Lord Alton of Liverpool: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking, if any, to promote Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Watch the debate in full (starts at 2pm)
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, today’s short debate enables us to return to issues raised on 24 July, when we last debated Article 18. The gravity of the situation is underlined by events over the last few days. Following the beheading of a group of Eritrean Christians and the execution of Assyrian Christians, last weekend Islamic State in Libya released a video showing the beheading of a Christian from South Sudan. That ideological hatred of difference is driving on a systematic campaign of deportation and exodus, degrading treatment, including sexual violence, enslavement, barbaric executions, and attempts to destroy all history and culture and beliefs that are not their own. Pope Francis has described these events as a genocide of Christians, and many others of course suffer too.
…In the same week, another 20 people were killed for refusing to convert to Islam, including two women. The 29 year-old and 33 year-old women were first brutally raped. Eight of the captives were beheaded. That is of a piece with the violent assault on the Yazidis. A former Yazidi MP told parliamentarians that 3,000 Yazidi girls are still in Daesh hands, suffering rape and abuse. She said:
“The Yazidi people are going through mass murder. The objective is their annihilation … 500 young children have been captured, being trained as killing machines, to fight their own people. This is a genocide and the international community should say so”.
…Since the beginning of the war in Syria, it is estimated that the number of Christians has fallen from about 1.5 million in 2003 to maybe fewer than 200,000 today. This is a genocide that dares not speak its name, and I ask the Minister when our Government will join with Pope Francis and others and name it for what it is. Either there is a genocide under way or there is not; either there is worldwide persecution of Christians or there is not; either someone is being killed, imprisoned or tortured every few minutes for reasons of faith or belief, or they are not. If we accept the evidence that they are, why are the resources which we devote to these issues, and the priority which we give them, so pitifully inadequate?
In our debate in July, I was critical of the Foreign Office’s failure to increase the one full-time desk officer wholly dedicated to freedom of religion or belief. Since then I have been troubled by exchanges in the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee about the importance that the Foreign Office attaches to human rights. Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was reported as saying that “although it”—that is, human rights—
“is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities”,
“right now the prosperity agenda is further up the list”,
a remark which Crispin Blunt MP, the committee’s chairman, rightly said would cause concern.
That worrying exchange comes on the back of the Foreign Secretary’s admission that the department’s annual human rights report is being drastically cut back. The prosperity agenda and the lives and fundamental freedoms of people must never be part of a cynical trade-off. In former times, that sort of thinking justified the commercial interests of the slave trade and the opium wars.
Two days ago, I chaired a hearing on Eritrea. Witnesses cited a United Nations report which concludes that the Afwerki regime’s tyranny probably constitutes “crimes against humanity”. We were told of deaths, torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, indefinite military conscription, forced labour and, as we heard on Tuesday, persecution of religious believers. The country’s population is haemorrhaging as those who are able to do so try to escape.
Every month up to 5,000 people leave Eritrea. More than 350,000 have done so so far—around 10% of the entire population. Forty-six per cent of those who try to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya come from either Eritrea or Syria. Therefore, unless we tackle the root causes of the exodus, including fearful violations of Article 18, we are never going to see an end to the refugee crisis. I will just say in parenthesis that many of those who have tried to escape are outside refugee camps, which I hope we will take into account in selecting refugees for resettlement.
Article 18 and human rights violations are inextricably linked to the catastrophic movement of populations, to refugee policies and to issues such as the development aid that Governments such as our own pursue. How is the European Union aid package of $300 million to the Eritrean regime or the £405 million of UK aid this year to Pakistan—£1.17 billion since 2011—being used? Is it used to leverage fundamental Article 18 reforms or to help those who are persecuted? A mob of 1,200 people in Pakistan recently forced two children to watch as their Christian parents were burned alive. Pakistan has imposed a death penalty on a mother of five, Asia Bibi, for so-called blasphemy; it has still not brought to justice the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s Minister for Minorities; and it is a country where churchgoers have been murdered in their pews and different minorities—Shias, Ahmadis and Christians—have experienced discrimination and outright persecution. While Pakistan has been receiving vast sums of money, the response of the state has been at best indifference, and at worst, the complicity of some of its agencies.
