Parliament: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and FoRB

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held in London in the week beginning 16 April. Parliament has been pressing the government on what should be raised, discussed and communicated during the meeting.

Below is a summary of some of the issues around Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) that have been highlighted.

In a House of Lords debate on 22 March, Lord Alton underlined

“95% of people in the Commonwealth profess a religious belief, representing a huge variety of faiths and traditions. Yet, according to the Pew Research Centre, around 70% of the Commonwealth population live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief.”

In a previous Lords debate, 2 November 2017, Baroness Berridge called on the Government to ensure that freedom of religion or belief was in the summit communiqué as a priority for the Commonwealth, under the summit’s “fairer future” theme.

FCO Minister Lord Ahmad responded that the fairness pillar within the Commonwealth summit, would allow heads of government to “to develop this [FoRB] further”.

Extracts from the 22 March debate:

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate, just over a week after celebrating Commonwealth Day, and with less than a fortnight to go until the Commonwealth Games open on Australia’s Gold Coast. It provides a wonderful opportunity for your Lordships’ House to discuss the future of this great organisation and the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will take place right here in London, in the United Kingdom, during the week of 16 April.

The Commonwealth is a unique global network. It is home to one-third of the world’s people, contains some of the world’s fastest growing economies and accounts for one-fifth of the world’s trade. With nearly two-thirds of its population—around 1 billion people—under the age of 30, the Commonwealth is well placed to be an influential player on the world stage in the years ahead. Indeed, one could even say that it has a responsibility to play such a role. Its diverse membership is committed to a set of values founded on democracy and the rule of law and embodied in the Commonwealth charter.

However, for the Commonwealth to face the global challenges of the 21st century and to truly represent its overwhelmingly young population, it must have a clear purpose, supported by all 53 member states. That is why this summit will focus on four clear priorities, on which leaders will seek to agree action. The first is to build a more prosperous future by making the compelling case for free trade as the best way to promote higher living standards around the world. The second is to build a safer future by addressing the security challenges, such as those posed by global terrorism, organised crime and cyberattacks. The third is to build a sustainable future, including by helping small and vulnerable states to mitigate the effects of climate change. The final priority focuses on building that fairer future by promoting the values of democracy, freedom and good governance set out in the Commonwealth charter. Our ambitions for the summit are encapsulated in the theme “Towards a Common Future”. We want the summit to contribute to rejuvenating the Commonwealth and to help to build a brighter and fairer future for its young citizens. Their interests and ambitions will be at the heart of this summit.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, last night, here in your Lordships’ House, I hosted a discussion on behalf of the Commonwealth Journalists Association. Its president, Rita Payne, said that in the past five years 57 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries. In my brief remarks today, I want to address ways in which the Commonwealth might raise its game in protecting such basic freedoms and in championing minorities, many of whom suffer grievously on grounds of religion, orientation or ethnicity.

But first I should thank those who have initiated this timely debate. It is a signal honour for the United Kingdom to be welcoming the heads of over 50 countries to the 25th iteration of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. As the Minister said, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, more than ever we need to focus on the common values that we share across these nations—striving together to advance humanity in the face of so many challenges that risk tearing down the global human rights framework on which the Commonwealth is founded.

In the run-up to Easter, our minds turn naturally to one of the values that unites Commonwealth nations—that of faith. From a population of nearly 2.4 billion people—roughly one-third of the world’s population, spanning all six continents—95% of people in the Commonwealth profess a religious belief, representing a huge variety of faiths and traditions. Yet, according to the Pew Research Centre, around 70% of the Commonwealth population live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief. The Commonwealth charter highlights faith or creed as a key uniting force, outlining the indivisibility of all rights and the opposition to any form of discrimination based on religion or any other affiliation. Specifically, the charter refers to,

“the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies, and recall that respect for the dignity of all human beings is critical to promoting peace and prosperity”.

The need to promote religious freedom, respect for the “other”, and to defend the rights of all communities was also articulated by Her Majesty the Queen on this year’s Commonwealth Day, when she said:

“The cornerstones on which peace is founded are, quite simply, respect and understanding for one another. Working together, we build peace by defending the dignity of every individual and community”.

With its origins in the horrors of the Holocaust, the political idea of the right to freedom of religion or belief is intended to respect the dignity of every individual and community. As the BBC’s courageous chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, reminds us, this has day-to-day application:

“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world”.

Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists on our right to believe, not to believe or to change our belief. It is one of very few non-derogable rights in the human rights arsenal. The drafters of the human rights framework knew its importance. It is not something that we can simply sweep aside, either because some believe it is irrelevant or because others are nervous of the potential for conflict. No, it is a right that must be upheld and promoted for the positive change it brings to the world. Freedom of religion or belief goes to the very essence of our humanity—the right to hold our deep-seated beliefs, think our own thoughts and follow our consciences. Without this right, CHOGM will be unable to answer its own points of focus: achieving a future that is more sustainable, fairer, more prosperous and more secure.

A study by Brian J Grim in 2014 examined economic growth in 173 countries and considered 24 different factors that could impact economic growth. He found that,

“religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes and that advances in religious freedom”,

contribute to,

“successful and sustainable enterprises that benefit societies and individuals.”

High levels of religious conflict create unstable environments that drive away young entrepreneurs, disrupt economic sectors and deter investment. That makes the promotion of religious freedom a contributing factor to a society that is not only more stable but more prosperous, so it should be a high priority.

If we are serious about tackling issues like climate change, which is the route to greater sustainability, it must surely be done in partnership with all elements of society, including religious minorities, who are often ostracised and ignored by those in power and by contemptuous elites. Further, the Commonwealth’s own stated ambition to promote human rights to achieve a fairer future must include religious freedom as a central component. Wilfully keeping the right to religious freedom out of the debates at CHOGM would serve only to hamper the progress that might otherwise be made on the four prioritised issues.

