Humanists stand for Human Rights

Humanist critical thinking and the Enlightenment movement had a direct impact on the first Human Rights declarations of the 18th century. 

Today, the EHF is deeply committed to the defense and the promotion of Human Rights and non-discrimination and is involved in various international organisations : the European Union Institutions, the Fundamental Rights Agency, the Council of Europe, the Lisbon Forum and the OSCE (in particular in its Human Dimension meetings).

We regularly refer to the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, the two 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and on Social and Cultural rights, the 1955 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and to many other international instruments.

Our objective is to ensure that the legislations taken at the European level advance new rights for people but also to secure the rights we already have. In this work, we often face extremist religious groups which regularly attempt to hijack Human Rights in order to advance hard-line agendas based on extreme interpretations of religious doctrine.

These groups have a long record of manipulation, presenting themselves in a very deceptive way, using pseudo-scientific arguments, twisting legal instruments and manipulating Human Rights concepts – such as religious freedom, the right to life, human dignity and conscientious objection – to their benefit. The EHF, together with progressive partner organisations, opposes this agenda in various fora.


Freedom of religion and belief

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief (FoRB) is a fundamental right of every human being. As a universal human right, freedom of religion or belief safeguards respect for diversity. It includes the right to change or leave one’s religion or belief, as well as the right to hold no religion or not to believe. Freedom of religion or belief applies to individuals, as right-holders.

While the right to hold – or indeed not hold – a religion or belief is absolute, the right to manifest religion or belief is not. It may be subject to limitations provided that they are prescribed by law, are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others (article 9 of the ECHR).

The EHF defends the right to FoRB without any discrimination but opposes the use of FoRB by certain religious groups to claim exemption from the law. For example, for the EHF, civil servants or other officials cannot refuse to perform same-sex marriage where it is legal, even though it would be against their personal religion or beliefs.


Freedom of expression

Of particular importance to us as secularists and humanists is Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees freedom of religion or belief – including freedom to reject religion, to change one's beliefs and to adopt non-religious beliefs.

The EHF values freedom of expression as fundamental in democracy. It is protected by all major international Human Rights instruments and the European Court of Human Rights has repeated on numerous occasions that it extends to ideas that “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”. It can only be limited in very restrictive circumstances such as, for instance, incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence.

Human Rights protect individuals and not ideas or religions as such. The EHF pays a special attention to the defense of freedom of expression and therefore opposes blasphemy laws and resolutions against the so-called “defamation of religions”. While promoting respect and tolerance, the EHF holds the view that the right to freedom of religion or belief does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.

Equality law and non discrimination

The EHF rejects any form of discriminations based on grounds such as religion or belief, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race or ethnic orgin, etc. 

It therefore supports anti-discriminations legislations as a necessary – though not sufficient – tool to combat discriminations.

The principle of non-discrimination in employment, occupation and training has been given the force of law in the EU by Council Directive of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. This covers discrimination based on religion or belief but sadly permits states to introduce rather wide exemptions for religious organisations. 

The EHF is concerned by situations in Europe where churches or churches-related organisations have interpreted very extensively the exemptions set forth in the EU equality directives, thereby effectively discriminating against, for instance, divorced or LGBT employees.

Non-discrimination in other areas, such as the provision of goods, facilities or services, has been addressed by the EU, with a draft directive published in July 2008, although some states (e.g., the United Kingdom) have already legislated. But the adoption of this directive has been blocked in the Council since 2008 despite repeated calls from many NGOs including EHF.

Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights concerns the elimination of inappropriate discrimination, including that based on religion or belief, although regrettably it is not a freestanding right but applies only in conjunction with the substantive rights set out in earlier Articles.



Sexual and reproductive health and rights 

Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) were discussed at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) held in Beijing.

SRHR belong to Human Rights and the EHF is committed to defend them, in particular for women. EHF believes that women have a fundamental right to choice in reproductive matters. Thus the EHF promotes the right to contraception, to safe abortion and to adapted sexual education, including for minors.

Abortion is a fundamental right for women

As humanists, we believe that the right to be the master of one’s own body is a fundamental human right and women should therefore be allowed to decide whether or not to continue with a pregnancy.

Abortion is already legal in many European Union member states but some countries still impose tight restrictions on this fundamental right under the influence of conservative religious principles. For instance, in Ireland, abortion is illegal unless it is proved that the pregnancy will endanger the woman's health. In Cyprus, it is illegal except in case of rape or for medical reasons. In Malta, it is illegal except in cases of rape or fetal abnormality. In Poland, it is illegal except in cases of rape, fetal abnormality or for medical reasons.

