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Ask Gary 1 – What is Humanists International?


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/08/07

Gary McLelland is the Chief Executive of Humanists International: “Gary joined Humanists International in February 2017. Before this he worked for the Humanist Society Scotland since 2013 as Head of Communications and Public Affairs. He has also previously served as a Board member of the European Humanist Federation based in Brussels, as well as a board member of the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education. Before working in Humanist campaigning, Gary worked for a global citizenship project at the Mercy Corps European headquarters in Edinburgh, and also in policy and service delivery in education and social work. He has a BSc (hons) in psychology, a diploma in childhood and youth studies and master’s in human rights law, in which he researched the approach of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations’ approach to so-called ‘blasphemy laws’.”

Here we talk about the #HumanistsAtRisk campaign, #EndBlasphemyLaws campaign, and the annual report.

*Interview conducted on August 7, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You are the Chief Executive for Humanists International, formerly International Humanist and Ethical Union, which is a major international humanist body. E talk about the Humanists At Risk campaign, the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, and the annual report. All three are touchstones and important for an international secular community. What is the Humanists At Risk campaign?

Gary McLelland: Thank you, Scott, the Humanists At Risk campaign is something that we launched in 2017. At that time, we were receiving an increasing number of requests from humanists and atheists around the world who were looking to relocate through letters of support for asylum to national authorities, or money support. Over the years, the number of requests have gone up over the years. The number of requests that we have received have gone up every year. To the end of 2019, we received about 96 requests.

As of this year, we’ve received – 2020 – over 100 already. That’s more than double in the space of the year. Over 2020, we have been able to hire a full time Humanists At Risk Coordinator. Her name is Emma Wadsworth-Jones. She’s fantastic. She joined us from PEN International, the writer’s charity, where she ran the Writer’s At Risk program. She has a lot of experience in helping people targeted for artistic expression

Often, those people are the same s humanists. There is an overlapping Venn diagram of human rights campaigns with an intersect with humanist campaigner, LGBT campaigner, democratic rights campaigner, artistic expression campaigner. If you understand the values underpinning humanism, it isk not a surprise that this is the case. Emma brings a wealth of experience. Overt he past few months since she started, we have instituted guidelines and rank the level of urgency of cases.

Even with saying what I’ve said, we are still a small organization with 8u members in the staff. It is difficult to maintain. We don’t ave that much money. Our annual budget is under half of a million U.S. dollars per year. It is hard to prioritize the monies. It means saying, “No,” which is not easy sometimes. We published an article on the Humanists International website today about how we provide the support and a breakdown of the ages and locations of the people and the countries that they come from.

It is something that we have been doing. We have been working with a range of partners behind the scenes. We have been looking to introduce a trusted partners scheme to flag individual cases and governments, and NGOs, to fast-track them for funding. Hopefully, this will help us to get them the help that they need.

One of the ones that I worth mentioning is the emblematic case of Mubarak Bala, the President of the Humanists Association of Nigeria. He was detained on the 28th of April. Yesterday, on the 6th of August, he has been detained for 100 days without trial, without charge, or contact for the lawyer, in spite of a  court instruction or court order for the lawyer to have access. It is still not being granted by the police.

That is still emblematic of what we’re dealing with. It is important that Mubarak’s case is getting the attention. But it is still not enough. We have 100 or more cases without nearly this attention. As you know, there are also many cases that we can’t talk about; there are so many amazingly brave people in very brave circumstances that we know about but can’t talk about, because this would put them more at risk to be affiliated with an organization like ours.

It’s heartbreaking. There are some times that you make good progress on cases. This is one of the more difficult cases of the work for sure.

Jacobsen: Some of them get into trouble for particular reasons. This leads to the next campaign. What is the End Blasphemy Laws campaign?

McLelland: So, the End Blasphemy Laws campaign is a coalition that we lead and started back in 2015. Humanist Canada was one of the founding members of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign. It is a global coalition of humanist and other organizations. It comes together on this single issue of blasphemy laws and tries to make the coherent and easy argument: Blasphemy laws in themselves as bad, inherently bad, and don’t make sense, are inconsistent with principles of free speech and critical inquiry. Often, they are used in a discriminatory way against people who are minorities including humanists, atheists, and minority religious beliefs.

Ahmadiyya Muslims, Christians in Pakistan, etc., we have had charges of blasphemy against ex-Muslims in Britain. There was a case in Britain. But it has been repealed in Britain, as in Canada. As it was, it was understood to only apply to the Church of England or the majority historical religion, as it is around the world. It is meant to protect “incumbent interests” [Laughing].

This is a number of problems. One of them you’ve noted, which is humanist campaigners whose inherent expression and values can seem blasphemous. But also, it is for people who are progressive reformers within religious groups. Their views can be seen as heretical or beyond the pale, according to orthodox religious beliefs. That’s very dangerous, but very dangerous in a different category than atheists and humanists expressing themselves because we know that big ideas like religion.

