House of Lords: the Queen’s Speech and FoRB

On Thursday 28 May the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech included a focus on issues of foreign policy. Here are some extracts:

Bishop of Coventry

Tackling the international challenges identified in the gracious Speech demands determined campaigns to build peace and stability on many levels. I will mention only two. First, there is freedom of religion and belief—one of the most basic of rights, yet one of the least respected. Violence in the name of religion is at a six-year high, with three-quarters of the world’s population living with restrictions on the faith or belief that they can choose or practise openly. The previous Government’s commitment to religious freedom and human rights is worthy of respect, but the leading role in global affairs to which they aspired will require even greater efforts by the new Government. Is the Minister able to confirm whether matters of freedom of religion and belief will be included as a specific priority in the FCO business plan and the criteria used by DfID?

It will be vital in the coming months to ensure that domestic debates about the role of human rights in this country do not impinge in any way on our advocacy of religious freedom worldwide, so I would be glad of the Minister’s assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to speak out promptly, clearly and loudly against any acts of violence committed in the name of religion, as well as related incitement to violence and discrimination in law and in practice….

Commitment to human rights, including the right to religious freedom, builds stable societies.

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)

France is the key ally of the United States in west Africa and has intervened massively in Mali and the Central African Republic. Where has the United Kingdom been in the fight against Boko Haram in Commonwealth Nigeria?

Baroness Cox (CB):

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment in the gracious Speech to play a leading role in global affairs, international security, and economic and humanitarian challenges. I will highlight two relevant areas of concern, namely Burma and Sudan, which are relatively off the radar screen.

First, on Burma, I am happy to report some improvements in regions of Chin State, which I visited in February. Relations between the army, police and civilians have significantly improved, and human rights abuses, including forced labour, have ceased. There is also welcome investment by the Government in infrastructure. It is important to encourage reforms where they occur. However, the Government’s continuing assaults on the Rohingya people continue unabated, forcing thousands to flee their land, with many stranded at sea in terrible conditions. As this tragedy has received some media coverage, and as time is limited, I will focus on people whom we visited just last month, whose plight is desperate but not widely reported: the Shan and Kachin people.

Military offensives by the Burmese army continue; in eastern Burma, large-scale military offences in the Kokang region of Shan and Kachin states have occurred almost daily. The Burmese army uses ceasefires to gain ground and enhance its military capability. Meanwhile, expropriation of land and natural resources with derisory or no compensation is associated with large-scale development projects including the building of mines, which displaces thousands of civilians, and dams, which flood thousands of homes. Land grabbing and forced relocations have uprooted people with minimal or no compensation.

The deliberate targeting of civilian sites in Sudan has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, with humanitarian access blocked by the Government in Khartoum. As of April 2015, an estimated 3.7 million people in Sudan faced acute food insecurity. Moreover, severe human rights violations, including torture, arbitrary detention, and attacks on peaceful protesters, opposition members, the media and civil society, continue elsewhere in Sudan.

Baroness Helic (Con) (Maiden Speech):

If we cannot protect multi-ethnic societies in Europe, we will have little chance of ensuring the protection of minorities in the Middle East and beyond.

Lord Williams of Baglan (CB):

We also see in the most gracious Speech mercantilist attitudes coming to the fore, as in the comment that the Government look forward to an enhanced relationship with India and China. What about Japan? Japan is a democracy. There is no mention of that, or of the fact that it is actually the second largest foreign investor in the UK. India, of course, is a great democracy that we admire greatly, and a member of the Commonwealth. China, we need to remind ourselves sometimes, remains a one-party state, governed by the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of China. The economic realities on the ground may be far distant from any concept of Marxist socialism, but the politics remain that of a Marxist party. There is no freedom of expression in China. There is no freedom of religion. Religion is “tolerated”, but it is policed by state entities governed by the Communist Party.

Lord Avebury (LD):

The Daesh is,“the negation of God erected into a system of government”. We need to wake up to the scale of this challenge and develop a robust answer to it, with the authority of the UN Security Council and the approval of the highest levels of religious authority in all the branches of peaceful Islam.

Baroness Berridge (Con):

However, even before Daesh, according to academics such as Monica Toft and Jonathan Fox, of the 16 ongoing civil wars in 2010, 50% had a religious basis. Other academic studies claimed that, when religion is a factor in a civil war, it is more brutal for combatants and civilians, lasts longer and is more likely to recur. So Foreign and Commonwealth Office training courses by the Woolf Institute on religion and expert teaching on ethno-religious violence to the stabilisation unit are most welcome.

Within the Queen’s Speech, whether it is defeating terrorism in Middle East, national reconciliation in Iraq or the political settlement in Syria, religion needs to be understood as part of the problem, maybe, but also the solution. Erdogan’s desire to be executive president in Turkey, which, if it happens, will subordinate the parliamentary process there, cannot be fully understood unless one remembers that the last caliphate was not in Iraq—it was Ottoman. Regional peace needs the HDP Kurdish party on 7 June to break through the 10% threshold to get parliamentary representation to thwart the supermajority that Erdogan is in danger of achieving.

Over the last Parliament, there was the same realisation in relation to human rights abuses, which were due not to politics, resource battles or ethnicity, but to religious identity. Whether it involved Shias in Pakistan, Yazidis in Iraq, Baha’is in Iran, or Christians in Syria, the fact you are “the other”, defined by religious difference, was a factor that determined these people’s fate. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury last summer seemed to be alone in stating, what we are seeing in Iraq violates people’s freedom of religion and belief, as set out under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There was a clear commitment in the Conservative manifesto that: “We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions—and non-religious people—to practise their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East”. So I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give some detail as to how the commitment will be worked out in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and DfID under this Government.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):

Last month, jihadist ideology led to the deaths of 147 students and staff in Kenya’s Garissa University College, with Christian students specifically singled out; to the burning alive in a kiln of a Christian couple in Pakistan by a mob of 1,300 people while their young children were forced to watch; to the abduction of young girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram; to the beheading in Libya of 21 Egyptian Copts who were working there; and to the beheading of 30 Ethiopian Christians trying to flee these depravities.

We need also to promote Article 18 obligations. When a country like Saudi Arabia passes legislation defining atheists as terrorists, beheads its citizens, and refuses to protect the right of minorities to follow their beliefs, or to have no belief, is it any wonder that such actions are mimicked by Daesh?

At the heart of all these issues is the challenge of learning to live together and of respecting difference. Our failure to make the battle of ideas a priority was underlined recently in a reply to the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, when it was stated by the Foreign Office that just,“one full time Desk Officer” is, “wholly dedicated to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB)”, and that, “the Head and the Deputy Head of HRDD spend approximately 5% and 20% respectively of their time on FoRB issues”.

Understanding authentic religion and the forces that threaten it is more of a foreign affairs imperative than ever before, and the resources we put into promoting Article 18 should reflect that reality. I hope that freedom of religion and belief will be a specific priority in the FCO business plan and that the Government will make common cause with the Labour Party, which gave a manifesto commitment to appoint a special envoy to promote Article 18.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con):

In the coming years we will continue to champion freedom of religion or belief at the Foreign Office, including support—I can say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Where freedom of religion or belief is protected, extremist ideologies should not be able to take root.

The full debate