Experts from the United Nations (UN) have sent a letter to the Nigerian government raising concerns over the country's strict blasphemy laws. The letter is a result of appeals by religious freedom advocates, including ADF International, who say the laws are a violation of human rights, and are being used to increase persecution against Christians there.
It follows the murder of schoolgirl Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu (also known as Deborah Samuel Yakubu), who was attacked and set on fire by a mob of her classmates in May 2022, after sharing her Christian faith. The letter includes details of that attack and also calls on the Nigerian government to re-examine the decision to imprison Christian mother of five, Rhoda Jatau, who was jailed days after Deborah's death, for allegedly sharing a video on WhatsApp condemning the young girl's killing.
The letter from the UN experts to the Nigerian government states:
“Both cases appear to be related to the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and of freedom of opinion and expression. Both [Deborah and Rhoda] are members of a religious minority”.
The letter goes on to highlight the dangers of laws that seek to restrict religious belief, saying:
“Blasphemy laws have repeatedly been shown to violate freedom of religion and belief as well as have a stifling effect on open dialogue and public discourse... they often fuel stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination and incitement to violence.”
The five signatories are all experts in the area of human rights: Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Matthew Gillett, Vice-Chair on communications of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues.
The appeal was sent to the government in Lagos on 4 August 2023, but was only made public in early October, at the end of a 60-day confidentiality period in which the Nigerian government could respond. At the time of the publication of the UN experts’ communication, the Nigerian government had not provided a response to the letter.
According to ADF international, the Nigerian government could be in violation of its international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These rights include the right to non-discrimination; the right to life; the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, liberty and security of person; the right to a fair trial; the right to freedom of opinion and expression, equality before the law, and the rights of minorities.
Giorgio Mazzoli, Director of UN Advocacy for ADF International said :
“Blasphemy laws, in Nigeria and elsewhere around the world, stand in clear violation of international law. ADF International is committed to securing justice for Rhoda Jatau and continues to honour the memory of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, who died for being a peaceful witness to her Christian faith at the hands of an angry mob.
“Rhoda Jatau has been imprisoned and held incommunicado for nearly a year and a half. For allegedly sharing a video on WhatsApp condemning the murder of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, her most basic human rights have been violated. We are hopeful that international advocacy efforts, including this letter from UN experts to the government of Nigeria, will secure the release of Rhoda, and pave the way for the abolition of blasphemy laws in the country”.
In response to the letter, Joseph Danboyi, ADF International allied lawyer and lead counsel for Rhoda Jatau’s case, said “We are grateful that the international community is raising their concerns over Rhoda Jatau’s case. The case against her is unjust, and we hope and pray that she will be released soon. Please continue to speak out on Rhoda’s behalf and pray for her and all Christians in Nigeria”.
The UN letter comes in response to appeals from ADF International, Christian Solidarity International, and Jubilee Campaign. Last year religious freedom campaigners in the United States appealed to the Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, asking for Nigeria to be put back on the list of 'Countries of Particular Concern' (CPCs), held by the US State Department. Nigeria is currently sixth on the World Watch List compiled annually by the charity Open Doors, of countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution.