On freedom of religion or belief, the UK government needs to turn its rhetoric to reality

“The fact is that we simply can’t afford to be religiously illiterate in today’s world. To be religiously illiterate in today’s world is simply to fail to understand how and why others act as they do.” – These are the words of Bishop Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, speaking at the deferred 175th anniversary celebration of The National Club earlier this month.

Bishop Mounstephen has been a friend of mine, and of CSW, for a number of years now, so it will come as little surprise that we fully support his assertion. As the bishop outlined so eloquently in his speech, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), cannot be seen as a “side-bar” or “special interest” issue. In fact, it is a fundamental human right, the abuse of which so often leads to wider human rights violations as it intersects with issues such as poverty, race and gender.

Fortunately, the UK government appears to agree. Last year, upon the appointment of Fiona Bruce MP as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB, Boris Johnson said: “The UK is absolutely committed to protecting the inalienable right to freedom of religion and belief, at home and around the world.”

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UK Black History Month 2021: Proud To Be

In the United Kingdom, the month of October is dedicated to reflecting, learning – or in some cases re-learning – history that the Black community has always been a part of and contributed to.

This year the theme for Black History Month UK is ‘Proud To Be.’ It is an opportunity not only to celebrate being Black when it is so often not visible in certain spaces, represented incorrectly, politicised, or even penalised, but also to take a holistic approach to history by highlighting contributions to areas of human development which are otherwise omitted from curricula.

The past year has been one of intense discussion of issues related to race in the UK and beyond, with Black Lives Matter protests spreading across much of the world, galvanised by the viral video of the murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin. 

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There is no time to lose in the appointment of a new EU Special Envoy for FoRB

On 10 September Christos Stylianides was sworn in as Greece’s Minister of Climate Crisis and Civil Protection. Unfortunately, his appointment leaves vacant once again the vital role of the European Union (EU)’s Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the EU.

Mr Stylianides held the position for just four months, and he was appointed over a year and a half after his predecessor’s mandate had ended. While it would be unfair to criticise Mr Stylianides himself for moving into his new role, it is essential that the EU does not leave the Special Envoy position vacant for as long as it did prior to his appointment.

Alongside the EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of FoRB, the Special Envoy mandate is a key tool in the EU’s diplomatic arsenal. Prior to Mr Stylianides’ brief tenure , it was held for several years by the Slovakian politician Dr Ján Figeľ, who was acknowledged as playing a key role in securing the release of Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi, who spent years on death row on unfounded charges of blasphemy.

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Remembering the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief

There have been numerous case examples of acts of violence based on religion or belief from every corner of the world – but one that repeatedly stands out for me is the incident that occurred back in 2008, in Kandhamal district, Odisha, India.

Kandhamal is home to some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Odisha. On 25 August 2008, it was the epicentre of widespread communal violence targeting the Christian community. Local monitoring groups estimate that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced, over 300 churches destroyed, and unknown numbers of women brutally sexually assaulted by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouse Hindutva ideology. More than a decade on, and most of the victims are yet to receive justice. In addition, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression continue, and a lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups. 

International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief

In 2019, in an effort to recognise, respond to and prevent such acts from occurring, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), designated 22 August as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

The resolution establishing the international day does not highlight any specific religion or belief group, but refers to all victims, regardless of creed. It strongly deplores all acts of violence against persons on the basis of their religion or belief specifically, and “any such acts directed against their homes, businesses, properties, schools, cultural centres or places of worship, as well as all attacks on and in religious places, sites and shrines that are in violation of international law”.

Remarkably, the resolution received broad support and recognition from UN Member States across the world. It was tabled by Poland alongside Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and the USA, and subsequently cosponsored by over 80 states, including the UK. However, with global recognition comes global responsibility; both the responsibility to commemorate victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief, and the responsibility to protect and promote the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all.

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A new tool in the toolbox: The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime

On 7 December, the EU officially approved the creation of its newest human rights mechanism, the European Union (EU) Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

It will enable the European bloc to impose EU-wide travel bans on, freeze the assets of and prohibit the availability of funds and economic resources to individuals and entities who have committed or been associated with serious human rights abuses. It will target both state and non-state actors, regardless of where they are in the world and where they committed their crimes.

The mechanism is informally known as the EU-styled Magnitsky Act, after the US model that preceded it. The US Magnitsky Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 and was originally designed to target Russian officials who were responsible for the death of the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

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