Delegation of the European Union
to the United Nations - New York

Event: Freedom of Thought – The Forgotten Freedom that we need to remember

18/10/2021 - 16:16

21 October 2021 - Event on Freedom of Thought

Thursday 21st October 2021, 12.30-13.45 EDT/18.30 - 19.45 CET

Virtual Event


On Tuesday 19 October 2021, the United Nations (“UN”) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, will present his report to the UN General Assembly on “Freedom of Thought” as protected in Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Many consider that “freedom of thought” is not only essential for our very dignity, agency, and existence as human beings, but also foundational for the enjoyment of other universal human rights. Yet few understand what the right protects in practice. And stakeholders increasingly contend that freedom of thought of individuals worldwide is under threat. In their opinion, developments in digital technology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology could infringe our mental privacy and might be capable of changing how we think, feel, and behave. It is reported that State and non-State actors already use problematic practices to attempt to access rights-holders’ thoughts, punish them for holding certain thoughts and even impermissibly alter their thoughts.

The Special Rapporteur considers that freedom of thought stands ready to rise to the complex challenges of the 21st century and beyond. However, to safeguard this fundamental right, he recognises that we first must understand it and dedicates his report to mapping its scope and content, including what constitutes “thought.” Freedom of thought is an absolute right that falls within one’s forum internum (inner mind), protects “thought on all matters” and potentially has four distinct elements.

In the contemporary age of disinformation and practices such as microtargeting on digital platforms, subtly influencing our choices, preferences and even thoughts, many stakeholders raise concerns for our intellectual freedom. Reportedly, re-education programmes, torture, coercive proselytism, anti-conversion measures and anti-blasphemy efforts, conversion practices, and involuntary treatment for mental health could also affect freedom of thought. Drug liberalisation advocates further contend that access to mind-altering drugs is essential for their cognitive liberty.

Across these several diverse and occasionally intersecting fields, the Special Rapporteur has mapped key trends and isolated incidents where State or non-State policies or practices could potentially violate freedom of thought. He further considers the relationship between freedom of thought and other rights. Notably, the Special Rapporteur observes that freedom of thought is imperative for freedom within religion or belief (i.e., to choose, exercise and convert religion or belief), in addition to freedom from religion in thinking freely on all matters without the influence of religion or belief systems.

To inform the present report, the Special Rapporteur held 7 online round-table consultations, 11 online bilateral meetings and received and reviewed 68 submissions in response to his call for submissions, thereby engaging key stakeholders from all 5 geographical regions. Reflecting diverse and multi-faceted interests in freedom of thought, participants included human rights defenders; civil society; psychologists; neuroscientists; policymakers; academics; digital technology companies; inter-governmental and international organisations; and States.

While this report does not resolve what constitutes “freedom of thought,” it aims to provide practical guidance on how to better safeguard this universal right. To this end, the Special Rapporteur makes key recommendations to the UN, States, and various non-State actors – including civil society, mental health professionals and technology companies – on how to respect, protect and fulfil freedom of thought. 


Moderator Dr Christine Ryan, Senior Legal Advisor for UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

12.30 – 13.15 Panel discussion

  • Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
  • Christoph Bublitz, Professor, University of Hamburg
  • Professor Nita Farahany Professor of Law & Philosophy, Duke University
  • Elizabeth O'Casey, Director of Advocacy, Humanists International
  • Professor Wayne Martin, Director of The Essex autonomy project, University of Essex


13.15 – 13.35 Interventions from the ‘floor’

13.35 – 13.45 Closing Remarks