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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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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