Benedict Rogers suggests ways the Conservatives can put religious freedom – including the right to disbelieve - at the heart of foreign policy
Scenes of Christians and Yazidis fleeing Iraq have illustrated stark and graphic headlines in recent months. Rarely has there been a time when freedom of religion as a basic human right has been more severely violated, and when a coherent response from the international community to protect this right more desperately needed.
Yet Iraq is the tip of the iceberg. Freedom of religion or belief, as it is set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is denied, restricted or threatened in almost every corner of the globe, affecting every religion somewhere. Article 18 is not only a universal human right: it is a human right that is violated universally. Whether it is Christians from the Middle East or Nigeria, Eritrea or North Korea, China or Cuba, Sudan or Vietnam, or whether Muslims in Burma, China and Sri Lanka, Buddhists in Tibet, Baha’is in Iran, or non-Sunni Muslim minorities such as the Shi’a or the Ahmadiyya, who suffer alongside Christians in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, according to the Pew Forum, 75% of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.
Furthermore, it is not simply religious adherents who are affected. Article 18 is sometimes thought of, wrongly, as a human right for ‘religious people’ and of little concern to others. But Article 18 protects the freedom to ‘not believe’ too. And so when atheists are arrested, jailed, tortured, persecuted, as they have been in places such as Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria, that ought to concern us too. I visited a young man, Alexander Aan, in prison in Indonesia twice. He was jailed not because of his religious beliefs, but because he declared, on social media, that he had none.
What should a Conservative government do to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief?
It is fair to say that the current Coalition Government has already done more than any previous government to give profile and attention to freedom of religion or belief. It became one of the government’s six human rights priorities. Two successive Ministers, Alistair Burt and Baroness Warsi, made it their own personal priority and championed the issue energetically. Britain began to co-ordinate efforts with counter-parts in Canada, which has an Office of Religious Freedom and an Ambassador-at-Large, and with the United States, which has both a State Department Office of International Religious Freedom led by an Ambassador-at-Large, and a US Commission on International Religious Freedom, mandated by Congress. Several conferences were held on the theme at Wilton Park, the Sussex country house loosely affiliated with the Foreign Office, and Baroness Warsi delivered a key speech at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She also established an Advisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, bringing in experts from civil society and human rights organisations. The FCO introduced a toolkit on freedom of religion or belief. The Prime Minister, too, has made speeches on the subject, most notably to a gathering of Christian leaders at Easter this year.
Others have also helped give the issue profile. HRH The Prince of Wales delivered an excellent speech in December last year. Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury have been outspoken, as has the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks. Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has begun to engage with the issue too, writing a powerful article in The Daily Telegraph just before Christmas and speaking on the subject to Christians on the Left this summer. The work of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief has increased awareness of the issue in Parliament.
What more can be done?
First, since the departure of Alistair Burt and Sayeeda Warsi, and William Hague who pledged to put human rights “at the very heart” of foreign policy, there is concern that momentum and profile could be lost. As with all issues, much depends on the personal commitment of individual Ministers and officials. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, should make a speech on the issue soon, to indicate continuing commitment to freedom of religion or belief as a priority.
Second, because so much currently depends on personal commitment (and if a Minister changes, momentum can be lost), the Prime Minister should appoint a Special Envoy on international freedom of religion or belief to coordinate efforts across government. There are now special envoys on a whole range of themes and countries, so why not freedom of religion?
Third, as Lord Cormack proposed in a recent debate on this very topic in the House of Lords on 24 July, the government should convene a global summit on freedom of religion. They recently held one on sexual violence in conflict, and another on female genital mutilation. Given that, as Lord Cormack says, religious persecution “is a terrible problem because the future of civilisation – no less – is at stake”, why not hold a global summit to co-ordinate efforts and highlight the scale of the issues?
Fourth, while aid should never be held ransom in a way that harms those in direct need, questions should be asked about how our aid is used. I don’t believe humanitarian aid should be denied to people whose governments violate freedom of religion. But it would only be sensible to monitor the use of government-to-government support, to ensure that British taxpayers’ money is not being used, for example, in education curricula that teach hatred in madrassas in Pakistan. Aid should also be deployed positively and consciously to promote freedom of religion and inter-religious harmony, by funding civil society initiatives in countries of persecution.
There is much more that could be done, but these four areas would be a good start for the next Conservative government, and would build on the foundations laid in the past five years. I hope that the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s two reports will be read and implemented, that the House of Lords debate on 24 July, and other debates in both Houses over the past twelve months, will be studied, and that a Conservative government will make freedom of religion an even greater priority in the future.
Benedict Rogers works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organisation specialising in freedom of religion or belief for all, and is a cofounder and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.