The Watch List

Following a revision to our editorial policy in 2021, it has now been agreed that each year, one third of all countries across the globe are reviewed as part of a rolling cycle of updates. The following are countries that have not been updated in this year’s cycle, but that Humanists International continues to monitor closely.

Brazil

The Federative Republic of Brazil is a secular and democratic sovereign state in South America with a population of around 202 million. A highly religious nation, recent years have seen the election of parties promoting conservative religious values.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018 highlighted the role of religion in Brazilian politics. Throughout his election campaign, Bolsonaro presented himself as the defender of traditional Christian moral values with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” His election has ensured that Brazil is governed by a Christian-extreme-right authoritarian agenda that aims to hegemonize Brazilian politics. Jair Bolsonaro offers an ultra-conservative agenda, his speeches filled with openly and harsh misogynistic, racist, anti-LGBTI+ and anti-democratic views. Recent public demonstrations have called for Bolsonaro to be impeached, largely in response to his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Egypt

A nation of 100 million people, an estimated 90% of whom follow Sunni Islam, Egypt is a member of the League of Arab States (LAS), as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Since 2017, under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, the country has been living under a state of emergency that has given security forces unchecked power to repress dissent. Political opponents, human rights activists, freethinkers and LGBTI+ people are particularly vulnerable categories, while the government exerts a tight grip on the media and civil society organizations.

On 11 September 2021, during the launch of the nation’s Human Rights Strategy, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi indicated that he respects the right to freedom of religion or belief, including to be non-religious. Humanists International will continue to monitor the landscape closely to see if his words materialize into substantive change in government policy.

Hungary

The populist, nationalist Fidesz party, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has made conscious and explicit efforts to remodel Hungary as an “illiberal democracy” veering away from liberalism and towards an authoritarian democracy. The country is found to be declining, with retrograde, anti-democratic reforms implemented under an authoritarian, nationalistic government since 2010, accused of borrowing policies from the “far-right”. There is a trend toward a systematic desecularization of the state, giving religious privileges to certain churches, and increasing governmental control over a significant part of the media.

During the current Orbán premiership, LGBTI+ rights have stalled and more politicians have resorted to the use of an openly homophobic rhetoric. In May 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hungarian parliament passed a law voting to end legal recognition of trans and intersex people.

Iran

The right to freedom of religion or belief, and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in the Islamic Republic of Iran are all severely restricted. Iranian law bars any criticism of Islam or deviation from the ruling Islamic standards.

While the Iranian constitution does not itself include any provision criminalizing apostasy, there are several legal provisions that give judges the discretion to find defendants guilty of apostasy.

The government periodically jails and executes dozens of individuals on charges of “enmity against God” (moharebeh). Although this crime is framed as a religious offense, and may be used against humanists and other religious dissenters, it is most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah). Iranian writer and human rights defender, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and blogger Soheil Arabi, are two individuals who have been imprisoned for long periods on these grounds.

The Baha’i faith is not recognized and is routinely described by authorities as a heretical variant on Islam. Its members face immense discrimination.

Highly controversial presidential elections took place in July 2021, with multiple candidates being disqualified in order to secure the victory of Mr. Raisi, a cleric known for his hard-line views.

Nigeria

While the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, the state endorses numerous anti-secular and theocratic policies. The country’s parallel legal systems mean that, depending on one’s religion, one can be subjected to significantly different penalties for crimes, such as “blasphemy”.

President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala, is one of many individuals who stands accused of “blasphemy”. Bala’s case has been mired by successive violations of his fundamental rights.

Pakistan

Pakistan is approximately 97% Muslim and the remaining 3% of the population are Christian, Hindu, Buddhists or others. The country has suffered chronic sectarian violence against religious and non-religious minorities, with Shia Muslims subjected to the majority of the violence, and many extremely serious incidents against the Christian minority. For individual non-religious persons to speak out is uncommon, but those revealed or alleged to be non-religious tend to provoke swift condemnation.

The legal environment in Pakistan is notably repressive; it has brutal blasphemy laws, systemic and legislative religious discrimination and often allows vigilante violence on religious grounds to occur with impunity. Fear of reprisal as a result of “blasphemy” allegations leads many individuals fleeing persecution to reach out to Humanists International for assistance each year.

Poland

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious organization in Poland and maintains considerable influence in social and political life. In 1993, it was granted special recognition by the Polish state as per a Concordat with the Holy See. Over the number of past years, we have witnessed a significant regression in human rights and democratic standards in the country. Recent developments have included the re-election of a conservative and traditional President, the rise of anti-gender movements and some municipalities declaring “LGBT free zones.” Earlier this year, the government introduced a near-total ban on abortion for women.

Russia

The Russian Federation is the world’s largest country by land area. Over the past many years under the renewed Putin regime the country has continued to decline in its human rights standards and failures to uphold democracy and provide accountability. Today, Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. The authorities crack down on critical media, harass peaceful protesters, engage in smear campaigns against independent groups, and use a variety of nefarious means to undermine democratic choice in the country.

The role of clericalism as an aspect of social control is expanding, with authorities continuing to target “nontraditional” religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism.

Since its reprisal at the domestic level the Russian Orthodox church has become a major figure in shaping Russia’s foreign policy, especially in relation to social issues. Through the Russian state, the Orthodox Church has pushed its anti-rights agenda at the United Nations Human Rights Council and elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state governed by an absolute monarchy in tandem with a powerful religious elite.

Under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salma, the regime has claimed to be making improvements in terms of respecting the civil liberties and human rights of its 33 million population; however, most improvements have been minimal, and a highly restrictive regime persists. In 2017, the Crown Prince pledged reforms – including to lift the ban on women driving – however many human rights campaigners and prisoners of conscience remain imprisoned years later, with sporadic fresh crackdowns on those considered dissidents or troublemakers, including peaceful protesters and activists for political reform and freedom of expression. Many activists arrested for campaigning for even those reforms which have taken place remain in jail. Women still need permission from their “guardian” (usually father or husband) to obtain a passport.

In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has looked to boost its reputation abroad via the use of soft power. One of the most notable manifestations of which has been its aggressive use of ‘sportswashing’; in the last couple of years alone it has spent over one billion dollars in investing or hosting sporting events in a bid to obscure its extremely poor human rights record.

The situation for humanists, the non-religious, progressives and other dissidents in the country is extremely bad. Most forms of public religious expression must be consistent with the government’s fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam. An anti-terror law continues to suppress many forms of criticism or dissent in extremely broad terms, and is actively intended to prosecute political dissent and religion or belief minorities. Prosecutions for apostasy or promoting atheism have been made in recent years, with individuals facing possible death sentences and serving long jail terms. Humanists International has a number of cases of individuals in prison it follows and on which it advocates.

Sudan

Sudan, an Arab republic in which the predominant religion is Islam, has long suffered from severe ethnic strife. It is currently undergoing a political transition process, which began in July 2019 with the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir, with the broad aim being to dismantle some of the hard-line Islamist policies of the former regime and achieve peace and democracy through civilian rule. For example, progressive reforms were passed in 2020 which saw the abolition of apostasy as a criminal offence, a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM), and the ending of the death penalty and flogging as punishments for same-sex relationships (but keeping a possible sentence of prison terms ranging from five years to life).

Sudan’s transition continues to face significant challenges, including lack of accountability for past human rights violations, and the exclusion of women from equal and meaningful participation in the transition process. Notably, calls to enact comprehensive reforms to discriminatory family laws and to address sexual violence have so far been ignored.

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