Foreign Office issues 2015 Human Rights Report

The Foreign Office press release says the report, published on 21 April 2016, illustrates the priority attached to human rights across the FCO network.

The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said: “The promotion of human rights is a core part of the everyday work of the Foreign Office and is the responsibility of British diplomats around the world. This year we are doubling the funding available for human rights projects to £10 million, through the Magna Carta Fund – a true measure of the importance we attach to this agenda.”

The report focuses on three human rights themes: democratic values and the rule of law; human rights for a stable world; and strengthening the rules-based international system. It shows how these themes are embedded across UK’s foreign policy, and are integral to tackling the root causes of human rights violations. The report designates 30 Human Rights Priority Countries, where the FCO will prioritise engagement for the duration of this Parliament.

The full report can be read here

In the light of the fact that Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) has ceased to be a specific theme and been absorbed into the three themes mentioned above – and the fact that FoRB was not mentioned in last week’s select committee report – it’s worth observing what coverage it receives in this report.

In Chapter II, Human Rights for a Stable World:

“In 2015, the UK sought to tackle the causes of conflict, and to promote more peaceful and inclusive societies, including by strengthening compliance with international norms. Galvanising international action against violent extremism, and the narratives which sustain it, was a top priority. The barbaric acts of Daesh and other groups led to egregious human rights abuses. Many people were targeted on the basis of their religion or belief, with women and girls particularly at risk. In the Middle East and North Africa region, the international community is starting to appreciate the bellwether qualities of freedom of religion or belief, and associated rights such as freedom of expression and equal opportunity for women; and to assess in that light the unfolding tragedy for the region and the world’s original Christian communities. The government has a manifesto pledge to promote freedom of religion or belief, which has a practical contribution to make in the search for peace in the region, and in defence of Christians in the Middle East.”

This chapter also includes a specific section on Freedom of Religion or Belief – it reads, in full:

The UK is committed to upholding the right to FoRB. Societies which protect this right are more tolerant and ultimately more likely to be prosperous and stable.

The challenge is complex but increasingly urgent. The Prime Minister has described the fight against extremism as “the struggle of our generation”. Communities which teach their children to reject and devalue those who follow a different religion, or who do not have a religious belief, are providing fertile ground for extremist views and behaviours. As the international community works together to combat violent extremism, the importance of tackling its root causes is clear.

Absence of FoRB can be one of those root causes. We must work with our international partners to amend laws and change practices that discriminate on grounds of religion or belief. We are looking at FoRB through a new lens, focusing on its contribution to building a more stable world.

In 2015, we continued to champion the right to FoRB through the multilateral system. In the UN we played an active part in ensuring that the EU resolution on FoRB and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) resolution on combating religious
intolerance were both adopted by consensus.

We also contributed to the Canadian-led International Contact Group on FoRB, which was formally launched in Brussels in June. We maintained a high profile for the issue in the EU, agreeing a guidance note to help EU Delegations and Member State Embassies implement the EU’s guidelines on FoRB. We assisted a meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians in September at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), with the participation of more than 100 parliamentarians from across the world. Initiatives such as these strengthen the resolve of the international community to act on FoRB, sharing information on individual cases, and coordinating responses.

In March, FCO Minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, took part in a French-led UN session on religious minorities in the Middle East. During the debate, Mr Ellwood called for bold leadership from governments and communities in the region to promote tolerance and reconciliation. Mr Ellwood and FCO Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay, also held a brainstorming meeting with UK NGOs in November to consider what more could be done to help Christians and other persecuted minorities in the Middle East.

We raised individual cases of persecution. In Burma, we voiced our concern at the situation of the Rohingya community with members of the Burmese government. FCO Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire, discussed this directly with the then Rakhine State Chief Minister, General Maung Maung Ohn, when he visited Rakhine in July. Mr Swire also raised this issue with the then Burmese Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, in September.

We regularly raise our concerns about FoRB in China. We did so in detail during the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue in April, and continue to do so as part of our broader relationship.

We repeatedly lobbied the Iranian authorities about the incarceration of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran and have spoken up about their shocking sentencing to 20 years’ imprisonment on charges of espionage, “propaganda against the regime”, “collusion and collaboration for the purpose of endangering the national security”, and “spreading corruption on earth”. As we made clear in public statements, it is appalling that the Iranian justice system reinstated this original sentence after acquitting the leaders of several charges.

We were very concerned by reports of persecution of Christians in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Through our policy of critical engagement with North Korea we regularly raised our concerns about human rights abuses, including FoRB.

The Foreign Secretary and FCO Ministers pressed Pakistan a number of times throughout the year on religious freedom and human rights, including the treatment of the Ahmadiyya community.

The FCO supported projects designed to tackle discriminatory legislation and attitudes. We worked with human rights and faith-based organisations to promote dialogue, build capacity, foster links and strengthen mutual understanding within societies.

For example, we funded the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide to create a network of human rights activists working on FoRB in South Asia. It was encouraging to see the way that people of different faiths came together to support each other. They developed a web-based platform to share information, and some members of the network invited others to visit them to share best practice. As a result of activism by the group, the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB was able to visit India.

We supported a project run by Religion News Service encouraging responsible journalism in Burma. It led to articles on themes seldom covered by the local media, and to a marked reduction in the use of emotive language, omissions caused by bias, stereotypical imagery, and other shortcomings that had stoked inter-communal tensions in the past.

Other projects have included one delivered by the Indonesia Legal Aid Institute to strengthen the capacity of advocates in Indonesia to protect the right to FoRB in their caseloads; and another, run by Hardwired, to inspire and equip key civil society
leaders in Iraq to become articulate defenders of FoRB. As part of this project, an innovative four-day training course was conducted in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region for 20 civil society leaders, including teachers, religious leaders, journalists, and advocates, on the principles of FoRB. Participants came from diverse political and religious backgrounds, including Christians,
Yezidis, and prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Several participants commented that this was the first time they had ever discussed sensitive religious issues on a training course, especially with members of other religions. While participants exhibited initial discomfort with the topic and one another, by the end plans were in place to work together.

In 2015, we continued to increase religious literacy training amongst staff from the FCO and other government departments through regular courses on religion and foreign policy, and a series of seminars with high-profile experts. Among the most prominent speakers were the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar. FCO’s rapidly evolving Diplomatic Academy includes an online foundationlevel module on religious literacy. Equipping our diplomats with a greater understanding of the key role faith plays in global politics helps us to make better policy judgements.

In 2016, a key focus will be support for the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. We will encourage countries to develop action plans which include actions to promote FoRB as one way of tackling the root causes of extremism.

UK candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)
On the eve of Human Rights Day (10 December), the UK formally launched its re-election campaign to the HRC for 2017-19. Our pledges are based on UK priorities at home and abroad, and where we assess we can use our membership to make progress

The third pledge reads

making a stand for freedom of religion or belief, including by: defending the freedom of people of all religions and beliefs to live without discrimination and violence; supporting persecuted Christians and other minorities in the Middle East; and advocating in favour of equality and non-discrimination, including on the grounds that freedom of religion or belief can help to counter violent extremism;

At the United Nations

The UK worked to ensure consensual outcomes were reached on the two resolutions concerning religious freedom at the HRC and Third Committee: Freedom of Religion or Belief (led by the EU) and Combating Intolerance (led by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation). The focus of the EU’s text was to protect the right to freedom of religion of belief, whilst noting the rise in religious extremism and condemning all violence in the name of religion.

In the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta in November was an opportunity to remind Commonwealth members of their human rights commitments. In meetings with other Commonwealth leaders, the Prime Minister stressed that all countries should uphold the Charter, which includes commitments to tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and freedom of religion or belief.

Human Rights for a Stable World

Work in this area will aim to:
>> promote respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief as part of the answer to tackling terrorism and the ideology which drives extremism;
>> embed human rights in UK approaches to conflict, security and stability. Defend the freedom of all people to have, adopt and manifest a religion or belief in peace and safety;
>> ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides about the dangers of letting prejudice continue unchecked are not forgotten, including by future generations;
>> use UK overseas interventions on security and justice to promote human rights, and ensure our assistance does no harm; provide human rights expertise to the arms export licensing process; and
>> support effective multilateral initiatives, in particular those under the UN Secretary General’s Preventing Violent Extremism Action Plan to combat extremism and promote stability;