How to make freedom of religion a reality

Article published in The House magazine, 15 January 2018:

Around the world too many people are still living in fear of persecution for their beliefs. It’s time we matched our rhetoric with practical action, writes Baroness Berridge.

More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh

More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh / Credit: PA Images

For those of us working to advance the importance of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) – 2017 ended with heartening statements. Both Foreign Office ministers, Lord Ahmad and Mark Field, made FoRB a personal priority, and in her Christmas message the Prime Minister called for a “reaffirmation of our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to speak about and practices their beliefs in peace and safety”.

But with images of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims displaying the human tragedy of denial of FoRB, statements need to be turned into political and policy reality.

Such statements do serve as an encouragement for individuals and organisations working to support those persecuted for their beliefs and the billions for whom this right is still a dream. Despite various global commitments to promote and protect FoRB, the scale of violations remains enormous. Almost 80% of the world’s population live in areas where there are ‘high’, or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions or hostilities towards certain beliefs and only around 10% of countries even report on their implementation of this right. FoRB violations are not just in Myanmar, but Nigeria, China, Cuba, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, where being targeted for religious identity is a daily reality. In Nepal, a law criminalising ‘the hurting of religious sentiment’ was recently passed, and the reform of the Blasphemy law in Pakistan cannot even be spoken of safely.

To encourage further practical work to make FoRB a reality for all, in October last year the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief published a seminal report From Rhetoric to Reality, detailing a number of recommendations and best practice for pursuing this right. These included adequately resourcing the international Investigative team into ISIL’s crimes and ensuring the evidence is used to bring perpetrators to justice.

Closer to home, the recommendations range from making FoRB a political and strategic priority in the Foreign Secretary and DfID’s work, increasing religious and FoRB literacy among embassy staff and civil servants, developing and sharing understanding of key FoRB issues in conflict situations to facilitate peace-building, to integrating the Foreign Office’s recognition of FoRB’s role in preventing violent extremism into UK domestic policy on PVE.

The government’s response to these and some of the other recommendations has been tentative support, but still there is a need for words to become real policy and strategy. Having written to diplomatic posts to encourage their increased work on tackling FoRB violations, the Foreign Office is developing a bilateral and multilateral strategy on FoRB which we await with eager anticipation.

But more, however, remains to be done. It is crucial that we try to see the world as others see it and that we invest more in translating our expressions of solidarity into operational action. We would particularly like to see the practical outworking of the APPG’s recommendations and observe UK diplomatic posts working with local religious and community leaders to better understand and tackle patterns of discrimination and persecution. Huge tectonic plates of attitudes, policy and theology need to be shifted.

Lord Suri’s Question on the APPG’s report in the House of Lords on Thursday 18 January is timely. It will enable parliamentarians to put pressure on the government in this neglected area of human rights, and although FoRB is no longer an ‘orphaned’ right in the sense of being forgotten in discussion and diplomacy, it often remains orphaned in terms of implementation.

As the APPG report says, it is now time to move from rhetoric and make FoRB a practical reality for all.

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