They only reform and liberalize, and move forward, because of the courage of individuals to speak out and question taboos and orthodoxies. History is littered with victims who tried to do that in the past to varying levels of success. Blasphemy laws are a blockage in that process of group questioning and openness in ideology. That’s the End Blasphemy Laws campaign. It has a more succinct page, much more succinct than my explanation.

What we do, on that website, we record every country that had a blasphemy law at 2015 or onwards and every country that has repealed its blasphemy law in 2015 or onwards. You’ll see a colour coded map of green and then varying darknesses of red, according to whether it has been repealed and the harshness of the punishments up to 8 countries in which it is a capital offense. That is the End Blasphemy Laws campaigns as a coalition founded in 2015 with mainly humanist organizations.

We have updated it, added some new branding. What we’re doing at the moment is contacting other NGOs, even religious organizations, we have an idea that we want to make this idea much more broad-based. We genuinely think that the issue of blasphemy is one that can unite basically every right-thinking person. There’s no reason.

I should state. Many rights organizations are against blasphemy laws. Most religious organizations that I’ve spoken to realize that when they’re in the minority; they’re against blasphemy laws. As I said, sometimes, the majority or incumbent position make it more difficult. Especially in Western countries, when religion is becoming less and less influential, they see their trappings of establishment and state support as something that they need to hold onto in a defensive way.

However, the Church of England will support the right of Christians in Pakistan to practice without fear of blasphemy accusations. Of course, they will, and so on and so forth. We’re trying to appeal to religious NGOs to join our campaign to eliminate blasphemy laws.

Jacobsen: Lastly, the annual report, what can we expect?

McLelland: Yes, our annual report is strange because we run our reporting years January to December, which is not unusual. However, our AGM is held at various times throughout the year, not at a regular time each year, because we move the AGM around the world. You have hemispheric differences and cultural differences, etc. The AGM floats around the year from March to November. [Laughing] So, since we’re having a late AGM this year, it means that probably some time in August or September; we’re going to publish the 2019 report.

It is going to look very out of date. However, this year’s repot will look at humanists at risk because, partly, the reviewing and recapping the year of 2019. One of the big things for me, personally, and for the organization was the persecution of Gulalai Ismail who is one of our board members. She was detained in October 2018 on her way home from a board meeting in London. It will always strike me as one of the weird moments in life.

We had been out for dinner in London, trendy nice place. We had a nice dinner and three days of very intense discussions at the board meeting, enjoying and relaxing conversation. Gulalai is my friend. To get the call on the Monday/Tuesday morning on WhatsApp, she was being detained by the Pakistani intelligence services. I received a bunch of rambling calls and then some voice notes that she had been recording secretly under the desk when she was being interrogated.

From that point on, it was incommunicado for almost a year. That was a very difficult moment because I think it was the juxtaposition from being out and enjoying a meal in London to a few days later being detained without any information by the authorities in Pakistan. It was very, very difficult. Everyone in the organization was working incredibly hard alongside other organizations to get contacts, briefing people, and getting people in government to give statements of support.

In December of 2019, she made it safely to the U.S., where she claimed asylum. It was an incredible thing. However, that was an experience for us. It made us realize that if we are going to support humanists at risk like Gulalai or Mubarak; we need to do it seriously, because, in the past, the support was provided on an ad hoc basis

It was staff working on this as an adjunct to their workday rather than dedicated staff positions. One downside is lacking a development of specialized skills. People asked for legal advice. We were anxious to give legal advice to people in those dire legal circumstances because you want to make sure that it is correct. We decided in 2018 to make more support for it, which is the reason fro more funding and staff. 2018 made us aware of it.

It precipitated a bit of the moving around of the staff and some of the things to make this position possible. That’s one thing. Another thing, in 2019, we reported a 79% increase in our financial income based on 2018, which is quite a significant one. As an organization and as a movement, we are doing a lot of really good work to stabilize and grow our financial position and to professionalize. This is really good. At the same time, we have managed to more than 10x increase the amount given in growth and development.

We managed to give out around 10,000 pounds in 2018. In 2019, we gave out more than 100,000 pounds. This is wholly in grants, not staff costs. We talking about monies given to other organizations from us for capacity building and other things. With a small budget, we have been able to squeeze a lot of good outcomes out of it.

Of course, I hope this report will reassure members that we are spending their money in the best way that we can, like development agencies or government agencies, that Humanists International is an organization doing good work to protect human rights defenders and protect good liberal values as well as being an organization that they can partner with or fund.

So, that’s my advertisement.

Jacobsen: Gary, thank you.

McLelland: My pleasure.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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