We believe that these reactionary laws must be changed because they can create tragic situations and are an offence to women’s free choice.  We have frequently stood up for women’s rights in our campaigning.

The EHF has worked hard at the EU level to promote SRHR in Europe.

Abortion right and conscientious objection

Where abortion is legal, legislation should ensure that the right to conscientious objection does not limit the effective right of every woman to have access to a medical abortion service. Therefore, the State must ensure that : 

  •  â€‹an effective solution is available to address any refusal to procure an abortion;
  •  an
  •  obligation is imposed on every medical practitioner exercising his right to conscientious objection on grounds of religious duty to refer a woman seeking an abortion to another doctor who is willing to perform abortions
  •  a qualified practitioner who undertakes abortions is available, including in rural areas and places remote from urban centers. 
  •  conscientious objection remains an individual right and not an institutional one, i.e., an hospital cannot claim its right to conscientious objection to refuse performing abortions where it is legal. 

The EHF is a member of the Global Interfaith and Secular Alliance (GISA) working for reproductive and sexual health and rights. It is a coalition of faith-based and secular organisations from around the world working to counter religious extremist forces that seek to curtail global progress on SRHR.


The Right to Die in Dignity 

"Individuals should have the right, in agreed circumstances, to determine how and when they can seek assistance to die"

In common with the manifesto of the World Right to Die organisation EHF believes that the manner and time of dying should be a matter for the individual. The wish for dignity at the time of our death is a widespread human desire. 

In Europe, the Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and Swiss parliaments have already debated and introduced legislation that supports a right to assistance to die. Other parliaments, in France and the UK, are debating these matters.

Many individuals, and non-government organisations (including some religious bodies) in different European countries seek to establish the right to die with dignity. EHF seeks to support those individuals and specifically humanist and secularist organisations, by providing:

- information about existing schemes and links to the Right to Die movement;
- information about the different campaigns and strategies used by humanist and other organisations;
- links to  videos, people and other resources able to be used by national campaigns

The EHF has over the years issued a number of statements critical of the position of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and some of its members, calling on it to reconsider its restrictive position (see box).

EHF has developed its own policy statement on Voluntary Euthanasia and Assisted Dying : 

EHF supports both voluntary euthanasia and assisted dying.

  • The term euthanasia (literally "a good death") is generally used where a doctor administers a lethal substance. When the doctor's role is limited, for example to prescribing but not administering the lethal dose, the term assisted dying is generally used to describe the help provided.
  • Voluntary euthanasia and assisted dying embrace the notion that a mentally competent person can receive help to die, without that help being considered illegal.
  •  In both situations the person who wants to die must make it clear that they want help to die, either at the time of the request, or when a specified event is judged to have occurred (in the event of the person no longer having the mental capacity).

Humanists and Secularists support legal provision for voluntary euthanasia or assisted dying subject to necessary safeguards in circumstances where people are suffering unendurable pain or loss of faculties and there is no hope of cure or improvement.

In taking such a decision, one must take account of the effects the decision may have on others – which includes not just the burden that caring for them places on others but also the possibly devastating effect of their loss on close family and friends.

It can only be a highly personal decision but it is one people should be free to take, with safeguards to guard against real or imagined pressure from family and against the effects of clinical depression.

EHF believes that individuals should be able to receive help to die, on their request, [either] "if they experience" [or]  "in a number of situations, including but not limited to" :

  • a disease which will lead to death (terminal illness), and/or
  • an unendurable incapacitating disability (mental or physical), and/or
  • unbearable pain and/or
  • an irreversible loss of dignity (or the threat of it) (This would be for a doctor to determine in relation to a person with mental incapacity).

EHF believes there can be diversity about what assistance, and what methods may be provided to people receiving help to die. All such schemes should be regulated by government. EHF supports the development of palliative care; voluntary euthanasia or assisted dying should be a part of a comprehensive approach to support individuals facing death.

EHF supports the provision of safeguards, to protect both people wishing to die, and those providing assistance to die.

The safeguards for people receiving help to die should include:

  • help to enable them to cope with their problems if they prefer to continue living
  • access to advice and support independent of family, friends and associates;
  • clear procedures for confirming the wish to die;
  • opportunities to access alternative support in the event of their own doctor not wanting to participate in a scheme.

 The safeguards for people who are asked to provide assistance should include:

  • opportunities to withdraw from participation in a scheme, without consequence;
  • clear assurances of freedom from prosecution where a scheme's procedures have been followed.

