Rapporteur

II. Towards an agenda for implementation

A. Role of the Special Rapporteur

8. The mandate issued a total of 618 urgent appeals and allegation letters to 87 States between 2004 and 30 November 2016. The majority of communications during this time frame addressed restrictions relating to manifestations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief. Since the beginning of his tenure in November 2016, the Special Rapporteur has issued communications relating to sectarian attacks on religious minorities, apostasy and blasphemy charges, discriminatory practices relating to the construction of houses of worship, disruption of peaceful religious gatherings in private homes, the targeting of religious leaders, censorship of religious views and the confiscation of religious materials.

D. Other United Nations-related initiatives

16. The implementation mechanism for the eight-point action plan of resolution 16/18, the Istanbul Process for Combating Intolerance, Discrimination and Incitement to Hatred and/or Violence on the Basis of Religion or Belief, has facilitated six rounds of meetings organized to foster dialogue and practical experience-sharing. The objectives of the Istanbul Process remain relevant in the light of increasing reports of State actions that are incompatible with the right to freedom of religion or belief, including the use of blasphemy and apostasy laws, which render religious minorities and dissenters vulnerable to violence; increasing scrutiny of religious groups on the grounds of national security; and growing societal intolerance of religious minorities in a range of countries and regions.

18. The Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence – a normative framework spearheaded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and adopted by experts in 2012 – can serve as a road map for the Istanbul Process in this regard (A/HRC/22/17/Add.4, annex, appendix). The Rabat Plan of Action aims to clarify the obligations of State and the responsibilities of other stakeholders under articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; in doing so, it sets out a framework of measures that include the implementation of legislation, jurisprudence and policies to combat activities that constitute incitement to violence and discrimination on multiple grounds, including religion. It recommends the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation with a view to the undertaking of preventative action to combat incitement to hatred. It identifies three distinct types of expression: expression that constitutes a criminal offence; expression that is not criminally punishable but may justify a civil suit or administrative sanctions; and expression that does not give rise to criminal, civil or administrative sanction but still raises concern in terms of tolerance, civility and respect for the rights of others. The plan of action also recommends that States codify and implement national legislation that provides robust and precise definitions of key terms, including hatred, discrimination, violence and hostility, drawing from the guidance and definitions provided in the Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality. The Rabat Plan of Action furthermore calls upon States that have anti-blasphemy laws to repeal them, since such laws stifle and unduly inhibit both the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion or belief.

IV. Recurring and emerging issues of concern

A. Limitations amounting to coercion or unlawful restriction on manifestations of religion or belief

38. The vast majority of Member States have codified protections for the right to freedom of religion or belief in their constitutions or legislation. Despite these protections, however, most States also have laws or regulations on the books that unduly or unlawfully restrict that same right. This includes statutes criminalizing blasphemy or apostasy (with punishments for such offences ranging from fines to the death penalty).

39. Notwithstanding the absolute protections covering the right to have, adopt or change one’s religion or belief (or not have any beliefs at all) under international human rights law, more than 10 percent of countries around the world criminalize apostasy. According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, there has been a worrying trend worldwide towards more targeted discrimination and violence against atheists and non-religious persons in recent years. In particular, 22 countries allow the use of the death penalty for apostasy and at least 13 have capital punishment for atheists. While anyone can run afoul of these laws because they effectively criminalize dissent and free-thinking, “nonbelievers”, humanists and atheists are particularly at risk. Apostates and non-believers are particularly at risk from non-State actors or religious vigilantes or ”forces”, which are known to operate with impunity in a number of States.

40. Similarly, anti-blasphemy laws, which prohibit or criminalize the alleged “defamation” of religious beliefs and principles, or those which allegedly insult religious figures, have a disproportionate impact on members of minority religious communities and “non-believers”. Blasphemy, which is generally framed as a strict liability offence and based on vague and overly broad criminal statutes, is increasingly used against political opponents for their opposition to the Government. Blasphemy is an offence in at least 49 countries punishable with a prison term or in some cases with the death penalty.(International Humanist and Ethical Union, Freedom of Thought Report 2016) The Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment no. 34 (2011), noted that blasphemy laws were incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20 (2). It stressed that “it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers”, and that it would also be impermissible for such prohibitions “to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith”.

Read the 2017 report: – A/HRC/34/50

2018 Report

C. International legal standards

3. Indivisibility, intersectionality and mutually reinforcing nature of rights

43. The Special Rapporteur also notes the overlapping and sometimes tense relationship between the exercise of freedom of religion or belief and freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association (articles 19, 21 and 22 of the Covenant, respectively). Criticism of religion, religious leaders or doctrine, which is often an exercise of freedom of expression, is not a violation of freedom of religion or belief. In his previous reports, the Special Rapporteur highlighted the special relationship between articles 18 and 19 of the Covenant, noting that anti-blasphemy laws and anti-apostasy laws should be repealed.

D. Implications and consequences of relationships between State and religion on implementing protections for freedom of religion or belief

1. States with official or favoured religion(s)

(a) “Religious States”

58. Several States with official or preferred religions restrict religion or belief by formally banning certain religious groups. Among those countries in the world that have this kind of ban in place, 44 per cent are countries with an official State religion, while 24 per cent are countries that have a preferred or favoured religion. Banning of religious groups is much less common among States that do not have an official or preferred religion, with only three countries in this category maintaining formal bans on particular groups in 2015.29 In addition to States criminalizing atheism, the use of anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws amount to a de facto ban on the manifestation of humanism and non-religious beliefs.

III. Conclusions and recommendations

83. Anti-blasphemy laws, which frequently serve to uphold State-sponsored religion or truth claims (existing even in States that do not formally identify with one religion) stifle the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief, and the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion. They are also used to target political dissidents, humanists, non-believers or any religious thinker who expresses different theological views than the State-sponsored religion. As also called for in several recent international action plans, such anti-blasphemy laws must be repealed as a matter of priority and are incompatible with the Covenant.

Read the 2018 report: A/HRC/37/49

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