“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
The international community marks Human Rights Day on 10 December, the day on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948.
I have decided to use this occasion to shine a spotlight on Article 18 of the UDHR, which enshrines the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. In doing so, I am delighted to join forces with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which does excellent work to promote Freedom of Religion of Belief around the world.
Some have suggested that Freedom of Religion of Belief is a relatively neglected human right – indeed it has been called “the orphaned right”. Whether or not this has been true in the past, it is certainly not being neglected by the UK Government.
I cherish the right to freedom of religion or belief. I celebrate the fact that people of all faiths and none are free to follow their religion or belief in the UK. But I do not forget for one moment that many millions of others are denied this universal human right. Denial of this freedom does deep and lasting damage to many of our fellow global citizens, striking at the very heart of their way of life and often putting them and their families in danger.
Millions suffer discrimination and unspeakable levels of persecution due to their religious identity. Some members of religious minorities, such as the Baha’i in Iran, Yazidis in Iraq, Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan are attacked or arrested; others are regarded as second class, and unable to access key services such as education, health or justice. Denial of religious freedom exacerbates the suffering of innocent people in many of today’s crises and conflicts – including the Rohinga in Burma, Nigeria and the Middle East. It also hinders peace and reconciliation.
This government will not remain silent in the face of violations and abuses of human rights, including the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. We will work through diplomatic channels, bilaterally and in concert with our international partners, to press the case for freedom and tolerance. If we are to make a difference, I believe we must act together: government, civil society and faith leaders.
This brings me to the main message of this blog. Many actors have a role in ensuring that everyone enjoys the human rights set out in the UDHR. First among those are the states whose responsibility it is to defend those rights. Faith leaders too have great influence and it is particularly important that they speak up for tolerance. Religion often reaches parts of societies that government cannot. All the world’s major religions preach peace and tolerance. So on this Human Rights Day I pay tribute to those faith leaders who, true to their chosen faiths, promote the rights of others to practice their chosen faith or belief.
It can be a daunting challenge to defend Freedom of Religion or Belief in today’s increasingly hostile world. At times progress can appear a distant dream. But we must not falter. Too many have been denied this right for too long. Now is the time to stand united and to demand, once and for all, that the freedoms described in the UDHR should be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
The recent decision by the United States (US) to lift two decades of sanctions on Sudan has been welcomed by some international actors, but received criticism from human rights organisations, campaigners and Sudanese opposition politicians.
The significance of this achievement for the government of Sudan cannot be understated.
Sudan has invested heavily in efforts towards the lifting of sanctions, including bringing the African Union on board and supporting the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. The mandate holder is tasked with investigating the human rights impact of economic measures applied by one State to change policy of another State. After the creation of the role, the Special Rapporteur’s first visit was Sudan, where he advocated for the lifting of US sanctions.
The recommendation to lift sanctions was based on ‘sustained positive actions’ by the government of Sudan on the five tracks which were: the cessation of hostilities in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur; an improvement in humanitarian access throughout Sudan; addressing the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an end to negative interference in South Sudan, and cooperation on counter-terrorism.
Human rights organisations would disagree with this glowing assessment. Rather than taking positive steps towards upholding and promoting human rights, in many cases the government has temporarily halted the most egregious abuses, such as bombing in the Darfur region. And as the first US dollars make their way into the Central Bank of Sudan, the question that remains is whether there will ever be tangible improvements now that sanctions have been lifted.
Giving too much for too little progress
Several commentators have stated that the US gave too much away for too little progress, and focused on the wrong issues.
For example, while aerial bombardment in Darfur has reduced, reports of sexual violence remain high. In May, the Ministry of Justice revealed that 35 reports of rape against children had been filed in South Darfur during April and May. The announcement followed the Secretary-Generals report on conflict related sexual violence in which the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) documented 100 incidents of sexual violence affecting 222 victims during 2016.
In terms of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), the US government listed many areas of concern, stating that it would continue bilateral discussions on these issues. However, when it comes to FoRB, there have been few signs of positive action.
Fundamentally, the human rights situation in Sudan will only improve when the political will to protect the rights of all Sudanese nationals has been established.
Maintaining pressure on the government
When the decision to partially lift US sanctions on Sudan was initially announced by the outgoing Obama administration, the criteria did not include any explicit improvements on human rights.
