Foreign Office report: Human Rights and Democracy 2014-15

Human Rights and Democracy 2014 presents the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s analysis of human rights around the world and its work to make a difference to peoples’ lives, helping to build the capacity of governments and civil society to promote and protect human rights.

In the Foreword by Minister for Human Rights Baroness Anelay. she highlights Freedom of Religion or Belief as one of six thematic priorities, and writes “On freedom of religion or belief, I am indebted to my predecessor, Baroness Warsi, for the way she developed this agenda. A global study by the Pew Forum in 2014 found that restrictions on religion were at a six-year high. Where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other fundamental freedoms often face threat too. In response, we set up a new, expert advisory group, increased training to improve the FCO’s religious literacy and used these insights to inform our work in multilateral fora and individual country situations, including a whole of government approach to defeating the so-called Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant and addressing extremism more widely. We are motivated by deep concern for religious communities in the Middle East; and by a desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all parties of goodwill. I found such allies on visits to the Holy See and to Morocco. I have discussed strategies with people of many different religions, and people of none.”

In financial year 2014-15, The Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund funded several projects across South East Asia that focused on promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief.

In Indonesia we funded a project to enhance the role of the judiciary in protecting religious minority groups. In early 2015, the implementer, ELSAM, will train over 100 Indonesian judges on human rights standards concerning freedom of religion and belief. At the end of the project, the training materials will be integrated into the Supreme Court internal training program.

We also funded a project with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, focused on Burma and Indonesia, to build relationships between religious freedom activists in both countries, sharing their experiences and common challenges. The project has provided training for these activists, by equipping them to share information, advocate effectively for religious freedom, and identify solutions to religious intolerance in both countries.

In CHAPTER VI: Equality and Non-discrimination there is a significant section on Freedom of Religion or Belief – here it is in full:

Freedom of religion or belief, based on the full definition set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, has continued to be a human rights priority for the UK government throughout the course of 2014. It is one of the most difficult areas in which to make visible progress, but it is a fundamental human right, and one that impacts on many other rights. A particular focus of government activity has been combating extremism, and preventing it from taking root. Our policies and initiatives in this area have focused on a wide range of countries where we judge that the UK is best placed to make an impact and have been aimed at promoting societies where everyone may freely practise his or her religion, change religion, or exclude religion from their own world view; and where everyone is encouraged to accept that others are entitled to live out their own belief, without persecution.

2014 presented a challenging global environment for the exercise of freedom of religion or belief. Particularly devastating has been the march across Iraq and Syria of ISIL, with its war cry of “convert, or die!” and its murderous rejection of all who do not subscribe to its perverted version of Islam. Muslims, Christians, Yezidis and others have all been affected. In Iraq, as in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, the space for Christians has continued to close, with the Christian population in Iraq reportedly shrinking from 1.2 million before 2003 to just 350,000 today. In Syria, the continued brutality of the Syrian regime has radicalised many and stoked sectarian tensions, while extremist groups such as ISIL have obstructed the exercise of religious freedom, dramatically increased attacks on religious communities and buildings, and continued to target civilians on the basis of religion or belief. And across the Middle East and many parts of Africa, the extremist religious ideology espoused by groups such as the Taliban, Boko Haram and El Shabaab has spawned widespread human rights abuses directed at all whose beliefs are different from their own.

As in previous years, there have been many heart-rending individual cases, in many different countries, where individuals have been persecuted, imprisoned and discriminated against because of their faith or belief. Most of these cases do not attract wide public attention. However, during 2014, one story in particular prompted campaigning around the world – the case of Meriam Ibrahim, charged with apostasy and adultery and imprisoned in Sudan with her young son while heavily pregnant. Meriam, who was tried for choosing to follow and marry into the Christian faith while her father was a Muslim, was obliged to give birth to her daughter in chains. Prime Minister David Cameron, Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, and the then Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, all publicly condemned the treatment of Ms Ibrahim, and called on the government of Sudan to respect her human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. Following wide media coverage and concerted pressure from the international community, plus support from her legal team (one of whom was trained in the UK) who worked tirelessly on the case, Meriam was eventually released. However, she was forced to flee the country and is now in the United States.

