UK General Election: an opportunity to reiterate a commitment to human rights

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.

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NGOs in Partnership with International Parliamentarians

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.

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Brexit Wounds – The UK’s Post-EU Human Rights Challenges

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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.

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The Plight of the Rohingya – His Eminence Cardinal Charles Maung Bo Addresses the Houses of Parliament, London, 25 May 2016

Cardinal Bo of Burma with Mr Speaker

His Eminence Cardinal Charles Bo SDB with Mr Speaker, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP in Speakers House, Houses of Parliament. Photo Credit: mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

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.

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The Elephant in the Room: Raising Human Rights in Bilateral Talks

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Palace of Westminster, London

Since October 2015, the UK has hosted a state visit for the President of China and the first official UK visits of the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of India.

While it is the responsibility of any government to foster good bilateral relationships, this should include full and frank discussions about human rights. The Conservative party committed to this in its 2015 manifesto where it stated:

“Our long-term security and prosperity depend on a stable international system that upholds our values… We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions – and non-religious people – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East… and we will continue to support universal human rights.”  2015 Conservative Party Manifesto

During these visits, CSW made calls for the Prime Minister and his Government to honour their manifesto commitment and to raise the religious freedom situation in all three countries as part of bilateral talks. The Government was disappointingly quiet on human rights during all three visits, prompting many to question whether trade was being prioritised above human rights.

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Will the Foreign Office’s New Approach Strengthen the UK Government’s Human Rights Work?

Following the Conservative party’s election win in 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) took the opportunity to ‘re-configure’ their work in order to ensure the UK’s promotion of Universal Human Rights had the most impact.

Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief under the Coalition Government

Under the Coalition Government in 2010-2015 the FCO undertook encouraging work on human rights, with freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) forming a significant part of the overall human rights programme as one of eight main thematic priorities.

Baroness Warsi, then the Minister responsible for Human Rights at the FCO, established the advisory group on FoRB, a group of experts from all faiths and none to advise the Minster on how to best protect and promote FoRB worldwide. After Baroness Warsi left her post, FoRB remained a human rights priority and the advisory group continued to meet and advise the new Minister.

Human Rights Work Reconfigured

The most significant part of the FCO reconfiguration was changing the eight thematic human rights priorities to three human rights ‘themes’. The rationale behind this was not to relegate nor promote any of the existing priorities, but instead to create overarching themes that encompassed everything the FCO human rights work does, while allowing for that work to be prioritised and developed in locally appropriate ways.

The themes are:

  • Democratic Values and the Rule of Law,
  • Strengthening the Rules Based International System,
  • Human Rights for a Stable World.

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