Between the announcement and continuing bilateral talks with the US, some developments were pushed forward, such as the presidential pardons issued to prisoners of conscience, including Reverend Hassan Abdulraheem, Mr Abdulmonem Abdumawla and, more recently, to human rights activist Mr Mudawi Ibrahim Adam. However, the responsiveness of the Sudanese government during this period can hardly be taken as evidence of ‘sustained progress.’
FoRB violations continued during the bilateral talks, including the demolition of two churches in May 2017 and the killing of a church elder in April.
However, the government of Sudan did prove more responsive to criticism. For example, following the demolition of the sole remaining property in the Soba Aradi district of Khartoum State, the US made strong statements of condemnation, both on its own and in coordination with other embassies in Khartoum. The government of Sudan also rushed to guarantee publicly that it would investigate the issue, and while there has been no remedy for the church that was partially demolished, there was at least a clear attempt to condemn the action within the Sudanese administration.
In the months between the church demolition and the anticipated sanctions decision on 12 July there were no recorded FoRB violations. However, immediately after the Trump administration decided to postpone the decision by three months until 12 October, there was an instant uptick in FoRB violations, which would appear to suggest that any progress was opportunistic rather than evidence of a change of policy within the Sudanese government.
The decision by the Khartoum State Ministry of Education to force Christian schools to open on a Sunday was soon followed by interference in the internal affairs of the Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) and the arrest of ten members of its leadership committee. Land disputes with the Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church (SEPC) also continued, accompanied by the forced eviction of the religious leaders from their church-owned homes.
On the 6 October, the US decided to permanently lift sanctions on Sudan. Just three days later, 60 Muslim and Christian parents bravely demonstrated outside the Council on Ministers in Khartoum against the forced opening of Christian schools on Sundays.
The need for political will
The overwhelming majority of human rights violations in Sudan are perpetrated by the state and could be remedied easily, if there was the political will to do so.
A human rights activist recently told CSW: “It is only at a time when the government is under pressure that there is relative freedom. Back in 2005 there was a real awakening. Freedom to express and explore plurality of ideas was present until the crackdown in 2010”.
During president Bashir’s recent visit to Russia, he criticised US interference in the Middle East, stated that Sudan’s internal conflicts were caused by US policy and asked President Putin to protect Sudan from US.
The President’s view that US policy was responsible for the cessation of South Sudan and the war in Darfur is troubling as it shows a complete abdication of responsibility for the effects of his domestic policies and a lack of political will to address Sudan’s internal challenges.
It remains to be seen whether the new direction adopted by the international community vis-a-vis Sudan will ultimately lead to a period of prosperity and freedom for the Sudanese people. For now, there are no real signs of progress and the easing of sanctions increasingly appears to have been an extremely premature decision.
Rosaline (Rosie) Costa, a Bangladeshi human rights activist, was forced to leave the country in July 2016. In 2017, CSW interviewed her in New York. During the interview, Rosie discussed the reasons she had to leave Bangladesh, and shed light on issues of religious freedom in the country.
Rosie’s involvement in human rights work began in 1986, after she left the community of nuns to which she belonged for 17 years to pursue human rights work. She spent time working with women and children in the garment industry, establishing a hostel for rescued children who had been forced into madrasas (colleges for Islamic instruction), and speaking around the world about issues faced by minorities and particularly Hindus.
Forced To Flee
While Rosie had been no stranger to risk in her work, her fears for her safety grew following a number of killings of Christians in Bangladesh, perpetrated by people claiming to belong to Daesh. “I realised that I was being followed by some people, that’s when I left the country … I saw how the people were killed, so if something was to happen to me nobody would be able to rescue me from these people.”
For years prior to her enforced departure, Rosie faced many challenges. “I received threats when I worked for the garment industry. On many occasions the owners came to pick me up, or sent hoodlums to pick me up, once they broke my hip bone. I have been physically attacked several times, for several nights I got threatening phone calls and I realised it was not safe to stay there anymore because of the way they were killing people in their houses and on the street.”
When asked how she felt about being forced to leave Bangladesh, she replied “I feel I am dead in a way, because I had my livelihood there.”
Rosie also believes that the government has continued to monitor her.
Since 2012, Rosie has been involved in rescuing children who were being forced to convert to Islam. She offered some insight into this situation:
“Children were being taken from their parents by pimps who said they would take them to mission schools and they would not have to spend any money on these children. They were taken to madrassas, where they had to sign a paper saying that they had converted to Islam and were ready to die for Islam. They were then split into groups and sent to various madrassas. Most of the children are Christians. I know of over 500 cases of this that took place in 2012. There are many forced marriages every year. I heard of cases of children as young as four or five being kidnapped.”