This was not an isolated case. Ms Ibrahim’s situation caught the world’s imagination; however, others, facing similar charges and pressures, but without publicity, are forced to renounce their faith and their families. We continue to press the government of Sudan to undertake a comprehensive review of the relevant legal issues to ensure its laws reflect both its own constitution and international human rights standards. On her departure to the United States, Mr Simmonds issued a statement that called on the government of Sudan to “reflect on the lessons of Meriam’s case and ensure that [freedom of religion or belief] is upheld for all.”

In Pakistan, the arbitrary application and misuse of blasphemy laws, and the lack of accountability for those who discriminate against or attack those from religious minorities, has led to many abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Mr Cameron raised our concerns about the blasphemy laws with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in both April and December. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, also raised these concerns with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on 13 November and FCO Minister for Pakistan, Tobias Ellwood, discussed the misuse of these laws with Pakistan’s High Commissioner in October. We will continue to raise these issues at the highest level in Pakistan; and to urge the government to guarantee human rights as laid down in Pakistan’s Constitution, and in accordance with international standards. We are concerned that Asia Bibi’s latest appeal against her sentence for blasphemy was rejected, and have expressed our hope that the verdict will be overturned on appeal. We were also shocked by the violent murder of a couple accused of blasphemy in November. FCO Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay, issued a statement in response, urging the authorities to investigate and to bring to justice those responsible.

In addition, during the year there were increasing concerns about the high level of discrimination against the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan. In July, the then FCO Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Warsi, expressed her concern about the killing of an Ahmadiyya woman and two children in Gujranwala when a mob set fire to houses, following accusations of Ahmadiyyas posting blasphemous content on social media sites.

There has been no real improvement in the treatment of minority religious groups in Iran in 2014. The Baha’i community continue to be systematically persecuted. 2014 saw the desecration of a prominent Baha’i cemetery in Shiraz, which was halted following international outcry, but resumed a few months later. The Baha’i community continue to face restrictions on access to education and employment, and the seven leaders of the Baha’i faith remain in prison. Christians, and especially Christian converts, continued to face widespread persecution in 2014. Many Christians were arrested in the course of the year, the majority for their involvement in the house church movement. Sunni Muslims and Dervishes also suffered discrimination and human rights abuses. We continue to raise these issues at the UN and other international fora.

In Burma, 2014 saw continuing prejudice and discrimination against the country’s religious minorities. In addition to the ongoing desperate situation of the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine State, violence against Muslim minority communities flared up in locations across the country. This has corresponded with an alarming increase in hate speech and the rise of vocal minority Buddhist nationalist movements within Burma. Deeply troubling new laws have also been proposed on interfaith marriage and religious conversion. There have been reports of harassment, intimidation and threats against civil society activists who have voiced criticism of these laws. We have expressed strong concerns over religious intolerance and the proposed faith-based legislation to the Burmese government and parliamentarians. We are also pressing the Burmese authorities to take steps toward a long-term solution in Rakhine that brings peace and reconciliation, and protects the human rights of all communities. FCO Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire, spoke out publicly to this end on his visit to Burma in January 2014, and met representatives of the Rohingya community to hear their concerns first-hand.

Case Study: Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East
Case Study: Freedom of Religion or Belief in South East Asia

Worldwide, we have continued to promote the right to freedom of religion or belief in four ways. We have: acted through multilateral organisations and with a wide range of international partners; raised issues bilaterally; funded targeted project work; and continued to improve the religious literacy of our own staff, to equip them better to engage with faith groups and to appreciate the many ways in which the right to freedom of religion or belief may be violated.

In the multilateral system we have worked to ensure that the two resolutions on this subject – the EU-sponsored text on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the parallel text led by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on combating religious intolerance – were again adopted by consensus at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and then at the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

We recognise that individual countries’ actions to promote and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief and combat religious intolerance are more important than action in the UN. However, we continue to believe that preserving the UN consensus gives us a valuable point of departure for discussions on this issue with countries whose perspective differs radically from our own. Experience shows that language that gains currency in UN resolutions does slowly trickle down into domestic legislation. Again this year, we were able to strengthen the EU resolution on freedom of religion or belief slightly, including with a reference to the protection of religious minorities. We continued to support the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, and were pleased to be able to host a discussion of his report, “Tackling Religious Intolerance and Discrimination at the Workplace”, in the margins of the UNGA in New York. We also worked to ensure that country-specific resolutions, such as that adopted by the Iraq Special Session of the HRC in September, contained language on the right of people from all religions or beliefs to contribute equally to society.