In September, after visiting Burmese refugee camps I went to the detention centre in Bangkok, a city which the UNHCR says more than 11,900 Pakistani Christians have fled to. Over two days, I took evidence from escapees. One witness recounted how his friend Basil, a pastor’s son, was targeted by Islamists attempting to convert him. After Basil reminded them that there should be no compulsion in religion, they set fire to his home, and he, his wife and daughter, aged 18 months, were burned alive. Following their deaths the assailants turned their attention to his friend, who was attacked and beaten. After reporting this to the police, instead of protecting him and bringing to justice those who had been responsible for those deaths, the police informed the assailants, who told him they would kill him. He, his wife and his little girl fled the country and, after arriving in Thailand in 2014, applied for asylum. They have been told by the UNHCR that they will be interviewed in 2018. It could then be a further two years before they are resettled. Only 400 cases have been processed so far this year. This is an intolerable delay. Meanwhile, he and his wife and child live in fear of being arrested and incarcerated in the detention facilities, where they would be separated into segregated cells, sharing a space of 18 feet by 36 feet with up to 100 other prisoners, including children. Witnesses told me that detainees have devised a rota to enable half the inmates in these cells to sleep at night and the other half to sleep by day. As one witness told me:
“We just lie side by side, including our children … force-fed poultry in battery farms are treated better and in more humane conditions than these”.
This is an international scandal.
When I met the UNHCR, staff quoted British Home Office guidance that asylum claims cannot be accelerated because escapees were subject to discrimination, not persecution. However, on 11 September, the Minister of State for International Development, Desmond Swayne, said in a parliamentary reply:
“The Government of Pakistan has publically recognised the problems facing minorities, and the need to bring an end to religious persecution”.
Mr Swayne is right: there is outright persecution. So why does the Home Office guidance, Pakistan: Christians and Christian Converts, state that,
“the evidence does not indicate that Christians are, in general, subject to a real risk of persecution or inhuman or degrading treatment”?
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief will hold two days of hearings on Pakistan on 10 and 11 November, and Dr Paul Bhatti, the brother of the assassinated government Minister, will address Members of both Houses on 17 November. I hope that the officials who drafted the Home Office guidance will attend, and will agree with Mr Swayne to accurately describe events in Pakistan as persecution.
Finally, there was another event in Westminster this week. On Tuesday, while the President of China addressed both Houses of Parliament, in Zhejiang province alone more than 1,500 churches were having their crosses forcibly removed by the authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has just answered a Question on the Floor of the House about the brave human rights lawyers who have been at the forefront of trying to defend many of those who have been persecuted. Some 280 rights lawyers have been detained or disappeared in China since 9 July. The lesson for China is that without freedom of conscience and freedom of belief, no society will prosper and there can never be harmony. There is a direct correlation between those countries which are the most prosperous and those which uphold freedom of religion and belief. This is a lesson for us, too. Article 18 is a core value which is being systematically attacked and it is our duty as parliamentarians in this great democracy to say so.
Lord Selkirk of Douglas (Con):
In view of the shocking statistics on religious persecution and the levels of human suffering they indicate, is it not time for the British Government to examine how they can take stronger measures to support those who are being persecuted for practising their faith? Religious liberty is a universal human right, and democratic Governments who believe in the rule of law should have the moral courage to raise the issue wherever such rights are flagrantly abused in breach of the UN charter. If the West can impose sanctions on Russia over its Government’s aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine, could not overseas aid, or rather the loss of it, be used to bring pressure to bear for a change of policy? Where a country’s Government are behaving intolerably, and the Government are turning a blind eye, we should act in a principled way and, where necessary, consider withholding aid. Our overseas aid budget was £11.7 billion last year. Can the Minister assure us today that with the provision of bilateral aid, the Government will insist that the Governments of the countries concerned should show a definite commitment to freedom of worship?
Baroness Cox (CB):
Last week, suicide bombings on the outskirts of Maiduguri in Borno state targeted two mosques, with at least 39 Muslims killed. When I and my colleagues from my NGO, HART, visited the area, we learned that the scale of slaughter and abduction far exceeds that reported by the media. For example, the horrific plight of the Chibok girls, already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, is internationally known, but the fate of more than 1,000 women and girls taken by Boko Haram—which also abducts and forcibly recruits boys as young as 12 years old—is not. Christian communities have been subject to regular attacks for decades in northern Nigeria, but these have escalated with the rise of Boko Haram. A reign of terror persists there, as described powerfully last week by Victoria Yohanna, who herself escaped from Boko Haram.
