Commonwealth Collaboration, Cooperation, and Concern on FoRB

Robert Joustra teaches politics and international studies at Redeemer University College (Canada). He has written an essay: Advice for the Next American President: Commonwealth Collaboration, Cooperation, and Concern on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Here are some key extracts:

The Commonwealth is such a sprawling, cosmopolitan group that its sheer diversity makes it startling that a common thread on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) could actually unite such a disparate group. Herein lies a group of countries from Belize to the Cyprus, India to South Africa, Nigeria and Pakistan to Canada, from whom it would be hard to extract coherent, simple lessons for the next American President on FoRB. From the shores of Australia’s Gold Coast or Canada’s Bay of Fundy, we may, for example, see some liberal democratic modeling worth emulation and engagement on human rights. Would we find similar models in Nigeria? Or Pakistan? Clearly the Commonwealth is a hub for both collaboration, cooperation, and concern. It is not a simple group to engage for anyone, least of all an American President.

This article draws upon the Commonwealth to offer two pieces of advice for the next American President. First, based on a case study of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom and its special relationship with Pakistan—especially the late Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated on March 2, 2011 while serving as Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities Affairs—I aim to show how religious freedom policy is often downstream of culture. Long-term, sustained advocacy for FoRB abroad begins with its prize at home. Paper laws, for example, in countries like Pakistan, are only that, apart from the public will and cultural pressure to enforce those laws.

This is why, second, Commonwealth countries represent a kind of partnership that can appeal to the sorts of historic and cultural bonds that durably root FoRB. That cultural backing, however, may appear very different from the American experience. Domestic rationales will look very diverse. But such rationales are indispensable.

The Commonwealth is pioneering a few models of diplomacy on FoRB that leverage common cultural bonds, and the United States could do much worse than be a like-minded collaborator. The next president should follow after and encourage the models of parliamentarians, parties, and civil, religious, and academic associations that are putting FoRB at the top of their agenda. FoRB needs not only the legal frameworks, but the political and cultural will that enables those frameworks. The Commonwealth may well be the kind of fertile forum that proves catalyst and collaborator for FoRB.

The exchange between Canada and Pakistan, and the development of Canada’s own Office of Religious Freedom, is just one example of the kind of possibility that exists in the Commonwealth. Real, systemic, top-down reformation is absolutely necessary. But so is building up domestic rationales for FoRB. The truth of the matter is that the protection of minorities, Christian or otherwise, will come in countries like Pakistan, and others, only when reformers with credibility, enlisting the best of their faith to defeat the worst of religion, have both the courage and support of the international community. We need top-down, but we cannot do without bottom-up advocacy either. And that bottom-up rationale for FoRB may look different than it does in America, or Canada. The Commonwealth is simply one more example of common culture and historic bonds that can and should be used in building partners around political culture.

Advocacy strategies in Commonwealth countries have already begun to focus on parliamentarians. Several formal and information networks already exist. A few examples follow.

The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) includes a range of parliamentarians including significant representation from Commonwealth countries, who are committed to advancing religious freedom issues abroad from their own platforms. Their Charter1 was signed in Oslo, Norway in November of 2014 and mainly reaffirms Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as committing to promote the issue through their own work. Current leadership includes David Anderson, a Canadian MP, and Elizabeth Berridge, of the British House of Lords.

Baroness Elizabeth Berridge herself is responsible for leading the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB), hosted by the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion in Birmingham University’s Department of Theology & Religion. This group describes itself as an answer the question: “How can parliamentarians be effectively equipped to make a significant contribution to reversing the global decline in freedom of religion or belief?” The group’s funding and work are very new, and very little other than a website and some preliminary job postings are available, though some strategic goals do appear. These include an emphasis on research, training, mentoring, and developing as well as the establishment of a Commonwealth Commission on FoRB to support and encourage parliamentary activity.

Inside the United Kingdom itself, the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief is an effort to build broad partisan support. Here, too, is an effort the American President can glean some advice from.

The President must work to overcome the increasingly polarized way that FoRB is received not only abroad, but also at home.

FoRB is not a Republican or Democrat issue, nor is it a “conservative,” “Christian,” or “American” issue. Framing FoRB as much as possible within all-party or bi-partisan contexts, and doing so as much as possible within the context of things like Commonwealth collaboration, may help to lift some of this stigma.

Regardless of American election outcomes, narrowly partisan levers, powerful as they may be, must be resisted on this issue. Branding FoRB as a “Republican” issue, for example, is not only intellectually and culturally disingenuous, it is politically dangerous. Commonwealth collaboration may be one way the American President can actually get Americans thinking beyond their own narrow political definitions, and—probably more importantly—build the kind of international coalition that equips political actors with the data and training they need to move the issue forward in their own contexts.

But coalition and advocacy building, diverse as it may be among parliamentarians, cannot end with the political class. At least three other groups in the international nongovernmental sector need sustained support and attention, even from the American President: (1) think tanks, public intellectuals, and journalists; (2) academics; and (3) religious groups. All three of these groups have made major progress on understanding and engaging FoRB in the last decade inside the United States, but have made much more limited progress in Commonwealth countries. Without the underlying intellectual and social architecture, policies on FoRB in these countries risk being niche interests, disposed of easily when the governing party loses (see for example the recent closing of the Office of Religious Freedom in Canada, shortly after the Liberals came to power). FoRB advocacy may be broadening internationally yet remain shallow, lacking expertise and credibility needed to really operationalize policy, and easily assailed as a culturally offensive “import” from abroad (read: America). Building Commonwealth capacity and credibility—intellectually, publically, religiously—should be a priority for the incoming American President. Even small seeds of “capital investment” in FoRB advocacy in other countries can bear significant fruit in the long-term.

The first two groups, think tanks/public intellectuals/journalists and academics, have come a very long way in the United States vis-à-vis FoRB advocacy and scholarship. But the contrast with Commonwealth contexts is revealing, including even closely allied countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. No mainstream think tanks in either the UK or Canada have made FoRB a top priority, and those think tanks that have talked about it tend to be religious in origin or outlook, and for that reason their motivations tend to be “suspect” in the dialogue. The list of public intellectuals in both countries who speak regularly and persuasively to this issue needs no more than two hands to count, and journalists themselves have only barely gotten beyond the skeptical narrative of FoRB being a policy to court immigrant or ethnic minorities.

Most difficult of all, perhaps, is that when experts are sought, whether academics or not, it is Americans who normally show up to lecture halls of Commonwealth diplomats and bureaucrats. In Canada, almost no major scholarly research has been done on FoRB as it relates to Canadian foreign policy. Organizers, in other words, can be forgiven for inviting their American compatriots, world renowned scholars on FoRB, because the list of domestic experts is so thin. Small wonder, then, that places like Canada betray a shallow depth of enthusiasm for issues that few intellectuals, think tanks, and journalists have made a priority. What may be mistaken for hostility on an issue may often be simple ambivalence. Building international coalitions of experts on FoRB is therefore necessary to sustain even the modest gains that countries like Canada and the United Kingdom have begun to make on this issue. If Americans are to share leadership on religious freedom abroad with other Commonwealth collaborators, they must have the capacity to take it. That question is, for now, in doubt.

Religious groups, finally, are a key stakeholder that the American President continues to recognize. This is, naturally, one of the less direct areas in which the American President can provide leadership, being a political, not religious, leader. But through things like the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, international summits of religious traditions can be encouraged and supported, if not directly, at least rhetorically. Again, here is a model where American leadership, by engaging Commonwealth partners, may pay larger dividends for already ongoing projects.

Read the full essay