House of Lords questions on APPG FoRB Commentary

Baroness Berridge
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the publication produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, Commentary on the State of Freedom of Religion or Belief; and what steps they are taking to mark International Human Rights Day.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, the British Government are deeply concerned about the severity of violations of freedom of religion or belief across many parts of the world. I am grateful to the APPG for producing such a comprehensive report highlighting the scale of the issue. We are marking International Human Rights Day with activities in the UK and overseas. Indeed, earlier today I hosted an event at the Foreign Office to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Baroness Berridge
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. Although the APPG commentary deals with violations of freedom of religion or belief, International Human Rights Day allows us to draw attention to how interconnected many human rights are. Women from religious minorities in countries outlined in the report, such as Saudi Arabia, India and Myanmar, often face double discrimination for being not only women but from a religious minority. Can the Minister outline whether Her Majesty’s Government, in their country strategies on freedom of religion or belief, or in their research, look at gender discrimination alongside violations of freedom of religion or belief, which is the only way to help these groups of vulnerable women?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I am grateful to my noble friend for her work on the particular report and she is right to point out the important link between freedom of religion or belief and ensuring the rights of women and girls across the world. I am pleased to inform her that we continue to prioritise the issue of girls’ and women’s rights across all parts of the human rights agenda and all areas of British foreign policy. She will also be aware of our commitment to ensure 12 years of quality education for every girl across the world.

Baroness Northover (LD)
My Lords, on the subject of women’s rights, the Minister will be very familiar with Asia Bibi’s case. Surely there could not be a clearer case for asylum. There are rumours that the FCO and the Home Office wanted to grant her asylum, but it was blocked at higher levels. Is that so? When her case is considered again in January, will the United Kingdom Government be offering asylum if they possibly can?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
As the noble Baroness will be aware from her time as a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government, we do not refer to specific cases. However, I can assure her that rumours are exactly that—rumours. She should not base any question on those. We are continuing to work with international partners to ensure that Asia Bibi’s safety and security is paramount. I can also assure her that, along with the Pakistani Government and our international partners, we are doing our utmost to ensure that that priority is not forgotten.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
My Lords, does the Minister agree that our ritual listing of human rights abuses around the world is a little hypocritical when we turn a blind eye to human rights abuses carried out by trading partners in the Middle East and elsewhere? What sort of country are we becoming when a government Minister can say in public without criticism, “When we talk trade with China, we should not raise issues of human rights”?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I assure the noble Lord that I do not share that sentiment. This is important to me. I am proud of Britain remaining a bastion of human rights historically, currently and in the future, ensuring that we, along with our partners and friends, raise issues where there are human rights abuses. Sometimes that is done discreetly and effectively; sometimes we call them out publicly. That continues to be the case.

Lord Cashman (Lab)
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the defence of religious belief is paramount but, equally, that we should not go down the route of imposing religious belief and thereby using it to deny people their human rights in various parts of the world, not least in the 36 Commonwealth countries where religion is used as an excuse to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people their rights?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
First, I agree with the noble Lord on the issue of forcing anyone to believe anything. My role is not just that of freedom of religion envoy; I am the envoy for freedom of religion or belief. “Or belief” is an important part of my role, ensuring that discrimination against anyone, including the LGBT community, is kept at the forefront of the agenda. Indeed, as part of our celebrations of 70 years since the charter, we announced that we will co-chair the ERC with Argentina from June 2019.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans
My Lords, it is good to mark the significant progress we have made in 70th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it is worrying that in many parts of the world those human right are being questioned and pushed back, even by some of our allies. What action are the Government taking to stand with Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, to “push back” on the push-back?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The right reverend Prelate is right to raise this issue. On reflection, 70 years since the declaration, here we are in 2018, seeing abuses of human rights across the piece. We have talked about gender, faith and LGBT rights, which remain important priorities for Her Majesty’s Government. We are working closely with the human rights commissioner, Michelle Bachelet. I have met her twice already, as has the Foreign Secretary, to reiterate our strong support for her priorities and agenda.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I agree completely with the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, about the connection between human rights and freedom of religious belief. When giving the Minister responsibility for this matter, the Prime Minister said that we would work with all societies and countries, particularly civil society. What discussion is taking place with faith groups about the issue raised by my noble friend? How can we get people to understand that human rights are fundamental across all groups?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The noble Lord is again right to raise that. On working with civil society groups, he will be aware that we recently announced £12 million of funding, for which I am grateful to colleagues in the Department for International Development, in support of freedom of religion or belief initiatives to help civil society organisations on the ground in some of the most challenging part of the world, exactly as the noble Lord articulated. LGBT rights, as well as other rights and gender equality, are an important priority. To give him another practical example, next year will mark the anniversary of my noble friend Lord Hague launching this initiative as the Prime Minister’s representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We will mark that by inviting faith leaders to stand together with those of no belief to prioritise the humanity that prevails in standing up for victims of sexual violence in conflict, because no religion, faith or belief sanctions it.

This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.