I turn briefly to Azerbaijan, which has been classified as “not free” by Freedom House. The Government there restrict the religious practices of most non-Shia Muslim communities. Leaders of unsanctioned religious services have been imprisoned, and many mosques and Muslim schools have been closed. Churches must be registered, but none have been able to do so since January 2010. Those gathering to study religion have been jailed and some deported. A junior State Committee official has claimed:
“We forbid religious books—but this isn’t religious discrimination”.
Police raids of Muslim prayer and study meetings continue. A raid of a home in September 2015 left 85 people taken for questioning, 3,000 religious books confiscated and two Turkish scholars deported. On 7 October this year, five Sunni Muslims were jailed following their arrest during a raid of an Islamic study meeting. Their lawyers were not allowed to attend the final hearing. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Governments of Nigeria and Azerbaijan concerning these serious assaults on freedom of religion and belief?
The Lord Bishop of Coventry:
Too often, the abuse of religious freedom arises from a false collusion between religion and national loyalty. We saw it once in our own land and, yes, in my own church. We see it now in the “gozinesh” criterion for state employment in Iran, in the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and in the actions of the so-called Orthodox Army in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Religions, which at their best seek to serve all humanity, find themselves yoked to a form of patriotism that is insecure and sees minorities as the enemy within. Religious leaders go from trying to influence their society responsibly to denying that others have a place within it. In the worst of cases, the great faiths become like ploughshares beaten into swords, with their messages of life betrayed and turned into instruments of death and persecution. Such a toxic mixture of the abuse of theology and the rejection of human rights will only be defeated by the combined efforts of secular and religious leaders. For this end, the Inter-Religious Platform for Article 18, IRP18, was launched in June. It brings together religious leaders from various faiths and serves as a catalyst for these religious leaders to campaign together for global religious freedom. It is deficient both theologically and practically for religious leaders to speak for the persecuted from their own religions alone. All faiths must defend all faiths. If one faith does not have the freedom to worship, no believer can feel secure.
The aim is not for all religions to see each other as equally true. This would be unachievable. Nevertheless, as the Dalai Lama recently noted, there is now a special responsibility for religious leaders to affirm the place of the other as the other. This principle can unite people from all faiths and beliefs while maintaining theological integrity. Our goal is to unite not only individuals but religious communities and networks that extend across the world. The efforts of IRP18 and other such organisations mirror in a very small way the good work of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief in connecting political leaders. Both political and religious groups need to act together if we are to convince the persecutors that their actions serve neither their faith nor their nation.
I conclude by asking the Minister what the Government’s assessment is of the role that interreligious initiatives can play in strengthening the commitment to Article 18. What steps might the Government take to support and foster more such initiatives? Does she agree with me that, in a way unparalleled in other human rights issues, public policy on freedom of religion or belief is intrinsically linked to theological understanding?
Baroness Berridge (Con):
I shall begin with a quote:
“free to practise a faith or to decide not to follow any faith at all. We are free to build our own churches, synagogues … and mosques and to worship freely”.
No, this is not from the FCO human rights report but from this week’s Home Office counterextremism strategy. In this global village, what is happening overseas may be connected to our domestic context, and the question, “Does religion influence human beings to commit violence?”, has to be tackled by Governments, not just students writing essays. The UN special rapporteur, Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, has said:
“The relevance of the issue with respect to freedom of religion or belief is obvious since violence in the name of religion is a source of many of the most extreme violations of this human right”.
The Department for Education has announced that human rights are to be added to the school curriculum in the UK. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister how freedom of religion or belief is featuring as part of that change. With this domestic background, I am sure that the Minister will be reassuring this House that a change from specific priorities to thematic values in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not downgraded the importance of freedom of religion or belief.
It is vital that the plight of persecuted Muslim minorities around the world is not neglected. While the Foreign Secretary said on Tuesday in the other place that he does not expect the Shia Muslim Ali al-Nimr, a juvenile, to be executed, is the Minister concerned about the recent spate of killings of Shia Muslims in eastern Saudi Arabia? Although perpetrated by people linked to IS, could the Minister undertake to investigate allegations that Saudi government clerics are calling Shia Muslims infidels on TV stations such as Wesal, and specifically investigate to confirm that these stations are not being broadcast here in the UK?
The international headquarters of the Ahmadi Muslims is here in the UK. It was such a relief that last month’s suspected arson attack on the Baitul Futuh mosque in Morden took place while it was unoccupied. However, many of the claims for asylum here in the UK are from Ahmadi Muslims fleeing persecution in Pakistan. This Commonwealth country is going through much communal tension and violence, often in the name of religion. For a Commonwealth country to deny the right to vote unless Ahmadis declare that they are non-Muslim is unacceptable. I would be grateful if the Minister could look at raising this at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta.