EHF would want to see the a right to a death with dignity being recognised in both state and  European law particularly with regard to a Right to Respect Private Life, Article 8. [1]


From values to principles: why the Rule of Law matters

Humanism is a life-stance and as such it rests on a set of values, such as human dignity and the recognition of the inherent and intrinsic worth of the human personality, which allow human beings to lead a full and meaningful life. These values inspire humanists in their interpersonal relations and, more generally, in their behaviour towards other people as well as in their views on a just society.

However when dealing with public bodies, with governments or with international institutions, interpersonal values are too vague a reference to go by; hence common rules based on common language, agreed political principles and methods of governance become necessary. In Western Europe, the US [2] and elsewhere as well, the shared democratic principles and standards are enshrined in Human Rights and in the rule of law, both of which are whole-heartedly supported by humanists as they are acceptable to people from various and different life stances. Human Rights offer guidelines for a just society while democracy and the rule of law provide a framework for their fullest expression. Without the rule of law and democracy compliance with Human Rights and their realization cannot be guaranteed.

The rule of law is not a mere legal formality: it is an underlying constitutional principle requiring government to be conducted according to law and making all public officers answerable for their acts in the ordinary courts. Its full implementation ensures regularity and consistency in the achievement and enforcement of the democratic order. One essential for the rule of law is a strong and accountable judiciary which ensures the supremacy of the law and is independent of the legislative and executive arms of government. Another, in our representative democracies, is parliament, which is the main instrument of democratic control and political responsibility and plays a crucial role in ensuring the effective implementation of the rule of law and in reflecting as faithfully as possible the desire for a truly democratic political regime.

Not only does the rule of law require government to abide by the rules of national law but also by those of international law, in particular Human Rights law. Besides, the rule of law cannot be said to govern a society when Human Rights are not respected, for instance when groups of persons are discriminated against solely on the ground of sex or of political or religious beliefs. Nor is the rule of law upheld where entirely different legal systems are created for given groups of citizens. A secular state (in the sense of separation of religion and governance) may not be governed by the rule of law, but a society fully subject to the rule of law cannot but have secular institutions.

In her keynote address on “Why the Rule of Law Matters” delivered at the World Justice Forum in July 2008, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights said inter alia:

“The question for all of us is: what must we do to lock in adherence to rule of law and international Human Rights standards in all countries as the key to achieving peace and security in the 21st century?… We share the conviction that without the rule of law, government officials are not bound by agreed standards of conduct. We know that without the rule of law, the dignity and equality of all people is not affirmed, and their ability to seek redress for grievances and fulfilment of societal commitments is limited. We believe that without the rule of law, we have no way to ensure meaningful participation by people in formulating and enacting the norms and standards which organize society”.[3]

Democracy and the rule of law go hand in hand, but whereas no set of international laws defines what a democracy is, the rule of law rests on the concept of equality before the law for all human beings in their rights as well as in their duties and is supported by a long series of international treaties. It is a touchstone for the achievement of humanist values in the public square.

Most European states are members of the European Union, with which the EHF is much involved and which prides itself for being a community based on the rule of law [4] - although (as our campaigns demonstrate) it falls short of this ideal in many ways. All European states are members of the OSCE, which is a strenuous upholder of the rule of law. (It finds it difficult, however, to monitor its implementation, given that there is no theoretical standard of compliance to the rule of law and that governments are rarely keen to accept international supervision.) The active participation in OSCE of non-governmental organisations ready to denounce violations of Human Rights and fundamental freedoms, especially at the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), is seen as a positive contribution – albeit not by everybody – because it confirms the OSCE’s commitment to the defence of the rule of law.

EHF has taken an active part in HDIMs since 2005 and every year its representatives have denounced both church privileges and discrimination based on religious dogma which run counter the universal stance of humanism, but this is not enough any more.

EHF will in future use arguments based on the rule of law as a tool for empowerment in the struggle for the respect of Human Rights and for the separation of state and church. Speaking the agreed language which refers to generally espoused democratic principles should make the humanist message easier to understand both for EHF members and for the public at large.



[1]  The European Convention on Human Rights makes no specific reference to issues about a right to die, or a right to death with dignity. The European Court of Human Rights' decision in the case of Haas vs. Switzerland found  'In the light of this jurisdiction, the Court finds that the right of an individual how and when to end his life, provided that said individual was in a position to make up his own mind in that respect and to take the appropriate action, was one aspect of the right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the Convention'. The court did not consider that assistance to commit suicide was a part of this right.

[2]. Rule of law and due process are the bedrock upon which all American liberty and justice are based. Untold numbers of American and Englishmen in history have paid a dear price in effort, fortune, and even life itself, to bequeath to us the rule of law 

[3]. See here.

[4]. The preamble to the Lisbon Treaty includes: “DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”