Rosie also highlighted how radical Islam has been a growing problem in the country.
“We have around 147 groups in Bangladesh under various names that are related to Islamic State. Since 2015 they have targeted Christians, many priests and nuns have received death threats. None of the perpetrators have been arrested or even pursued. Last year I think there were 8 or 9 cases where they attacked missions in groups.”
“Recently Islamist terrorists have been attacking journalists, and writers. In the beginning minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Shi’as were the main targets and were regularly killed.”
When asked to describe the current situation for the Christian community in Bangladesh, Rosie replied:
“The Christians are having more and more serious problems which I did not see in earlier times. Before 2000, there was one incident in 1998 in which time bombs were thrown into one church, and after that a few similar cases. In 2013-14 there were a few more incidents, but 2015 was worse and it has been getting worse ever since. People are being identified by their religion and as a result are discriminated against by the government as well as by other groups.”
The situation of Hindus is not much better:
“Hindus have been having continuous problems since 1946, but things are getting worse. The main issue is land owned by the Hindus from the days of Hindu majority regions in Bangladesh. Those are the places that are being targeted because if they can evict the Hindus, they will go to India and will be unable to get the land back.”
The current government is not directly responsible for the problems faced by religious minorities, but its inaction is an issue. CSW asked Rosie what could be done to improve the situation for minorities:
“By not doing anything, the government are indirectly supporting these extremist groups. At this point, unless the government changes the policy and takes some stern actions or decisions to stop this extremism, I don’t think there will be any development in this situation and it will get worse and worse. The prime minister has hardly done anything thus far, not a single arrest has been made, that is why I think extremism is increasing.”
While Rosie was skeptical that the government would bow to international pressure, she thought there were measures that could be taken to improve the situation of the minorities, especially if pressure came from countries giving aid to Bangladesh. For example, the government could recruit people from minorities in every sector, from administration to the army and police. She also suggested a reform of the education system, removing bias religious education materials from schools.
When asked whether there was anything that encouraged or inspired her in her work, Rosie said she was a “peacemaker” and that was her “inspiration and internal peace”, adding, “that’s what I have burned for my whole life: when people came to me with tears and left with smiling faces that was a success.”
By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant
European Union (EU) policy on the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) has seen several positive developments over the past decade, one of the most significant being the 2013 EU Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of FoRB.
Achieving consensus on the guidelines was no easy task as the 28 Member States have various models of church-state relations; some even have legislation or internal challenges that constitute obstacles to FoRB and can undermine its human rights message overseas, such as blasphemy laws. However agreement on the guidelines produced a common reference point for Member States and commits the EU to using a variety of tools to protect the victims of FoRB violations worldwide.
The European Parliament (EP) Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance aims to be the watchdog that ensures their implementation.
In January 2015, approximately 2,000 churches linked to the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination were declared illegal in Cuba under Legal Decree 322, putting them at risk of confiscation and, in some cases, demolition. CSW’s July 2017 report details a new development in the case.
In May 2017, the superintendent of the denomination was summoned to the Office for Religious Affairs (ORA), where government officials gave verbal assurances that the churches were no longer under threat of confiscation. While verbal assurances have been provided in the past have not been honoured, on this occasion a document was provided that officially rescinded the demolition order for one of the AoG churches.
At the same meeting, the superintendent received verbal promises from ORA officials that they would help legalise the churches that had been under threat. This is tentatively being considered a positive development, however it remains dependent on implementation.
It should be noted that while this appears to be good news, this meeting took place one week before the superintendent was due to attend a conference on international religious freedom held by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Washington D.C. The officials at the ORA were aware of this and encouraged the superintendent to say that ‘there are no religious freedom problems in Cuba’. Worryingly, this could signify that the verbal concessions made by the ORA were merely an effort to manipulate what the superintendent was going to say at the conference.
Since May, there have been no further developments in the situation of the AoG churches. While it is good that the government has not done anything to indicate that they are reneging on their promise not to confiscate them, there has been a frustrating lack of movement towards the promised legalisation of the churches.
In addition, recent months have seen no developments in the return of church properties that were confiscated during earlier periods of open persecution. This took place for over three decades after the 1958 revolution, before a 1992 constitutional amendment which changed the official state religion from atheist to secular. After this, persecution became more covert, but churches that had been previously targeted received no compensation.