Lord Harrison (Lab):
My Lords, four times this year writers and bloggers variously identified as humanists, atheists or freethinkers have been murdered in gruesome machete attacks in Bangladesh… I am shocked that the Bangladeshi authorities have brought no suspect to trial. Meanwhile, astonishingly, the Bangladeshi police and government officials have threatened to arrest other secular bloggers under the ICT Act, presumptuously declaring that their output is hateful, a move that surviving Bangla secularists and human rights groups have called a victim-blaming mentality.
Article 18 pertains to thought, conscience and religion or belief. This right is unstintingly and unapologetically clear that political thought includes both the expression of religious devotion and the voicing of objections to religious institutions, religious leaders and religious beliefs and practices. We must be clear that Article 18 applies to everyone, whether religious, humanist, atheist or, indeed, simply secular. What are the Government doing to present and champion to the world the full understanding of Article 18 as it was intended and as the international human rights consensus understands? What are the Government doing to protect atheists such as Alexander Aan in Indonesia, liberals such as Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia and humanists such as Avijit Roy in Bangladesh?
Lord Hylton (CB):
My Lords, this debate is timely because the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recently recognised how churches and faiths contribute to peace and human solidarity. It called on Governments to protect freedom of religion. I trust that today’s debate will reinforce that appeal, which I commend to the Government.
In March I was in Lebanon where more than 1 million refugees from Syria had already been accommodated without using a single camp. I doubt whether that would have been possible had Christians, Muslims and Druze not shared common traditions of welcome and hospitality for their neighbours in distress. In May, with church leaders, I visited the Kurdistan Regional Government. In the capital, Erbil, and near the city of Dohuc, many people displaced from Mosul and Nineveh were being cared for. I went on to the Jazira canton of north-east Syria. It had already taken in many people from other parts of Syria. In the late summer last year, it received even more people fleeing ISIS/Daesh attacks. Once again, I urge the Government to visit Jazira and the other two cantons, which they have so far refused to do.
Lord Suri (Con):
My Lords, my name was also destined for another other topic, on which I am speaking tomorrow. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is undoubtedly the most important document of the past 70 years. The four freedoms, and the associated rights they uphold, are a cornerstone of the liberal democracy that has come to dominate Western politics.
There is something lacking about countries that do not allow freedom of religion or freedom to leave religion. In religiously homogenous societies where religion is a condition of citizenship, such as the Maldives, or those where apostasy is punishable by death, such as Indonesia, one loses the multicultural essence that has helped drive on many societies.
Britain’s long history of religious tolerance, stretching all the way back to the 19th century, is codified in this document and has helped to attract and nurture the diversity that makes us stand out in the world. This country has been actively welcoming towards my own Sikh community and has been extremely accommodating towards our beliefs.
Freedom of religion, when all is said and done, is about the individual. If we believe in the primacy of the individual, we believe in allowing such individuals to exercise their judgment in choosing or, indeed, rejecting their faith. If we believe in that, it is down to us to allow them to make that decision knowing that they will be safe making it and that the full force of the law exists to deter those who would seek to interfere in it.
Lord Alderdice (LD):
It seems that around the UK there is now a pervasive lack of knowledge and understanding of what religion is about. The result has been that many in the establishment—our universities, our Government and our Civil Service—do not really understand what religious faith is about and what it means. They then lack sympathy for these matters, so that freedom of religion is relegated much further down the pecking order than freedom of many other principles, orientations or interests. It is not considered as a serious matter by many of those in authority.
…The failure to understand this and that fundamentalist ways of holding religious belief are not actually congruent with multifaith and multicultural societies means that we have, in many ways, been much too tolerant of intolerance, including among some of our allies.
I want to finish by remarking on this question of whether or not economic freedom is now regarded by the Government as more important than religious freedom. Our tolerance of the intolerance of our economic partner, Saudi Arabia, led to massive amounts of money going into fostering fundamentalism in the Islamic world, and the price we are paying is horrible. Can the Minister tell us whether or not Her Majesty’s Government regard economic freedom as being of a higher and more significant order than that of religious freedom?
