Following a revision to our editorial policy in 2022, it has now been agreed that each year, one fifth 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.
Historically, Afghanistan was religiously diverse, but the vast majority of non-Muslims fled after the Taliban consolidated control of the government in 1996. As a result, current estimates suggest that 99.7% of the country are Muslims—the majority of whom are Sunni. A small proportion, estimated to be less than 1%, are followers of other religions, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá’ís, Christians, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. There are no estimates available for the number of non-religious or humanist individuals; those living in the country live in secrecy for fear of direct persecution.
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban took over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops from the country. The de facto government quickly moved to re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and re-assert the primacy—and strict application—of Sharia Law in the country.
Since the takeover, the Taliban have reportedly summarily executed local government officials and state security personnel, as well as raided the homes of government officials, journalists and human rights defenders. In addition, women’s rights have been significantly restricted with the Taliban banning women from participating in secondary as well as higher education, as well as certain workplaces and public spaces, such as parks. Punishments for transgressions include public flogging.
Owing to the high volume of requests that the organization receives from non-religious and humanist individuals seeking to flee Afghanistan, Humanists International continues to monitor developments closely.
Greece is a unitary parliamentary republic often regarded as the birthplace of democracy in Europe and a catalyst to western civilization. In recent years however, there has existed an increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders, undue pressure on journalists, and space for civil society has shrunk due to smear campaigns targeting civil society actors and bureaucratic obstacles to NGO registration.
This year saw the right wing party, New Democracy, winning a landslide election victory handing conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis a second term as prime minister. Ahead of the elections, Adonis Georgiadis, who is Vice-President of New Democracy, and was Minister for Development and Investment at the time, made derogatory social media statements about non-religious people, saying that they should be feared for having no limits.
The Greek Orthodox Church receives systematic privilege compared to other religion or belief groups, with religion still firmly woven into the fabric of major institutions. As a result, the non-religious face discrimination and social stigma. Humanists International has intervened on behalf of humanist human rights defenders in the country, including when they were subjected to criminal proceedings for having called out hate speech and antisemitism by a high-ranking Orthodox Bishop.
Despite its famously secular Constitution, there are serious concerns about Hindu nationalism and interreligious tensions that have risen under the premiership of Narendra Modi. Modi’s presidency has been linked to a rise in Hindu nationalism, both socially and on the part of officials appearing to elevate and promote a politicized Hindu nationalist agenda. Several state or federal laws introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been designed to promote patriotism – or Hindu national identity in particular – discriminating against religion and belief minorities in the process. Along with a rise in Hindu nationalist rhetoric and state-sponsored religious fundamentalism, these developments have sparked deep concern for minorities and their right to freedom of religion or belief.
For many years, violence against minorities has been a significant problem, particularly against Muslims and Dalits. More recently the number of violent incidents against Christians is reported to have risen sharply.
Threats against known rationalists and humanists in the country are not uncommon. Since 2013, at least three prominent Indian rationalists have been murdered in retaliation for their work challenging superstition. Others have been the subject of smear campaigns. Many critics of the government are often labeled as ‘anti-national’, ‘unpatriotic’, ‘naxalites’, ‘maoist-sympathizers’ or ‘communists’. More recently, the President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Narendra Nayak, has been identified as a target for assassination – his name appearing on numerous ‘hit lists’. As a result, from 2016 until 2023 police protection was provided for him. That protection was removed earlier this year without explanation.
There has also been an escalated crackdown on civil society and the media by the government. With authorities prosecuting critics such as journalists, campaigners and peaceful protesters, on fabricated counterterrorism and hate speech laws. This year India emerged as the most populous country in the world, surpassing China, and overtook the UK as the world’s fifth-largest economy. It also held the G20 presidency and hosted the G20 summit in New Delhi. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a red carpet welcome by the President of the USA in Washington, DC.
In Nigeria, approximately half of the population are Muslim, some 40% are Christian, and roughly 10% are of traditional indigenous religions or no religion. While the Constitution guarantees religious freedom, 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’.
In April 2022, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, Mubarak Bala, was sentenced to an unprecedented 24-years in prison after being convicted of “conducting himself in a manner likely to cause breach of public peace” in connection with a series of Facebook posts that some deemed ‘blasphemous’. Bala’s case has been mired by successive violations of his fundamental rights. Humanists International continues to monitor the case closely and advocate for Bala’s immediate and unconditional release.
On 6 September 2023, Nigeria’s presidential election tribunal rejected challenges by opposition rivals to Bola Tinubu’s win in February’s disputed vote. European Union observers had said in June that the elections were marred by problems including a lack of transparency and operational failures that reduced public trust in the process. The former Governor of Lagos, Tinubu assumed the presidency on 29 May 2023. To date, the President has not responded to requests for a pardon for Mubarak Bala.
Pakistan has long suffered chronic sectarian violence and intolerance against religious and non-religious minorities, with Shia Muslims subjected to the majority of the violence, and many extremely serious incidents against Christian and Ahmadi minorities. For individual non-religious persons to speak out is uncommon, but those revealed or alleged to be non-religious tend to provoke swift condemnation, threats of violence, or criminal ‘blasphemy’ charges.
Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law was strengthened earlier this year, and as well as providing grounds for legal convictions, has provided cover for vigilante violence. Those who have been accused of ‘blasphemy’ have been burned to death, shot dead in courtrooms and hacked to death on the side of the road, among other forms of extrajudicial executions. Fear of reprisal as a result of ‘blasphemy’ allegations leads many individuals to reach out to Humanists International for assistance each year.
Amendments to the Official Secrets Act proposed this year, would give the country’s intelligence services a wide berth to detain, and raid the home of, any citizen without a warrant. They would bring electronic, unwritten communications under the law’s ambit. When coupled with the anti-blasphemy laws, it leaves Pakistan’s religious and belief minorities facing a precarious situation, where government officials can expressly target them without checks and balances.
In July 2023, Pakistan introduced a last-minute resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on religious hatred. The resolution equates all acts of “desecration of sacred books and religious symbols” with manifestations of religious hatred. It also threatens a longstanding consensus on how to tackle religious intolerance in line with international law.
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 Salman, the regime has claimed to be making improvements in terms of respecting civil liberties and human rights; 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. Women still need permission from their “guardian” (usually father or husband) to obtain a passport.
The situation for humanists, the non-religious, progressives and other dissidents in the country is dire. 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 closely monitors and advocates on behalf of several cases of individuals in prison.
Sri Lanka’s post independence history has been marked by ethnic violence and a 30-year civil war that ended in 2009. Reverberations of the conflict continue to be felt across the political, social and economic spheres and have had an impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Four religions are recognized by law: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. However, Article 9 of the Constitution also accords Buddhism the “foremost place” and commits the government to protecting it, but does not recognize it as the state religion. Tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian minority—particularly evangelical Christian groups, which are accused of forced conversions—sporadically flare into attacks on churches and individuals by Buddhist extremists. Muslims have also faced harassment, particularly following the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019. Humanists also face persecution and very often cannot openly identify as non-religious for fear of reprisals.
In the name of calming ethnic and religious tensions, the Sri Lankan authorities utilize a range of overly-broad legislation to restrict freedom of expression. These include the Official Secrets Act 1955, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 1979, additional anti terrorism regulations issued in 2006, the ICCPR Act and laws on defamation and contempt of court. Several of these laws amount to de facto ‘blasphemy’ laws.
In May 2023, the government announced a dedicated task force established to crack down on persons or groups that disrupt religious harmony. Humanists International is closely monitoring the country in response to requests it receives from humanists at risk and concerns that efforts to calm religious disharmony may unduly restrict freedom of expression.
Sudan, an Arab republic in which the predominant religion is Islam, has long suffered from severe ethnic strife and has been plagued by internal conflict. Sudan’s long civil war has given the country a poor human rights record, and has led to large numbers of internal displacements within the country. Sudan continues to face political instability after a planned 3-year power-sharing transition to democratic rule that began in 2019 was interrupted by a military coup d’etat in late October 2021. An escalating conflict between military and paramilitary forces has resulted in the deaths of thousands, and the forced displacement of more than three million civilians. Human rights monitors report that, since April 2023, at least six human rights defenders have been killed.
The coup was reportedly justified by saying that infighting between military and civilian parties within the transitional government threatened the country’s stability. However, the coup was perceived by some groups as an attempt to reimpose Islamic law. Indeed, by June 2022, several allies of former President Omar Al-Bashir – and Islamist figures – had been offered posts in government, likely as a result of the need for experienced administrators and the expediency for the military of establishing a tactical alliance with Islamist factions.
As fighting rages on across the country between the military and paramilitary forces, democratic progress is stalled. Progress made to secularize the country since 2019, including the repeal of ‘apostasy,’ has been suspended. Several individuals have reportedly been arrested and charged with ‘apostasy’, while in Khartoum, a newly formed police unit in charge of “morals” is reportedly reinforcing public order laws that banned women from wearing trousers and the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Uganda is a predominantly Christian country, with a significant Muslim minority (primarily Sunni), and a president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
The rights to freedom of expression and assembly, especially for government critics and political opposition are not respected, and there are restrictions on civil society organizations, media, and online communication, including harassment and intimidation by state agents.
Many atheists and humanists in Uganda are afraid to openly express their beliefs due to fear of persecution. There is a long history of humanists being targeted with hate and even violence, due to their beliefs and advocacy work. There is however, a growing attention to humanist-related celebrations within the country spearheaded by a group of humanists conducting humanist ceremonies within the country.
In May this year, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill criminalizing same sex conduct. The Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 violates multiple fundamental rights guaranteed under Uganda’s Constitution and breaks commitments made by the government as a signatory to a number of international human rights agreements. August this year saw the first arrest made on the charge of “aggravated homosexuality,” a crime that is punishable by death.
There is also concern about the role of Christian anti-rights actors in the country and their impact on non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Since 2021, Family Watch International and the Christian Council International have been looking to derail the economic agreement between European Union and African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries claiming the deal is aimed at promoting an LGBTI+ and abortion agenda. Earlier this year, the Ugandan Prolife Parliamentary Caucus hosted a breakfast meeting against the East African Community Reproductive Health Bill in partnership with Human Life International.