UN Special Rapporteur: Freedom of thought increasingly violated worldwide

Authored by, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, " The Freedom of Thought" report examines the theoretical scope of freedom of thought, potential violations and its relationship with other rights.

Authored by, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, “The Freedom of Thought” report examines the theoretical scope of freedom of thought, potential violations and its relationship with other rights.

The Special Rapporteur makes key recommendations to multilateral organizations, State and various non-State actors on how to respect, protect and fulfil freedom of thought, protected by article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Particularly, he encourages the UN human rights system to further clarify this freedom’s scope and content, including through a General Comment. In the report, it is stated that the report “does not conclusively resolve debates over what constitutes ‘thought’ or ‘freedom of thought,’ but rather is the first attempt to comprehensively articulate the right’s content and scope in the United Nations (UN) system. “

Drawing on international jurisprudence, scholarship and the perspectives of diverse stakeholders, the Special Rapporteur first examines four proposed attributes of this right:

  • Freedom not to disclose one’s thoughts;
  • freedom from punishment for one’s thoughts;
  • freedom from impermissible alteration of one’s thoughts;
  • an enabling environment for freedom of thought.

Second, the Special Rapporteur examines potential violations of the right across seven diverse fields:

  • Torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  • Surveillance;
  • coercive proselytism, anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy efforts;
  • intellectual freedom and education;
  • existing and emerging technologies;
  • mental health;
  • conversion practices.

Shaheed states that freedom of thought is simultaneously “profound and far-reaching.” He emphasizes that, this freedom protects thoughts about conscience, religion or belief as well as all thoughts on other topics. In addition, he states that it protects individual’s beliefs, opinions and expressions, whether they are expressed or not. Freedom of thought also includes thoughts within a religion/belief and non-religious thoughts. The Special Rapporteur notes that infringements on the right could have chilling effect upon expression and vice versa.

The report finds that “this important but poorly understood right” faces current and emerging pressures, the full implications of which are still unclear, and that policymakers and other actors urgently need to take action to protect the right. Furthermore, it is noted that, there are various obstacles to the protection of the right in practice, including the lack of international jurisprudence, so that it can be defined as “the only human right that has no real application”.

Some of the recommendations in the report to various State and non-State actors are as follows:

  • For States as duty-bearers and individuals as rights-holders, further clarity on the legal content and scope of freedom of thought is desirable in helping to respect, promote and fulfil this fundamental right. This report contributes to this continuing conversation, rather than marking its conclusion. To this end, the UN human rights system is encouraged to further engage this topic, including by adopting a General Comment.


  • To review their legal and policy frameworks to ensure compliance with international human rights law, including rights that may affect one’s freedom of thought, such as the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; freedom of opinion and expression, including access to information and communication; the right to privacy; and the right to health;
  • to invite relevant stakeholders – including National Human Rights Institutions, civil society (including leaders of all faiths and none), mental health practitioners, digital technology companies and members of vulnerable groups – to participate in public consultations that canvass their views and concerns about protections for forum internum freedoms, including freedom of thought;
  • to engage with the UN human rights system where appropriate in helping to clarify the legal content and scope of freedom of thought.
  • to consider capabilities of existing and emerging technologies to violate freedom of thought, and either adopt or update legal and policy safeguards to this end;
  • to support National Human Rights Institutions, civil society actors and human rights defenders in their efforts to monitor and report on purported violations of freedom of thought;
  • to provide public education that facilitates one’s access to information and communication and that, consistent with principles of freedom of enquiry and academic freedom, utilises evidence-based reasoning, science, culture and an environment free from proselytism;
  • to support a diverse and pluralistic media to provide access to different sources of information and means of communication, including via a free and open Internet.

Civil society:

  • To advocate for States to review their legislation, practices and policies with the aim of increasing compliance with international human rights law, including existing obligations that could affect freedom of thought;
  • where possible, they could deliver trainings that develop one’s critical thinking skills, especially for children, such as how to identify mis/disinformation.

Mental health professionals:

  • to firmly establish human rights as core values when prioritizing mental health interventions, including in relation to forced treatment.

Technology companies:

  • to consider how and to what extent their existing and emerging products, services or features might violate freedom of thought, including in the hands of third parties, particularly assessing any impacts on uniquely affected groups, such as children, as part of their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  • accordingly, to adopt more human rights-compliant alternatives;
  • to regularly publish transparency reports that outline their challenges faced for compliance with freedom of thought, and subsequent responses taken. For digital platforms, responses may encompass efforts to mitigate mis/disinformation, provide detailed information to users on how and why content curation occurs and enable users to tailor their online experiences; and develop and integrate “differential privacy” or other privacy minded systems into their algorithms;
  • Digital platforms should facilitate independent research on their products and processes’ human rights compliance, such as facilitating independent actors to conduct public human rights impact assessments;
  • Neurotechnology companies should ensure a robust, privacy-focused and human rights-compliant framework for collection, processing, and storage of neuro-data. Consistent with privacy, informed consent must lie at the heart of neuro-data collection and the participant must be able to revoke and delete their stored data at any time. Where possible, raw data should be processed “on-device” and not uploaded to company or third-party servers.

Please click here to access the full report.

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