This is a guest post by Gary McLelland, CEO of Humanists International.
Since 1952, Humanists International has been the global democratic body of the humanist (and broader non-religious) movement. Support and assistance to those in danger for their beliefs has always been part of our work in those seven decades, but in the last 10 years, the volume of requests we receive for advice, support, and signposting has increased rapidly.
As the number of requests for assistance has grown, we have consistently reviewed our strategy, policies, and practices related to this work. In 2016, we decided that supporting humanists at risk needed to be a new strategic priority for us. In 2019, our Board took the decision to create a new staff position: a full-time caseworker dedicated to the protection of individuals targeted for their non-theistic beliefs or promotion of humanist values.
As our own work has grown, we have become increasingly concerned with some of the practices of fundraising and campaigning on the individual cases of persecuted non-religious people outside of our organization, but within the broader humanist movement.
I want to outline our concerns and why what has been happening is so dangerous both to individuals and the movement as a whole.
This week we took the decision to publish an overview of our internal policies on how we support individuals at risk. The central principles being: verification, consent, coordination. Let’s go into each of those in more depth.
We work with our members, trusted contacts, and other organizations around the world and in-country to verify the identity and status of any individual, or groups of individuals, before we agree to provide any support. This can be a long, resource intensive — and often frustrating — process. Approximately 40% of requests will not progress past this stage.
Verifying a case allows us to make a considered judgment about what actions and support are appropriate. Unfortunately, in many of the cases of those who reach out to us, the nature of the persecution they face often means that it is very difficult to verify to the level necessary to satisfy our requirements for in-depth support (such as grants, letters of support for asylum claims, advocacy, and campaigning). In those cases, we are only able to provide advice and referrals to other organizations who may be able to help them locally. We also can connect them with like-minded individuals on the ground.
There have been examples of other organizations raising money without doing these checks. This past July, we were asked by an international atheist group to assist with the verification and support of an ex-Muslim who claimed to have been targeted after posting a video on social media. After several conversations with the organization and its volunteers, we conducted our own attempts at verification. We were unable to verify the case, and raised our concerns confidentially and respectfully with the Board of the organization. We were advised that the fundraising would cease and donors would be refunded.
As of late August the fundraiser page remains active. We cannot say with certainty whether this case is legitimate or not, but the lack of clarity and rigor, both public and private, is harmful to the cause of protecting humanists and other non-religious people who are at risk.
Consent to take action is a basic principle of best practice used by international human rights organizations across the globe. Obtaining consent ensures that we are doing the right thing and that we are not putting individuals at further risk.
In some cases, it may be dangerous for an individual to be publicly associated with a humanist or atheist organization.
Where we can’t get consent, because an individual, their family, or their lawyer is uncontactable, our procedure dictates that we must conduct a thorough risk assessment, which takes into special consideration the risk that our actions on an individual’s behalf might pose to them.
We are concerned by some evidence we see that certain organizations are proceeding with public campaigns and fundraising on behalf of individuals without seeking their consent and therefore putting them at risk. In December of 2019, we wrote to the same international atheist group, after they began a high-profile campaign in support of an individual who was arrested for “blasphemy.” Following our intervention and confirmation that the organization did not have consent to act on the individual’s behalf, the organization — thankfully — agreed to remove their posts.
It’s impossible to know what added risk being publicly associated with an atheist organization could pose to someone in that position, however, we can be sure that it is not in their best interests.
If an organization were to take up a case like this, it should only be done with the express consent of the individual, after having conducted a risk assessment, and most importantly with an agreement of confidentiality, both at the time and forever after. At Humanists International we have occasionally intervened in situations like this.
To our shock and surprise, it seems like this organization might be doing it again. There is now a public campaign and fundraiser for a Muslim individual convicted of blasphemy in Nigeria. Given that the individual is being held incommunicado and international agencies have not been able to contact him, nor his family or lawyers, we know that the organization has not obtained consent or agreement beforehand and continue to publicly campaign on the issue despite several warnings from us about the potential danger.
It’s also an unforced error given that larger and more experienced organizations are already involved.
This approach is dangerous. We are dealing with real human lives. While we understand the power of individual cases in campaigning and storytelling, an ethical approach to work with persecuted individuals has to include consent. It simply must.
As a global federation of over 120 organizations, most of our coordination efforts have been directed internally to our own networks. However, we are also a member of the EU Temporary Relocation Platform. That means we’re able to cooperate with organizations that run dedicated programs of support to human rights defenders at risk, including grants and short-term relocation programs.
It has been suggested that non-theist groups working in this area should cooperate with each other more often. While we will always prioritize the needs of the individuals we are assisting, we also have to weigh the serious negative consequences of working with organizations that don’t appear to have the same high standards that we aspire to achieve.
In light of this serious need, our Board has agreed that, outside of emergency situations and small ad-hoc measures, we will require a written agreement between the parties in order to have a more formal cooperation. It is the only way that we can be sure that our own standards will be met.
Our background in this work
In 2016, at our General Assembly in Malta, which focused on the European migration and refugee crisis, we undertook to further professionalize our ways of handling the requests for support that we were receiving from humanists at risk around the world.
In 2017, we began our annual Protect Humanists at Risk campaign. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the persecution faced by humanists, atheists, and non-religious people around the world — and to seek support to increase the resources available for those people.
This week we took the decision to publish an overview of our internal policies on how we support individuals at risk. Our internal policies, guidelines, and prioritization matrix are detailed and kept under constant review by our team, with regular oversight and scrutiny from our Board.
We take this work extremely seriously, and most of what we do is and will remain confidential, away from the spotlight of social media and journalists.
This year, the Board of Humanists International approved plans to make a serious investment in the work that we do to protect humanists at risk. Here are just some of the ways we are doing it:
1) We are aiming to ensure a quick response to all inquiries we receive from humanists at risk, aiming for a 24-hour response;
2) We have hired the world’s only full-time Humanists at Risk Coordinator, to effectively manage the response of our whole network in a coordinated way;
3) We have launched a brand new Humanists at Risk Report, which will highlight the growing body of evidence of discrimination against humanists and atheists.
I realize this post may cause some consternation. I recognize some parts of it appear vague. However, in recent weeks, we have been contacted by a range of members and supporters who have supported some of the fundraising initiatives mentioned above — the ones we believe are unsuitable — and they have been asking us why we didn’t warn them of our concerns.
The reason is that, fundamentally, we have no desire to criticize other organizations, especially if they belong to the wider humanist movement. Now, however, we do believe that we have raised our concerns in private, politely and discreetly, for long enough. Nothing seems to be changing. We feel duty-bound to publish those concerns here.
We do so openly and in good faith, not only with the desire that it will improve the quality of the support we can offer to our friends and colleagues, but also because we are afraid that these current poor practices risk undermining the goal we share — that is, to protect humanists at risk across the globe.
(Image via Shutterstock)