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.
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.
LONG READ: “NGOs in Partnership with International Parliamentarians” is the speech delivered by CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth’s (FCO) Conference, ‘Preventing violent extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How freedom of religion or belief can help’, 19 -20 October 2016.
As we’ve already heard today, the fundamental human right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), embedded in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is one that at first can appear daunting and difficult to raise. Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB has said that “it is the most challenging of all human rights, it is the spice in the soup of human rights.” However, although daunting it is extremely important to intensify our joint efforts to promote it.
The latest information from the Pew Research Center stated that in 2014, 74% or roughly ¾ of the world’s population, live in countries with either high or very high restrictions on religious freedom. That means that over 5.1 billion people in this world are not able to fully recognise their inalienable human right to practice or change the religion or belief system of their choice.
Furthermore, FoRB is part and parcel of peace and stability; a cornerstone of democratic societies, and it can provide an important antidote to rising violent extremism. High-levels of discrimination based on religion or belief and FoRB restrictions can undermine peaceful development and in fact increase the grounds for the rise of extremism.
It is clear that some of the most significant foreign affairs challenges the international community are currently grappling with, involve violent extremism, and many of the challenges are deeply rooted in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
As the Prime Minister assembled her new cabinet following the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU), attention was rightly being paid to the how the new-look Government would deal with Britain’s decision to leave. Those appointed by Theresa May know that, whatever their brief, a significant proportion of the Government’s work will be negotiating, executing and accounting for the UK’s withdrawal from EU.
While it is understandable that this unprecedented task will be time consuming for the UK Government, this must not be allowed to supersede its obligation to promote and protect human rights worldwide.
Human Rights within the European Union
For all the debated successes and failures of the EU, what is undeniable is that its various institutions engage in significant human rights work.
The EU delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) regularly speaks with the weight of the 28 member states of the Union, promoting key thematic and country specific human rights issues. During the latest HRC session in June 2016, amongst other work the delegation supported a resolution on Syria and led a resolution condemning the death penalty in Belarus.
There is an EU Special Representative for Human Rights; the current post-holder, Stavros Lambrinidis, engages on behalf of EU member states with countries across the world which are failing to meet their international human rights obligations.
In May 2016, the European Union appointed former European Commissioner Jan Figel as its first-ever Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the European Union. Upon his appointment, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “The persistent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities makes protecting and promoting this freedom inside and outside the EU all the more essential…Our Special Envoy will help us in this endeavour, sharpening our focus and ensuring that this important issue gets the attention it deserves”.
Once the UK invokes article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begins the formal and legal process of leaving the EU, it will no longer be associated with any of these important human rights and FoRB initiatives.
Human Rights outside the European Union
In addition, once it has withdrawn from the European Union, every EU treaty that had previously applied to the UK will become null and void. This includes a vast array of trade arrangements that the EU has in place for member states with some 50 countries around the world.
It is therefore not surprising that the UK Government felt the need to establish a new Department for International Trade, which among other things, will be responsible for agreeing alternative deals to replace the preferential trading conditions that will cease to apply once the country is no longer an EU member state. However, the UK Government has recently been criticised for the perception that its human rights work has been deprioritised, and the most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office declaring the ‘prosperity agenda’ ranks higher in the list of priorities. It is therefore essential that the Government is continually encouraged to ensure human rights forms an integral part of its work as it ventures into a post-EU-membership world.
Keeping Human Rights on the Agenda
It is worth noting that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimates over 75% of the world’s governments now participate in preferential trade agreements that include human rights components. The human rights promoted in these agreements include privacy rights, political participation, due process, access to information, cultural rights, indigenous rights, and access to affordable medicines. Since human rights language in trade agreements is clearly now the norm, the UK ought to have no compunction in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new trade agreements once it has left the EU.
“Since human rights language in trade agreements is clearly now the norm, the UK ought to have no compunction in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new trade agreements once it has left the EU.”
The UK’s human rights work will diminish the day it is no longer an EU member state. This is not a value judgement; it is an outworking of the UK voting to leave the Union. However, this diminution does not have to be permanent.
As the dust begins to settle on the result and plans are formulated on how the exit is to be negotiated and executed, talks have begun on there being ‘more Britain abroad’ with the opportunity of having ‘a greater global profile’. At a time when the UK will be seeking to engage overseas as never before, it is important for the government to meet the crucial challenge of incorporating the promotion and protection of human rights in its policies on every occasion.
On May 25th Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Burma, spoke before a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Burma, the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network. Below are sections from that speech, on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Burma and the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Please contact CSW‘s office for a copy of the full speech and further recommendations.
My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice, with five nails: dictatorship, war, displacement, poverty and oppression. Easter seemed a distant dream. My country was buried in the tomb of oppression and exploitation for six decades.
But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen. But it brings with it fresh challenges: reconciliation and peace-making, religious intolerance, land grabbing, constitutional limitations, and the fragile nature of a nascent democratic transition. And the old dangers have not gone away: the military remains powerful, corruption is widespread, and ethnic conflict continues in some parts of Myanmar.
“We were once a Good Friday people, enduring our crucifixion as a nation on the cross of inhumanity and injustice (…) But today, we can perhaps begin to say that we are an Easter people. A new dawn has arisen.”
Despite winning an enormous mandate from the people, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the Constitution from becoming President. The military, under the Constitution, retain control of three key ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – and 25% of the seats in Parliament reserved for them. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee. So the new government is constrained, the military is still very powerful, and the country continues to face enormous challenges. Our journey has not ended; we are simply entering into a new chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, human dignity and peace.