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Freedom of thought increasingly violated worldwide, UN expert warns

NEW YORK (19 October 2021) – As new technologies are increasingly used to force people to reveal or alter their thoughts, a human rights expert has called on the United Nations to clarify the scope and content of the right to freedom of thought.

“Counter-terrorism measures, ‘re-education’ programmes, torture, forcible administration of psychoactive drugs, and other coercive mental health practices may be used without permission to alter people’s thoughts, or to force them to reveal their thoughts,” Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, told the UN General Assembly.

“Major developments in digital technology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology may have unprecedented consequences for the privacy and integrity of our thoughts,” he said as he presented his report on freedom of thought, which makes recommendations to multilateral, State and non-State actors on how to respect, protect and promote freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought is an absolute right that is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, alongside the distinct yet equal freedoms of conscience and religion or belief, Shaheed said.

“It is foundational for many other rights and it can be neither restricted nor derogated from, even during public emergencies, yet is a largely unexplored right,” he said. “I encourage the UN human rights system to further clarify the freedom’s scope and content.”

Freedom of thought “is not only imperative in one’s freedom to choose, develop or change convictions, but also fundamental in thinking on all matters independently of religion or belief systems,” said Shaheed.
ENDS

Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, took up his functions on 1 November 2016. He is Deputy Director of the Essex Human Rights Centre and Lecturer at the School of Law of the University of Essex
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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