Baroness Anelay on Freedom of Religion and Economic Prosperity

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá’í Faith organised a Seminar on Freedom of Religion and Economic Prosperity on 2 March 2016. Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay gave the opening address:

This morning I would like to set out the British Government’s policy on human rights and, specifically, on freedom of religion or belief. Given the role of the APPG for the Baha’i Faith in organising this seminar, I would like to say a few words about the situation for the Baha’i in Iran; and because of its relevance to us all I will touch on Daesh. I hope that this will give you an idea of where the Government stands on these issues, and a sense of the kind of things we do around the world to protect and promote human rights.

I have said before, and I think it bears repeating, that freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra alongside the broad spectrum of human rights. It is a key human right in and of itself.

Support for human rights and freedom of religion or belief is at the heart of everything we do, not just in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but right across government. We maintain a constant dialogue on all aspects of human rights with our international partners. We do not shy away from raising concerns with them, both in public and in private.

This Government has pledged to “stand up for the freedom of people of all religions – and none – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety.” We are committed to defending this right, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With intolerance on the rise almost everywhere, from the Middle East to Europe to the United States, this commitment is needed more than ever. We are working hard to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief, through our bilateral and multilateral work, through project work and through increasing the religious literacy of British diplomats. We have refreshed and strengthened our approach since the last election. Our focus is on three themes.

  • Democratic values and the rule of law.
  • Strengthening the rules-based international system.
  • Human rights for a stable world.

Our support for the principle of freedom of religion or belief runs through them all.

Let me give you some examples.

Where Freedom of Religion or Belief is not fully respected, it follows that democratic values and the rule of law are not fully implemented. That is why we fund projects which bridge divides, promote tolerance and encourage dialogue.

For me, one of the keys to success is education. We need to ensure that children appreciate – from the earliest age – that for a society to flourish, everyone must be valued equally. One of the projects we fund helps to develop lesson plans for primary school teachers in the Middle East to help them instil these values.

Mindful of democratic values and the rule of law, we also lobby governments when we have concerns about individual cases of discrimination or persecution. For example, in Sudan, we lobbied on behalf of Meriam Ibrahim, who was born a Muslim but charged with apostasy for marrying into the Christian faith.

Our diplomats in Geneva and in New York are strengthening the rules-based international system by working to ensure that resolutions focus on the full definition of Article 18, not just the issue of religious intolerance.

Elsewhere, we raise issues with individual countries bilaterally, or under the Universal Periodic Review process.

For example, in Burma, we have raised our deep concern at the rise of hate speech and religious intolerance with the Burmese authorities and will continue to do so, both publicly and in private.

We have supported a number of projects, including developing relationships between Burmese youth and different religious communities, and arranging exchanges between activists on religious freedom in Burma and Indonesia.

In Iraq, we are funding a project to prevent intolerance and violence toward religious communities by strengthening the ability of youth and civil society to advocate the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Finally, and perhaps of most relevance to the discussion today on the link with economic prosperity, we focus on human rights for a stable world.

We do this because we know that tolerance and inclusion are the building blocks of stability, not hatred and discrimination.

We do this because we know stability is the foundation for prosperity.

And we do this because we know that where people live together in harmony, and economies flourish, extremism struggles to take root.

I know that there are representatives of the Baha’i faith here today, and I would like to pay tribute to the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group in raising awareness of the suffering they have endured. This Government deplores all forms of persecution, including persecution on the basis of a person’s faith – no matter what that faith might be.

Turning to Daesh, there is no need – for this audience or any other in the civilised world – to detail the ways in which their intolerance is abhorrent.

What I will say is that we are determined to defeat this poisonous ideology. We welcomed the UN Secretary General’s Action Plan for Preventing Violent Extremism, with its focus on tackling the root causes. We will support its implementation, not only in the UN but also in individual states, as they develop their own action plans.

Our counter-extremism work has a conscious focus on human rights and on freedom of religion or belief. In many places we are working with faith leaders.

In Bangladesh, Mali and Nigeria we are helping communities resist the lure of extremist ideologies.

In Iraq we are tackling intolerance by inspiring key community leaders to become defenders of freedom of religion or belief.

In Goma, Eastern DRC I visited a UK-funded project supporting reconciliation and tolerance for sexual violence survivors. We are working with faith leaders to build community support groups, challenging the stigma many survivors face.

I hope that all this shows our absolute commitment to improving human rights and supporting and promoting freedom of religion or belief around the world.

I will turn now to the focus of today’s discussion, the link between religious freedom and prosperity.

I admire the pioneering work of my fellow speaker Dr Grim in this area. His work is needed, because sadly economic cost is often more persuasive than human cost, no matter the misery we see on our TV screens night after night.

Governments need hard economic proof, and to validate it they need proof from different sources.

So it makes absolute sense to get business engaged in this agenda, lobbying alongside governments and civil society.

I know that Professor Grim is keen to see improvements in the business climate to ensure that individuals from all backgrounds and faiths can realise their potential.

I am pleased to say that we in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office already support his aims through our international engagement. Through our work on business and human rights, we regularly encourage other governments to create an operating environment that is stable, secure and transparent.

To conclude, I hope I have shown just how seriously we take the issue of Freedom of Religion or Belief.

I very much value the efforts of parliamentarians, NGOs, think tanks and others, and the emerging work on the link between religious freedom and economic prosperity. I look forward to further collaborating on this with you.

I will finish with the words of the Prime Minister: “Now is not the time for silence. Now is not the time for inaction. We must stand together and fight for a world where no-one is persecuted because of what they believe.”

It is an inspiring call to action – let’s work together to make it a reality.