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.