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab):
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this timely, albeit brief, debate. Sadly, many cases mentioned today and highlighted in the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Report 2014 show the harsh reality of the world today. I have heard speculation that the annual report may stop. I hope the Minister will be able to refute that by committing today to continue to publish it every year for the rest of this Parliament. Countries that do not respect religious freedom invariably do not respect other basic human rights. That is why, as a humanist and a gay man, I share all of the concerns expressed today. The Minister has said she wants the Government to focus more strongly on making freedom of religion or belief part of the answer to extremism across government. The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, mentioned the Home Office counter-extremism strategy. How will this link up with FCO activities? Will it involve further engagement with Saudi Arabia, whose record on human rights and religious freedom, as we have heard in the debate, is absolutely appalling? I do not understand how it will counter extremism.
I am also grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement in the Chamber today. The Chinese state visit this week gives us an opportunity to evaluate the impact that our relationship has had on human rights in China. The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said that developing a strong and engaged relationship,
“means we are able to talk to them … frankly and with mutual respect”.
Yet the campaign group Human Rights Watch has documented, over the last three years, a rapid deterioration in human rights in China, as we also heard during the debate on the Statement. George Osborne said during his visit to China that he addressed the issue of human rights privately,
“in the context of also talking about issues like economic development”.
Perhaps the Minister can tell us precisely what steps he took while in western China to raise the treatment of the area’s minority Muslim community, which faces restrictions on religious observance under the guise of anti-terrorism measures. Despite the importance of the relationship with China, we must not shirk from raising human rights issues if it fails to adhere to domestic and international law.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con):
This Government remains firmly committed to promoting and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world. Under our new strategic approach to human rights, we have refocused our work around three new themes; I made some reference to this on the Floor of the House a short while ago when I answered the Urgent Question on China. Our new approach will be set out in the annual report that will be published—as its very name is “annual report”, I certainly expect it to continue to be just that. I appreciate that most people get hold of these things online rather than in print, but we provide access in various ways.
The three themes are: democratic values and the rule of law; strengthening the rules-based international system; and human rights for a stable world. Our work on freedom of religion or belief has an integral place under each of them. Just a short while earlier in the Chamber, I explained clearly that one needs to read the full transcript of the PUS’s exchange with the Select Committee because it made very clear that the work on freedom of religion or belief is integral to what the Foreign Office does. It is embedded—as I was able to reassure one NGO, not buried but embedded—and vibrant across the FCO. For example, only where freedom of religion or belief is protected can we expect to see democratic values and the rule of law being fully implemented.
To the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, I say very strongly that freedom of religion or belief must include the right to have no belief, or, indeed, to change one’s religion, and we certainly make that clear. We are shocked by the brutal murders of four secular bloggers in Bangladesh this year. The British Government have been unequivocal in their condemnation of those murders. There must be space for free speech in Bangladesh. These incidents must stop, and we have made that clear to the Government. All this is why we fund targeted projects and lobby on individual cases of discrimination or persecution.
Our second theme, making a strong contribution to strengthening the rules-based international system, is why, in the United Nations, for example, we ensure that there are regular resolutions that focus on the full definition of freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18, rather than on the narrower focus on religious intolerance as put forward in the parallel resolutions tabled by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. We also use the universal periodic review to raise issues with individual countries.
Under our third theme—human rights for a stable world—freedom of religion or belief is central to so much of what we do. In societies where freedom of religion or belief is protected, and where discrimination against others on the basis of their religion or belief is seen as unacceptable, it is much harder for extremist views to take root. Governments need to learn from that lesson. In all our work, we continually make the case for freedom of religion or belief, and we implement it in practice through our project work. With regard to aid, of course our aid relationship with any Government is based on an assessment of their commitment to our partnership principles, which include human rights. DfID and the FCO continue to raise the rights of minorities at the highest levels of government. When we give aid, we feel we have a responsibility to see how effectively the Government are able to deploy it. To that end, we are funding a project to develop lesson plans for primary school teachers in the Middle East that will help them to teach the values that are important. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on this. The key to success in all these matters is education. We need to ensure that children appreciate from the earliest stage that for society to be stable and fair, everyone must be valued equally, regardless of their religion or belief or the fact that they have no belief.
