The Human Rights and Democracy: 2020 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report was published on 8 July 2021, and announced via a written statement, though it does not seem to have been deemed worthy of a media release from the FCDO.
The 2020 report covers 31 Human Rights Priority Countries. The list is reviewed periodically, taking into account the human rights situation, the trajectory of change, and the UK’s ability to make a positive difference in each country. This year, Burundi and Republic of Maldives have been removed from the list, while Belarus, Mali and Nicaragua have been added.
In the Preface, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab states “We want to see a world that is safe for open and free societies to thrive, and we are confident and ambitious about our role as a protector of human rights and a beacon of democratic sovereignty. That’s why we are leading campaigns on the freedom of religion or belief…”
The Foreword by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, emphasises that “Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) has been another priority throughout the year. The report details how we have built new like-minded alliances and strengthened existing ones. In December, the Prime Minister appointed Fiona Bruce as his new envoy on FoRB.”
“Violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have also been in sharp focus. In June, the UK delivered a ground-breaking joint statement at the Human Rights Council on behalf of 28 countries, urging China to allow access for independent observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We continue to call for this access as a matter of great urgency.”
Freedom of religion or belief
Here is the report’s section on FoRB in full:
Defending freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all, and promoting respect between different religious communities, are key priorities for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and for Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. Concerns about the denial of FoRB grew in 2020, with some religious minorities blamed for the spread of COVID-19, and being scapegoated or targeted as a result.
Work on this issue was led by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion of Belief (FoRB), and by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon. On 20 December, the Prime Minister appointed Fiona Bruce MP as his Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Monitoring developments around the world and raising issues of concern continued to be central to our work on FoRB in 2020. In China, we remained concerned about systematic restrictions on the practice of Islam, especially in Xinjiang. Restrictions remained in place concerning other groups, including Christians, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and other religious groups across the country. The UK delivered the first joint statement on the plight of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang at the Human Rights Council in June, and raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet alongside 38 other countries in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October.
In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims continued to flee constitutional discrimination and, Christians, Hazaras, Hindus, Shia Muslims and other minorities continued to suffer persecution and violence, including faith-based killings and attacks on places of worship. In Sri Lanka, the government announced a policy of mandating cremations for all COVID-19 deaths, despite WHO guidelines which permit burials. This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. Lord Tariq Ahmad led lobbying on this which saw this policy being overturned. Intercommunal religious violence took place in India, where over 50 people were reported to have been killed. The UK raised concerns with the Indian authorities about the impact of legislative and judicial measures on members of religious minorities.
In north-east Nigeria, terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa, sought to undermine the Nigerian constitutional right to FoRB by deliberately attacking both Christian and Muslim communities which did not subscribe to their extremist views. Intercommunal violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt continued to be of concern. While religious identity was an important factor, the overall causes were more complex, particularly competition over land and resources driven by population growth, climate change and criminality. The FCDO will continue to look at ways to address these factors, to reduce levels of violence and ease tensions.
In Myanmar, legislation continued to favour the Buddhist majority. We encouraged the Government of Myanmar to reform the 1982 citizenship law, used in the 2020 elections to prevent some Muslim candidates from standing. Following damage from violence in 2016 and 2017, many mosques in Myanmar found obtaining permission to undertake restorations challenging. The Rohingya, an ethnic group comprised mostly of Muslims, but also Hindus and a small number of Christians, continued to be denied citizenship. The UK Ambassador called on various ministers in Myanmar to remove religion as a category from state-issued documentation. The UK continued to raise the plight of the Rohingya through multilateral fora, including the UN Security Council.
Provisions on FoRB were maintained in the new constitution in Algeria that came into force in December 2020. We have raised with the Algerian government the importance of supporting legislation being implemented quickly. The UK Ambassador discussed at ministerial level, including with the Minister of Interior in November, our concern that some religious groups in Algeria, including Ahmadi minorities and Christians, had reported difficulties in practising their faith.
In July, Sudan abolished the death penalty for apostasy, a significant step in promoting FoRB. In Eritrea, a number of worshippers, including Pentecostal and Muslim, were released from detention during 2020. However, many remained in detention and arrests continued.
In Yemen, six Baha’is were released from Houthi detention in July, including one who had faced the death sentence. This came after significant lobbying from the international community, including the UK. The six were subsequently forced to leave the country. We continued to follow closely the Houthi persecution of the Baha’i, including through meeting Baha’i representatives in the UK. We also continued to follow the case of Levi Salem Musa Merhavi, a member of Yemen’s small Jewish community, detained since 2016 by the Houthis and subject to serious mistreatment.
In March and July, the UK made statements at the OSCE which called on Russia to end the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to uphold its commitments on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all individuals.
In Egypt, the number of licences issued under the 2016 Church Building Law continued to increase, with 1,800 church buildings receiving licences by the end of 2020. However, the continued detention of Coptic rights activist Ramy Kamel remained concerning. Sporadic sectarian tensions and the threat of Islamic extremism also continued to present challenges.
Working with like-minded partners remained central to our work, including engaging with the UK FoRB Forum chaired by the Bishop of Truro, bringing together NGO representatives and parliamentarians. At the UN, we joined the new Group of Friends of Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief in July. In February, the UK became a founding member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a network of countries working together to highlight cases of concern and advocate the rights of individuals around the world being discriminated against or persecuted for their faith or belief. The Prime Minister’s then Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Rehman Chishti MP, attended the launch event in Washington, and was later appointed Vice-Chair. Highlighting the impact of COVID-19 was a priority for the Alliance, and, in August, the UK joined a statement which recognised the impact of COVID-19 on minority religious and belief communities and called for full respect for FoRB during the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, Lord Tariq Ahmad attended both the first Ministers’ Forum of the Alliance and the Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, hosted virtually by Poland.
With the creation of the FCDO, we continued to bring our policy and programme work together. Programmes delivered through the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Oxford were designed to empower religiously marginalised groups, counter hate speech, and address the legislative barriers to FoRB.
Delivering the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s review of, the then, FCO support for persecuted Christians remained a priority; ten of the 22 recommendations were fully delivered, and we made good progress on a further eight. We supported 15 FoRB research projects through the John Bunyan Fund, and marked the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief in August, and Red Wednesday in November, lighting our site in King Charles Street red. Delivering Religion for International Engagement training to FCDO staff is a priority for 2021.
We will continue to stand up for the right to freedom of religion or belief and promote respect between different religious communities. Our work with the Alliance will remain a priority for 2021, as well as delivery of the Truro Review recommendations to ensure that all 22 will be delivered by the time of the independent review of the report in 2022.
The failure of the report to cite Nigeria as a Priority Country prompted a letter of protest to the Foreign Secretary.