Freedom of Religion or Belief and Sustainable Development

Fiona Bruce – extract from speech on Sustainable Development Goals, House of Commons, 10 September 2015

“Let me turn to the importance of leaving no one behind. Earlier, I read out a list of causes for which people can be left behind, whether due to gender, geography or those in minority groups such as the Dalits. This is a paradigm shift: leave no one behind regardless of their ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status. That is admirable.

However, I believe that one word and cause of inequality is missing from that group: belief. No one should be left behind because of what they believe, whether they have any faith or none. Ministers know that I have raised on a number of occasions my concern that an underlying cause of poverty is a lack of freedom of belief, freedom of thought or the freedom of speech that can follow, resulting in conflict, violence, loss of opportunities, homelessness, displacement and more. If we are determined to tackle the underlying causes of poverty, we cannot leave that behind. Fostering religious freedom should be seen as a priority not only for tackling conflict once it has happened, but to prevent it before it takes place and to promote stability.

As Brian Grim argues in his book, “The Price of Freedom Denied”, religious freedom fosters respect towards others with a different belief in the same society, therefore reducing tensions. I would go further than that, because I think it will contribute to the achievement of our SDGs. For example, goal 5 promotes the rights of girls and women. So much harassment of women is linked to religious discrimination against women—the respected report by the Pew Research Centre states that such discrimination takes place in 32% of countries. Goal 8 is about economic welfare, and employment discrimination as a result of someone being involved in a faith group is rife, as we see in countries such as Iran.

Let me give another example—sustainable development goal 16, the promotion of peace, as well as sustainable development goal 8, economic growth. In countries where freedom of belief is not respected, conflict disrupts economic activity. Foreign and local investors become reluctant to invest, jeopardising sustainable development and economic growth. As businesses corroborate, an opportunity to invest, conduct normal business practice and prevent industries from struggling is weakened. Egypt’s tourism industry, for example, has faced such challenges. By promoting and practising freedom of belief, a path to security and economic well-being can be laid.

I urge Ministers to consider this and to engage faith groups in their civil society review. Is it not time to review the Department’s faith partnership principles? Finally, would DFID consider engaging in the joint learning initiatives on faith and development instituted by some of the major international NGOs working on poverty relief, such as Tearfund, CAFOD and World Vision?”