With a Conservative majority government in place for the next five years we won’t need to worry about any potential reforms to House of Lords for the time being. And perhaps that is a good thing. When considering the role of the UK government in promoting freedom of religion, it is doubtful that an elected Upper House would have brought us the same level of passion and knowledge as peers did when the subject was debated last week. It came as a response to Lord Alton’s motion: ‘That this House takes note of worldwide violations of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the case for greater priority to be given by the United Kingdom and the international community to upholding freedom of religion and belief.’
It goes without saying that human rights abuses relating to religious persecution are widespread throughout the world and on the increase. Even today, Asia Bibi, who has been beaten and raped during her six years on death row in Pakistan, will have one last opportunity to plead for her life to be spared. Her crime, as a Christian, was drinking water from the same bowl as her Muslim co-workers. During the ensuing argument she was accused of blasphemy against the prophet Mohammad, which led to her arrest and conviction. There is an overwhelming need for governments across the free and democratic world to take a stand and defend the basic human right that Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting committee, described as one of the four essential freedoms of mankind.
The Lords’ debate has been helpfully summarised by Frank Cranmer at the ever informative ‘Law and Religion’ blog, but several utterances deserve further attention. Lord Alton argued that in order for governments to reclaim their patrimony of Article 18, it would need greater political and diplomatic priority, and the importance of religious literacy as a competence could not be neglected. He went on to quote the BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, who said: “If you don’t understand religion — including the abuse of religion — it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world.” He then drew attention to the paucity of interest in the matter at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), with only one full-time desk officer dedicated to freedom of religion or belief.
Rabbi Lord Sacks described religious freedom as “perhaps the single greatest humanitarian issue of our time”. He was keen, though, to avoid rhetoric, preferring instead to look for pragmatic answers to avoid Article 18 being seen as as little more than “a utopian ideal”. He proposed that the world needs:
Under the auspices of the United Nations, a global gathering of religious leaders and thinkers to formulate an agreed set of principles that are sustainable theologically within their respective faiths and on which member nations can be called to account… We have not yet done the theological work for a global society in the information age, and not all religions in the world are yet fully part of that conversation. But if we neglect the theology, all else will fail… We must stand together – the people of all faiths and of none – for we are all at risk… Religious freedom is about our common humanity, and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was also keen to look for solutions:
Religious freedom is threatened on a global scale, as we have heard, but also in a very complex way. Attacks on religious freedom are often linked to economic circumstances, to sociology, to history and to many other factors. Practically, if we are to defend religious liberty, we have to draw in these other factors. For example, if we want to defend religious freedom around the world – and again I say, the freedom to have no religion – do not sell guns to people who oppress religious freedom; do not launder their money; restrict trade with them; confine the way in which we deal with them; and, above, all, speak frankly and openly, naming them for what they are.
After two and a half hours of speeches the motion was passed. Such a debate was significant in proving that Parliament has this issue on its mind and is making some positive noises. But without more substantive action from government, it will all count for very little. In their 2015 General Election manifestos, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats proposed the creation of a Global Ambassador for Religious Freedom to work within the FCO. It seemed a sensible proposal, but would that be the best way of ensuring that HM Government does not duck its responsibilities on the issue?
The newly created Centre on Religion and Global Affairs – a research and policy centre based in London, Beirut and Accra – has responded to the Lords’ debate. It believes that a special envoy that exclusively focuses on freedom of religious belief is not the way forward. Their view is that in other countries such appointments have yielded limited results. Instead, they propose the appointment a full-time Special Advisor to the government on Religion and Global Affairs. The advisor would be given a mandate to provide proactive policy proposals across Whitehall departments, in particular the FCO, Department for International Development, Home Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. Only a coordinated response across government departments will enable the UK to achieve the necessary understanding and enable a coherent and effective response to the issues. The role should not be seen as an interfaith outreach initiative, or a symbolic office for public diplomacy.
Alongside this Special Advisor, a group of external experts would be needed to provide additional support. A global portfolio in one of the most complicated topics in today’s world is not possible without adequate professional support. Given budgetary constraints, the role of the Special Advisor could be facilitated by the appointment of voluntary external experts with the requisite professional, academic and geo-political experience.
It is also important that any such position would be sufficiently funded if it is to be more than a symbolic gesture. Strategic research, diplomacy and local projects with stakeholders would need to be pursued with conviction and credible resources if any significant impact is to be made.
There is every reason to believe that the UK can contribute significantly to international moves to uphold freedom of religion – if it so chooses. During the Lords’ debate, Baroness Anelay, Minister of State in the FCO, admitted that although the Government is working with human rights and faith-based organisations across the world to promote dialogue, foster links and strengthen understanding, it is not doing enough.
As His Grace discussed yesterday, the Government needs to get a much better grip on its understanding of religion and religious freedoms. Religious persecution is a destructive cancer working its evil across the globe. How many more travesties of justice – such as that of Asia Bibi – do we have to endure before the British Government hears the appeal of those in the House of Lords (and elsewhere) that we must act as Justin Welby has prescribed: “..do not sell guns to people who oppress religious freedom; do not launder their money; restrict trade with them; confine the way in which we deal with them; and, above, all, speak frankly and openly, naming them for what they are.” Amen.