At present, Legal Decree 322 is still in effect in Cuba. CSW’s July 2017 report therefore makes the following recommendations:
- Reform Legal Decree 322 to ensure it cannot be used to arbitrarily expropriate property, including property belonging to religious associations
- Return church properties confiscated by the government, including under Legal Decree 322
- Enact and implement legislation allowing for the legalisation of house churches, and for churches to purchase property or receive it as a donation transferred by the owner
CSW remains committed to the close monitoring of the situation to see if there are any changes, positive or otherwise, to the status of the AoG churches.
The Cuban government has a long-standing policy of targeting the children and other family members of church leaders and activists who it deems to be a problem; one of many tactics designed to ratchet up the pressure on them.
Religious leaders are increasingly standing up to government pressure and becoming bold in their efforts to defend religious freedom in the country, as the Cuban government’s Office for Religious Affairs (ORA) cracks down on unregistered religious groups and other groups that it perceives to be unsupportive of the government.
CSW’s latest report on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Cuba reveals that the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016 failed to mark any significant improvements to FoRB in Cuba; instead, the arbitrary detention, harassment, restriction and surveillance of religious leaders and adherents has continued throughout the first half of 2017, as has the confiscation of church properties. In addition, several cases of family members of church leaders and activists singled out for harassment and discrimination have been brought to CSW’s attention in recent months.
Chiapas, Oaxaca and Hidalgo are all home to some of the largest and most varied indigenous populations in Mexico. Unfortunately, this diversity sometimes provokes division, and the three states have some of the highest numbers of documented violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the country, with the number of documented cases highest in Chiapas.
In Mexico, state and federal governments have a designated office to deal with religious affairs, a responsibility to address violations of religious freedom and to actively mediate a solution to religious conflicts. However, the officials are almost always distinctly under-resourced and lack training in human rights – especially religious freedom.
At best, state and municipal governments are unable or unwilling to protect the religious freedom of their citizens and to address these human rights violations. At worst, they are passively or actively complicit in the violations. A particularly concerning way FoRB is violated in these states is through the cutting off of basic services, like water and electricity, to Protestant families by the local authorities – as is often the case, the violation of one right leads to others
One of the most striking aspects of the cases Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has profiled in its latest report is the lack of official intervention to resolve them – apart from a few exceptions, for most of the people affected, little has changed.
It has now been six and a half years since the people of Abyei should have decided their future.
Abyei, an oil-rich region situated between Sudan and South Sudan, was due to have a self-determination referendum on the 9 January 2011; the day South Sudan decided to become an independent nation. However, disagreements between Sudan and South Sudan regarding voter eligibility has meant that the people of Abyei are still waiting to hold an official vote.
These disagreements centre on whether the nomadic Arab Misseriya tribe who spend a portion of the year in Abyei are eligible to vote. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) stating that only the Ngok Dinka tribe, and those permanently residing in Abyei for a period of 3 years, may vote, the government of Sudan failed to accept these terms.
As the delay continued, the Ngok Dinka General Conference conducted what was termed a “People’s Referendum”: it was an unofficial vote but 98% of registered Ngok Dinka voters participated, of which 99.9% voted to join South Sudan. Sudan and South Sudan, as well as the African Union and international community, rejected the outcome of the referendum but both Khartoum and Juba have laid claim to Abyei.
Since the Peoples Referendum, South Sudan has descended into chaos, while Bashir’s grip on Sudan appears to be strengthening. With chaos to the South and oppression to the North, the decision may not be as simple as it was a few years ago – Abyei and its people are clearly trapped between a rock and a hard place.
“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…”
Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping
“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.
Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown
“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”
These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.
Use of torture in China
Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.
Coming less than a year after the EU referendum, the UK’s snap General Election on Thursday will provide a fresh opportunity to ensure human rights are at the heart of government policies.
Amid competing priorities, it remains important that the new government pledges to uphold the UK’s commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in all aspects of foreign policy, including diplomacy, international aid and trade.
Freedom of Religion or Belief matters
According to the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the state of international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. Its new report states:
“the blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”
Against this backdrop, it’s increasingly important that the government shows its commitment to protecting this right. It must speak with boldness in challenging FoRB violations and allocate adequate resources, in addition to using its diplomatic and political capital, to address them.