I want to focus today on the human right of freedom of religion or belief, and to declare my particular interest as director of a Commonwealth initiative on that issue. The Commonwealth is an underutilised network of 53 nations, large and small, with a diversity of cultures and it includes Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian-majority democracies. As the new Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, most recently put it, it is well equipped to be,
“the voice for everyone who shares our common values and hopes”.
However, in too many Commonwealth countries, people still face legal restrictions on their ability to practise their religion and discrimination on religious grounds, or are the victims of religiously motivated violence. We cannot ignore the religious element in the killings carried out by Boko Haram, nor the Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Lahore—targeting Christians but with overwhelmingly Muslim victims—nor, closer to home, the killing of the Ahmadi shopkeeper, Asad Shah, in Glasgow. The recent series of killings in Bangladesh of atheist, humanistic and secularistic writers, bloggers, academics and campaigners is not just a violation of freedom of expression, but a violation of the freedom not to hold any religious belief at all should you so choose.
Yet at a time when so many of the human rights challenges that we face both in the UK and around the world have a freedom of religion or belief dimension, the global picture on how seriously the issue is taken, as a key human rights issue in its own right, is disappointingly mixed. While the European Union has created a new special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside of the EU, Canada has recently disbanded its Office of Religious Freedom, subsuming it into a new Office for Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion. I was pleased to see freedom of religion or belief given a prominent place in the United Kingdom’s pledges in our bid for re-election to the UN Human Rights Council, and I pay particular tribute to the work of the UN Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt, who will soon finish in that post.
However, as the UN has no legally binding convention on freedom of religion or belief to enforce, I hope that the nimble network of parliamentary democracies with shared language and legal systems could be looked at as a much better multilateral forum for the UK to focus on rather than the bureaucratic heavyweights of the EU and the UN. This network of trusted friends should enable us to do much more behind the scenes to implement effective solutions to these problems.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, the new Commonwealth Secretary-General, certainly gave greater profile to the Commonwealth during the recent anti-corruption summit. Her determination to champion human rights, good governance and the rule of law in line with the Commonwealth charter, with the UK hosting the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, is an opportunity not to be missed. Will my noble friend please seek a meeting with the new Secretary-General to discuss the promotion of human rights and, in particular, freedom of religion or belief in the Commonwealth?
As well as key networks such as the Commonwealth, there are key strategic countries—none more so than the home of Sunni theology, Egypt. President al-Sisi has one of the most difficult jobs at the moment, and his challenging speech on religious tolerance to the Al-Azhar University is to be commended. But the arrest in the last few days of Mina Thabet, a prominent human rights activist, especially on freedom of religion or belief in Egypt is very worrying. Will the Minister outline whether Her Majesty’s Government will meet the Government of Egypt to make representations about his arrest?
I pay tribute to the hard work carried out by my noble friend the Minister, but I would be grateful for the assurance, due to the recent publication of the Foreign Affairs Committee report, that that hard work is matched by keen leadership by the Foreign Secretary.
Baroness Berridge, 23 May 2016