Over the course of the year, every FCO minister has raised individual cases and discriminatory legislation and practices in the countries for which they are responsible. In addition to the Pakistan and Sudan examples cited above, Mr Ellwood spoke out in July to condemn attacks by ISIL on Christians and other religious minorities. He called on the international community to support the government of Iraq in its fight against ISIL. Baroness Warsi visited Oman and Saudi Arabia in February to discuss freedom of religion or belief. She gave a speech at the Grand Mosque in Muscat which commended Oman for pursuing mutual respect and understanding between religious groups. She raised the importance of this in Saudi Arabia with the Governor and Mayor of Makkah, the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques, and the head of the OIC. In April she visited Malaysia, to deliver a speech on freedom of religion or belief to an audience convened by the Global Movement of Moderates; and she attended a Christian church on Easter Day in Brunei.

Within the EU, we continued to work with partners and the European External Action Service to ensure that the EU’s Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief were implemented at country level and incorporated into national action plans and strategies. We also worked closely with EU partners on joint statements and démarches in individual countries, for example in Sudan and Pakistan.

Beyond the EU, we welcomed the creation, by the office of Canada’s Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, of an international contact group on freedom of religion or belief. We were also encouraged by the efforts of parliamentarians from across the globe to work more closely to raise the profile of freedom of religion or belief through the creation of an international parliamentary network.

Despite the intrinsic difficulty of designing effective projects on this topic, we increased the number of good quality bids to our Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund. Amongst other projects, we funded a series of workshops to promote responsible media reporting on sensitive issues around religion and conflict in Burma, and worked to enhance the role of the judiciary through policy reform and training in Indonesia. We also pledged a contribution to and joined the Executive Board of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). This is a new global fund, drawing on resources from both public and private sectors, dedicated to building resilience against violent extremist agendas through local community based projects.

We continued to run our programme of religious literacy training for our staff, holding our one-day training course three times in the year and continuing our regular series of lunchtime seminars. Topics covered this year have included the role of religion in Israel/Palestine, media reporting from religious hotspots, understanding Hinduism, militant Buddhism, and World Christianity and its influence on international affairs. A prominent speaker in this series was former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams. We have continued to welcome colleagues from different UK government agencies to take part in our courses.

A new development has been the setting up of an advisory group on freedom of religion or belief, as a sub-group to the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Human Rights. Its members are acknowledged experts in the field, drawn from a wide range of different backgrounds and perspectives. Like the other advisory groups, it met twice during the year, and we have consulted its members on an ad hoc basis between meetings. Their expert advice and challenge has strengthened policy formation in this area.

Looking ahead to 2015, we will aim, in particular, to encourage closer cooperation between EU member states on this issue, including through the convening of an international workshop in February, and to play an active part in the new Canadian contact group. We will continue to consult the advisory group and will design a religious literacy element of the foundation level curriculum for the FCO’s new Diplomatic Academy. We will be vigilant in ensuring that individual cases of persecution are raised promptly and at the highest level. We will do all that we can to stem the tide of persecution of individuals on the basis of their religion or belief.

Throughout 2014, the government continued to develop and implement strategies to address rising antisemitism both in the UK and internationally. We engage closely with civil society groups and law enforcement agencies to build greater victim confidence in coming forward to report incidents, as well as tackling hate crime itself. We encourage our Embassies and High Commissions across the world to remain vigilant to resurgent antisemitism and report to London on developing issues of concern. We work actively through multilateral organisations and bilaterally to tackle antisemitism wherever it is found. The UK is highly regarded within the international community for its efforts in this field, and is often invited to share best practice in international fora.

The FCO plays an active part in the Cross-Government Working Group on Antisemitism. Over the course of 2014, the group has continued to provide an invaluable opportunity to review long-term efforts between government and the Jewish community to discuss and tackle antisemitism. The group is coordinated by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), and consists of civil servants from across Whitehall, representatives of the Community Security Trust. Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism. In this way, the government is kept fully informed of trends in antisemitism and threats to the Jewish community. The group also provides a forum for Jewish community leaders to hear directly from the government about steps being taken to address antisemitism.

