New Language Embedded to Protect the Life of Individuals Targeted Under Anti-Apostasy and Anti-Blasphemy Laws in Two United Nations General Assembly Resolutions

WASHINGTON, D.C 15 November 2022 – Friday 10th, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Third Committee voted in favour of two UNGA resolutions – with new language to protect individuals threatened with death via anti-apostasy anti-blasphemy laws. 

The General Assembly is the UN’s most representative body, comprising all 193 Member States. On Friday, 131 (over two thirds) of the member states voted in favour of the extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions resolution and 126 countries voted in favour of the moratorium on the death penalty resolution, including the new language advocated by Jubilee Campaign together with members of the IRF Summit Global Campaign to Repeal the Death Penalty for Apostasy and Blasphemy and over 90 organisations and key individuals.

The coalition of individuals and organisations signed a joint Charter, released on the 22 August 2022 for the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, to ensure the death penalty is never applied for apostasy and blasphemy and calling on UN member states to embed language into the UNGA resolutions. Signatories included apostasy law survivor Cheikh Mkhaitir from Mauritania; former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Dr. Ahmed Shaheed; Dr. Muhammad Khalid Masud, current Ad Hoc Member of the Shariat Appellate Bench, Supreme Court of Pakistan; Former EU Special Envoy on International Religious Freedom Ján Figel; Joel Voordewind, a former Dutch parliamentarian; Baroness Caroline Cox, Independent Member of the United Kingdom House of Lords; and Dr. Ewelina Ochab, Human Rights Advocate, among others. 

As of 13 November 2022, at least 12 countries continue to maintain the death penalty for apostasy – specifically renouncing or changing religion from the state interpretation of Islam and/or blasphemy – questioning, challenging or expressing a view not in line with the state/ local authorities’ interpretation of Islam and/or practices of its prophet; thus even expressing non-belief can be criminalised and labelled as blasphemy. Even where the death sentence is not carried out it is used to justify the incommunicado detention, physical and psychological torture, denial of legal representation and medical care, and prolonged detention – often until death – of individuals on the grounds of their religion or belief, states also carry out executions outside the judicial process or rely on other non-state actors to execute with impunity. Countries who continue to maintain the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy in violation of their international law obligations,include Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Libya [2022], the Maldives, Mauritania, two states in Malaysia [though dormant], 12 states in Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen. The UAE recently removed the death penalty for apostasy from their Penal Code by removing the article allowing for the death penalty for hudud offences, the new Penal Code came into force in January 2022.

The new language in the extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions resolution includes, for the first time, the right to freedom of religion or belief; creating visibility for victims of apostasy and blasphemy laws in the preambular paragraph. The language is as follows, “voicing concern about acts that can amount to extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions committed against persons exercising their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief and against human rights defenders in all regions of the world.” [our emphasis]. 

With regards to the moratorium on the death penalty resolution which received additional six votes in favour of the resolution including the new language, included in the operative paragraphs, a call on States to ensure the death penalty is, “not applied on the basis of discriminatory laws, including laws which target individuals for exercising their human rights.” 

The recommendation by civil society to repeal the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy draws its legitimacy from the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief’s thematic report recommendation to take a “triage-based approach” in efforts to work for the repeal of anti-apostasy and anti-blasphemy laws noting that, “Repealing those laws that put lives at risk must be given the highest priority,” and that where “domestic laws provide for the death penalty for religious offence, it is more likely that the existence of such laws will encourage vigilante mobs or zealots to murder those alleged to have violated those laws.” The Moratorium on the use of the death penalty: report of the Secretary General also supports the language noting that, “The death penalty should never be imposed as a sanction for non-violent conduct such as apostasy, blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery and same-sex relations.”

“This is a huge answer to prayer […] We would like to thank Costa Rica and Australia for including the specific language in the resolution on the moratorium on the death penalty in support of the right to life, so people never again be sentenced to death for their faith and peaceful manifestations thereof,” Executive Director of Jubilee Campaign, Ann Buwalda.

Attorney and Legal Counsel Kola Alapinni also welcomed the language in the moratorium resolution. Kola Alapinni and his legal team are currently challenging the constitutionality of the sharia law in the 12 Northern states,  which includes punishments which violate basic human rights, such as the death penalty for blasphemy. He shared during a press briefing in New York in the lead up to the vote, why: “The Constitution [of Nigeria] is the grundnorm and it does not support the chopping of limbs of people for theft, stoning people to death for adultery or marriage of minors to middle-aged men or old men under the guise of religion. This is the major reason we are challenging the Islamic/Sharia Law and more importantly the so-called ‘blasphemy law’ in Nigeria. This why I signed the Charter. This is the reason for seeking support and calling for the language to be embedded in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions.” 

In the lead up to the votes on the language both the EU, the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance and a cross-regional group released strong statements with regards to the repeal of apostasy and blasphemy laws.

Australia who were the penholders of the moratorium resolution together with Costa Rica have been advocating for the repeal of the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy specifically, in addition to the global moratorium. In March 2021 Australia delivered a joint oral statement in March 2021, together with 50 other countries, in conjunction with the Human Rights Council; the issuing of the Killing in the Name of God Monash University report on state-sanctioned killings of freedom of religion or belief, released in October 2021 and subsequently co-sponsoring a side-event on this topic together with seven other countries at the Human Rights Council in 2022 and finally sponsoring the International Religious Freedom of Belief statement reiterating its commitments to the work to repeal the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy and the Moratorium resolution. 

There is a growing movement of cross-regional and multi-faith advocacy calling out the continued existence and application of the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy and the mob violence that often follows closely with the existence of these laws in different forum and avenues. Muslims for Progressive Values for example is working on the education aspect.

(pictured: IRF Summit Global Campaign team who visited UN New York in September 2022 to appeal on UN member states to include the language – Dr. Christine Sequenzia Titus, Co-Chair IRF GC Eliminate B+A laws; Soraya Deen – Muslim Women Speakers, and Interfaith Solidarity Network; Kola Alapinni – Nigerian International Human Rights Lawyer; Ayodele Ganiu – Executive Producer Unchained Vibes Africa; Richard Horowitz – International lawyer; Rev. Devlin; Se Hoon Kim).