As we reset our foreign and development policies, they will no doubt reflect our country’s long-standing respect for human rights. Sadly, one of the human rights most at risk globally today is that addressed by article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. Protecting and promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief must be one of the UK’s human rights priorities, not least because of the extent of violations of FORB in so many parts of the world today, affecting Buddhists in Tibet, Rohingyas in Myanmar, Yazidis in Iraq, Uyghurs in China, Hindus and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea, Christians in North Korea and atheists in Bangladesh. That is by no means an exhaustive list.
Tackling religious intolerance needs to be at the heart of our policies, not least because of the wider implications of the risks of not doing so. Those were summed up by the Prime Minister recently when, in replying to my PMQ, he said:
“We all know that wherever freedom of belief is under attack, other human rights are under attack as well.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 898.]
The right to education, jobs, homes, family life, access to justice, liberty and even life itself all can be at risk when FORB is under attack. This is not only a human rights priority. As the Bishop of Truro said in his report, FORB is
“perhaps the most fundamental human right because so many others depend upon it.”
It is a privilege to take up my appointment as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, but that is not the point, nor is the title. The point for me is this: can this role in some modest way make a positive difference—yes, to our projection of global Britain, but more fundamentally, can it make a difference to what Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the architects of the universal declaration of human rights, called the “world of the individual person”? Working alongside the Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister for human rights, I recognise that this envoy role can and will only make such a difference when the envoy works with others—working cross-party here in Parliament, co-ordinating well with international counterparts and liaising with faith leaders and civil society.
For me, the heart of FORB is based on respecting the unique worth of every created human being. It is about the importance of treating every individual with dignity. It is about saying, “You matter. You have purpose. You are significant. Wherever you are in the world, whatever your faith or none, you are not forgotten. You are not disregarded. You are not overlooked.” Having travelled to many countries across the world and heard at first hand of FORB abuses, I want to state my heartfelt compassion and respect for all those who bravely make a stand and suffer for their beliefs.
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