During 2014, the group was addressed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Communities Minister Stephen Williams. It also met the Cross Government Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hatred in order to share best practice. The government is fully committed to ensuring that the group continues in its current form. This has been welcomed by the Jewish community, which has expressed public and private support for its continuation.

In 2014, the group stepped up its efforts to tackle internet hate crime, engaging with major international social media sites to ensure perpetrators of such crimes cannot remain anonymous. Its government members collaborated to produce a report, published in December, “Government Action Against Antisemitism”, which constituted the government’s final response to the Enquiry of the All-Party Group on Antisemitism (2006).

In November, the Swiss Chairmanship-in-Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organised a “High Level Commemorative Event” in Berlin to mark the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Conference on Antisemitism. The event took reviewed commitments made in 2004 in light of new challenges relating to the rise of antisemitism in continental Europe, including after last year’s Gaza conflict. The UK sent a strong delegation, led by DCLG Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt. UK engagement was multidisciplinary, including the Ministry of Justice policy lead on hate crime, the Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department, and civil society in the form of the Community Security Trust. The Chair of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism, John Mann, spoke at the event.

OSCE participating states followed up the Berlin meeting by agreeing a “Declaration on Enhancing Efforts to Combat Antisemitism” at the annual OSCE Ministerial Conference in Basel in December. The declaration expressed concern at the number of antisemitic incidents taking place in the OSCE area, condemned manifestations of antisemitism, intolerance and discrimination against Jews, and called on political leaders and public figures to speak out against antisemitic incidents whenever they occur. We attach importance to the work of the ODIHR in supporting the efforts of OSCE participating states to counter antisemitism, including through the facilitation of cooperation on issues such as hate crime and Holocaust remembrance.

IHRA (see below) continued to play an active role in monitoring and challenging antisemitism through its Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial. The committee considered reports on a number of countries during its meetings in London and Manchester as part of the UK Chairmanship programme, and made recommendations to the Plenary on how to fight antisemitism in all its forms.

Anti-Muslim Hatred
Measures to combat hate crimes against Muslims at local community level were the focus of an expert meeting on 28 April 2014 in Vienna, organised jointly by the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The meeting brought together government officials, community leaders, civil society representatives and academics from 26 OSCE participating states. Iqbal Bhana from the UK’s Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crimes spoke at the event.

During the meeting, participants discussed a number of projects and initiatives aimed at enhancing cooperation between law enforcement officers and Muslim communities to combat hate crimes, including training police about anti- Muslim prejudice, and measures to increase inclusiveness and diversity in law enforcement agencies.

We attach importance to the work that ODIHR does to combat anti-Muslim hatred, including through the delivery of training workshops for community leaders and civil society representatives, as well as policy advice and training for law enforcement personnel, on preventing, responding to, and reporting on hate crimes against Muslims.

We also raise anti-Muslim hatred in our bilateral contacts. A current example of anti-Muslim discrimination is that of Burma, and its 2015 elections, which represent both an opportunity and a risk for human rights (see above). The UK is one of the largest bilateral donors in Rakhine and, since 2012, we have provided £12 million in humanitarian aid, and a further £4.5 million towards projects that support livelihoods. We are also supporting work throughout Burma, including through projects aimed at assisting activists in tackling religious intolerance, including through interfaith dialogue.

The UK’s cross-government Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group brings together leading representatives from the British Muslim community, academics, and government departments. Although a large part of the group’s work is devoted to domestic issues, some of its activities have an international focus. After the rise of ISIL during 2014, the group discussed what actions might be taken, and held meetings with local Imams.

The group extended its relationship with international organisations to work on a definition of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia, and ways of addressing hatred on the internet. The UK continues to share best practice internationally, and is seen as an example of effective collaboration between government officials, police and civil society, who work together to combat hate crime. The Community Security Trust, a Jewish organisation with extensive experience in reporting antisemitic hate crime, has continued to assist the UK charity Faith Matters and its TELL MAMA reporting programme in further developing its data collection system.

Case Study: ISIL