I mentioned a moment ago a project we are undertaking in the Middle East. Speaking of that area, I want to express the Government’s horror at the attacks being carried out by ISIL against those who do not acquiesce to its brutal ideology. It does not discriminate. It has committed atrocities against Christians, Yazidis, Muslims, Turkmen and others. I recently had a meeting in New York with very brave Yazidis who are trying to assist people in their communities. ISIL is persecuting individuals and communities on the basis of their religion, belief or ethnicity, and its murderous campaign has resulted in the most appalling humanitarian crisis of our time.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the fact that some have called for this slaughter to be called genocide. As I have remarked on previous occasions, UK support for international criminal justice and accountability is a fundamental aspect of our foreign policy. The International Criminal Court plays the key role in entrenching the rule of law and acting as a deterrent to atrocities, placing a spotlight on individual responsibility, supporting victims and helping to establish an historical narrative of accountability. We will continue to work through the ICC to take forward the important commitments made by PM Abadi to investigate all human rights abuses and violations. Those who seek to block our efforts with regard to Syria—the Assad Government—will find that we will not give up; neither will we give up when Russia opposes us.
I was also asked in particular about countering violent extremism. The strategy was launched by the Home Office, but we are already looking very carefully at how we work cross-departmentally, and I hope to be able to give further information as we develop that work. However, cross-departmental work is key to it.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
Before the Minister leaves that important passage of her speech, might I press her further? Although I appreciate the work that she has done with the International Criminal Court, and she is of course right that upholding international law falls within its remit, nothing stops a sovereign Government, such as that of the United Kingdom, nevertheless saying that what is occurring is genocide, which would place further pressure on the international authorities and perhaps be a counterbalance to the Russian veto in the Security Council. Will she reflect on that further?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
My Lords, I will certainly continue to reflect on that. There have been other occasions when people have asked us to refer to something as genocide where one can see brutality. We have always been very firm in ensuring that we follow the path of saying that we accept as genocide what the international judicial system determines as genocide, but I would never refuse to reflect on the views of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, as I have far too great respect for him.
We have recently launched a project promoting legal and social protection for freedom of religion or belief in Iraq. This project aims to prevent intolerance and violence towards religious communities by inspiring key leaders in Iraqi society to become defenders of freedom of religion or belief. The UK continues to encourage influential religious leaders in Iraq to speak out publicly and condemn sectarian violence.
The best defence against radicalisation, the best guarantee of stability and sustainable growth the world over, is inclusive and accountable government. That means government that guarantees the right of every individual to follow the religion or belief of their choice, or no belief, both in private and in public. It is a fundamental freedom that underpins many of the others. Building inclusive, accountable government in the Middle East is going to take some long time, but we are determined to stay the course.
Since we last debated these matters in the summer, the Government have been working on a number of specific areas. I will mention one or two, but I want to leave time to refer to matters raised by noble Lords. First, we have been working actively with our international partners to ensure that discussions about extremism take account of the role of religious repression as a motivator. Secondly, we strongly supported the meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief that took place last month in New York at the United Nations General Assembly. I was delighted that this House was well represented and that we were able to provide support by offering a reception to delegates. On that note, I commend the international work of my noble friend Lady Berridge on freedom of religion and belief. Thirdly, last month in Paris, we took part in the French-led workshop on religious minorities in the Middle East. We want to build on that work, and my FCO colleague, Tobias Ellwood MP, and I will be hosting a further workshop next month on the situation facing Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. It was part of our manifesto commitment to look specifically at Christians in the Middle East, and that is what we shall do. We are continuing to explore how we can work more closely together with our US counterparts—one example being taking part in a transatlantic dialogue in Washington earlier this month.
On a related matter, we have been working with faith leaders from all communities to build a safer and more secure world. I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry about the importance of inter-religious work. The critical role of faith leaders was brought home to me during my visit two weeks ago to eastern DRC. I was honoured to be able to visit a UK-funded programme outside Goma, run by the NGO Tearfund, that works with local faith leaders to build community support groups for sexual violence survivors. Importantly, the project draws on the influence of the faith leaders within their communities to challenge some of the attitudes to victims of sexual violence and address the stigma many survivors face after their attack. I pay heartfelt tribute to those local Anglican, Catholic and Muslim leaders who spoke with one voice about the importance of working together in such difficult circumstances.
I was appalled this week to learn that there have been further attacks by armed groups on two of the communities nearby which host Tearfund’s work. It brings it home to us when communities have once again been subject to rape, kidnap and assault. That was in DRC, but we heard movingly from other noble Lords, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who spoke about Nigeria, where Boko Haram carries out its horrific attacks. That must give us all the strength to continue. It gives the Government the strength to argue the case to Governments around the world, without hesitation and without feeling that we are inhibited by any economic relationship, because it is the right thing to do.
Lord Alton of Liverpool:
My Lords, the Minister referred to an annual human rights report. Can she at least ensure that an opportunity arises for noble Lords to debate that report in Government time?