The Watch List

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.

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.


The Federative Republic of Brazil is a secular and democratic sovereign state in South America with a population of around 202 million. Aside from having the world’s largest Catholic population (126 million people, or 64.6% of the population), Brazil also appears as one of the top ten most religious countries in the world. According to the 2012 Gallup Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, 85% of Brazilians describe themselves as religious.

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.


Approximately 71% of the population is Christian, 18% Muslim, 5% adheres to indigenous or animistic religious beliefs. Humanists and atheists in Ghana are a small minority. Many atheists in Ghana are afraid to openly express their beliefs due to fear of persecution. However, the profile of humanism is slowly growing thanks to the work of a group of outspoken atheists, freethinkers and skeptics who form the Humanists Association of Ghana.

Ghana has a reputation as one of the most democratic countries in Africa. Whilst generally speaking, civil society organizations can operate freely, this does not include LGBTI+ activists and organizations, who are frequently harassed and intimidated. Anti-LGBTI+ hate crime and societal discrimination is prevalent and is widely condoned by the media, public officials and religious figures.

There is 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. The United States-based World Congress of Families (WCF), whose leaders have advanced anti-LGBTI+ laws and policies around the world, held its regional conference in Accra in 2019. The WCF says its Ghana agenda involves positioning Africa as an active advocate within the global pro-family movement.

In August 2021 a draft bill, officially called the ‘Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill’ 2021, was introduced to Parliament by a coalition of MPs. The bill seeks to impose a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment for being LGBTI+ and a penalty of up to ten years’ imprisonment for anyone who engages in advocacy or promotion for LGBTI+ equality.


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.

In September 2022, at the time of writing, large-scale protests have erupted in Iran, in response to the murder in custody of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested, detained and tortured by Iran’s “morality police” for wearing her hijab “improperly”. Many human rights defenders, including women, are protesting the increasingly hardline position taken by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, and the strict enforcement of Islamic laws. Iran has responded by violently suppressing protests, including with the use of live ammunition.


Libya has been in the grip of an ongoing civil war since Nato-backed forces overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. Since mid-2014, political power has mainly been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk. The Tripoli government is the internationally recognized government, known as the Government of National Accord, and controls parts of the country’s western territory. The Tobruk administration, consisting of members of parliament elected in 2014, is the House of Representatives.

Humanists International is deeply concerned by reports that several members of the Tanweer Movement have been arrested by authorities in Libya. Members of the movement have indicated that the arrests are part of a campaign of harassment that began in November last year. Owing to safety concerns, the organization ceased operations for several months over the course of 2022.


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.

Over the course of 2022, ethnic and religious tensions continued to run high throughout the country, leading to grievous acts of violence and insecurity, among them: the killing of Deborah Samuel in Sokoto after she was accused of “blasphemy”; an attack on a Church in Ondo State resulting in the deaths of 40 people; the murder of Ahmad Usman in Abuja, after he was accused of “blasphemy”; the killing of at least 15 people in an attack on a mosque in Zamfara State. Statistics released by Nigerian group, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), estimate that 32,000 Muslims have been killed by terrorists in the past three years.

In light of the violence, religion and belief minorities are often overlooked in interfaith dialogues on freedom of religion or belief, and as such their concerns are often not addressed.


Islam is the state religion of Qatar, and Sharia is designated as the main source for legislation. The only officially recognized religions are Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

While Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it is also one of the most repressive, particularly for women and girls, LGBTI+ people, non-Qatari nationals, and other minorities. Women are discriminated against under personal status and family laws, and the discriminatory male guardianship system limits their choices in fundamental ways.

Qatar has strict control over the religious affairs in the country. Charges for crimes such as alcohol consumption or extramarital sex carry Sharia punishments, that in some cases call for flogging. Leaving Islam remains is a capital offense punishable by death in Qatar (though no punishment has been recorded since 1971). Qatar also explicitly criminalizes the act of ”opposing or doubting the tenets of Islam” in an attempt to limit critical thinking.

Qatar has sought to improve its image internationally through participating in sports and cultural events, including hosting the 2022 World Cup. Rights groups are concerned, however, about the World Cup being used to mask criticisms of Qatar’s oppressive environment for human rights and labor rights. In 2021, an activist and former migrant worker who spoke out about migrant workers’ conditions in Qatar was forcibly disappeared and has since fled the country.


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.

On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, an act which went contrary to all standards of international law, and has caused an escalating humanitarian crisis, gross and systematic human rights abuses on a massive scale, and has led to apparent war crimes in some areas. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has offered moral backing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has incited religious propaganda to legitimize Russian aggression, and has claimed the war is necessary to defend Russian “traditional values” from “harmful gender and LGBTI+ ideology”.

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 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. In 2022, in a rare demonstration of leniency, Saudi Arabian writer and human rights activist Raif Badawi was released from prison following the expiry of his sentence. Like many other activists, he remains subject to a lengthy travel ban.

United Kingdom

The UK has an established state Church, which gives rise to religious privileges and legal exemptions. Bishops, approved by the hereditary monarch, sit as legislators in the House of Lords.

The country has seen some significant political change in recent years; a referendum vote in 2016 to “leave the European Union” was widely regarded as having exposed social divisions and as creating political and economic uncertainty, and the country has had four Prime ministers governing it since that vote. There has been discussion of opting out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights and reforming its Human Rights Act.

After the UK hosted an international Ministerial on the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), in which it had some prominent anti-rights speakers as panelists, an agreed multinational statement on Gender and FoRB published on the Government’s Foreign Office website was removed and re-uploaded after the deletion of all references to ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy’. The number of countries signing it dropped from 22 to 8. This led to protests from a number of other countries who had worked on the initial drafting of the statement, both about the substance of the change and about the fact that what was a multilateral statement had been changed unilaterally by one country.

United States of America

The United States receives a relatively good rating in this Report, as a consequence of the nation’s strong constitutional protections in favor of freedom of thought, religion or belief and freedom of expression, which are usually upheld in practice. There is also a deep-rooted cultural emphasis on individual freedom.

However, those very freedoms, and openness to challenge, debate and due process—combined with the sometimes also very strong, deeply-rooted Christian conservatism of some U.S citizens and a powerful and wealthy Christian right lobby—means that secular, humanist and civil liberties groups find themselves facing a battle to preserve the inherent secularism of the constitution and standards of non-discrimination, for example on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation, in the face of arguments grounded in spurious “religious freedom” and conscience claims.

Whilst this specific threat to secularism, equality, and non-discrimination from Christian conservatives is a constant phenomenon in the country, they gained a greater foothold of influence under the Presidency of Donald Trump, with one of the most significant and egregious results being the Supreme Court decision this year overturning the constitutional right to abortion. There is concern going forward that this decision was the first of many. At the time of the Court’s ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas explicitly wrote in a concurring opinion that rulings establishing rights to contraception, same-sex marriage, and same-sex relationships should be reconsidered; he made clear that civil and human rights understood as established and fundamental are in fact under grave threat.

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