CHOGM is a critical forum for tackling this right up front, not only acknowledging the rights abuses in member states but paving the way forwards, sharing best practice. It goes without saying that the United Kingdom has not always got it right. Coming from a religious minority myself, I am well aware of prejudice, discrimination and persecution—but I am also conscious of the great progress we have made in respecting the dignity of difference and in learning to live together.

Elsewhere the challenge remains—for instance, the assassination of Pakistan’s brave Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibbi, the use of section 295(A) of India’s penal code to attack minorities, and the hunting down of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. It is obvious that there is still a long way to go, and that change must come the world over. I therefore hope that the Minister will say something when he replies about how we intend to share best practice and commit to change. I urge him to ensure that religious freedom is prioritised at CHOGM and reflected not only in his reply today but in the joint communiqué and the Prime Minister’s opening remarks at CHOGM.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester 

My Lords, the Anglican Communion extends significantly beyond the nations of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, for obvious reasons of history, there is a very substantial Anglican presence in many Commonwealth countries. I am therefore pleased to speak from these Benches in this debate—and I, too, look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt.

Within the Anglican Communion we have a rich network of companion links between dioceses in different parts of the world, whereby most Lords spiritual will have an active engagement with the life of at least one Commonwealth country. The nature of the Commonwealth as a network of autonomous free nations also has some parallel with the life of the communion, wherein each province is autonomous yet links together through what one might call family likeness, and the position of honour granted to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The theme of the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, “Towards a Common Future”, resonates with the experience of these Benches. In our relationships with our companion dioceses within and beyond the Commonwealth, we are of course conscious of a shared past. Without it, the relationships would not exist. We are also conscious of some of the ambivalences of that shared past, especially the mixed legacies of colonialism. But these companion links that we nurture are devoted to sharing our common present and building our common future.

We share with the Commonwealth and our companion dioceses a great number of areas of concern and involvement, not least around, as some have already mentioned, climate change, resilience, sustainability, issues of human trafficking, modern slavery and gender violence, the roles of women and young people, and the building of positive frameworks in civil society. We are very pleased that people from across the Anglican Communion will be participating in some of the forums around the forthcoming meeting—for example those from Swaziland, Mozambique and Sri Lanka in the forums concerned with women and young people.

I am very grateful for the contribution just now from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Unfortunately, it is the case that some of the worst-offending countries when it comes to religious freedom are found within the Commonwealth. In the margins of the Heads of Government meeting, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, working with the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, is convening a gathering of parliamentarians and religious leaders to discuss over two days how they may, among other things, hold their Governments and constituencies to account in relation to these concerns around religious freedom. I think that some Members of your Lordships’ House will be participating in that event. I trust that the Minister, in responding to the debate and to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will welcome the initiative of the most reverend Primate and might indicate how these efforts from within the churches and other faith communities in relation to religious freedom might usefully complement the Government’s engagement in these matters within the Heads of Government meeting and in other fora.

Lord Cashman (Lab)

As other noble Lords have said, the Commonwealth is a family of nations, but for many of us, including LGBTI people, it is a family where we are not welcomed, are not treated equally or with dignity, and often are denied our liberty. In 36 of the 53 states of the Commonwealth, homosexuality is criminalised and same-sex relationships are banned. Although these laws were imposed by the United Kingdom, these countries cling desperately to this alien imposition almost as a badge of honour. The repression is not diminishing: in some countries, people boast of it, often citing culture or religious belief as a reason or an excuse. Sadly, all too often, organised religions and religious leaders condone such repressions actively or by their silence.

I defend religious beliefs and always will—even as a born-again atheist—but I will never defend the right to impose such beliefs on others when in so doing it diminishes the rights or protections of another human being. We absolutely need the voice of religion and religious leaders, and we need them in support of equality and non-discrimination, regardless of difference. That which we demand for ourselves we must demand for others.

Lord Ahmad

On freedom of religion and belief, as with the previous summit in Malta in 2015, the Heads of the Commonwealth have recognised the freedom of religion and expression. The summit will encourage the Commonwealth to build on that. As noble Lords will know, the Government have also provided funding to the Royal Commonwealth Society’s inter-faith service, which was extremely well attended in Westminster Abbey on Commonwealth Day, 12 March. Freedom of religion and belief is a priority for the Prime Minister, for the Secretary-General and for me, as Minister for Human Rights. We will discuss this bilaterally and during the course of the Commonwealth summit through various forums. I also acknowledge the great work done by Lambeth Palace. We look forward to the event that is being organised on this issue in the margins of the Commonwealth summit during the course of the week. I pay particular tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his continuing support and leadership on this important issue.

House of Lords 21 March 2018

Baroness Berridge asked Her Majesty’s Government what are their human rights priorities for the communiqué of the Commonwealth Summit in April 2018.

Lord Ahmad

My Lords, Commonwealth member states are meeting, as I speak, in London to negotiate the communiqué. While it would be inappropriate to comment on those negotiations or speculate on specific outcomes, the UK believes that the promotion and protection of human rights should be of central importance. Encouraging member states to uphold the values enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, which include democracy, freedom of expression, the rule of law, and opposition to all forms of discrimination, will be an important part of April’s summit.

Baroness Berridge

My Lords, on 28 February of last year the Prime Minister stated:

“We must reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practice their beliefs in peace and safety. And I hope to take further measures as a government to support this”.

That commitment, of course, is also outlined in the Commonwealth charter. While I am grateful for the Minister’s Answer, could he please provide details on how the Prime Minister’s commitment will be manifested in practical terms during the UK’s period of chair-in-office of the Commonwealth?

Lord Ahmad 

First, I acknowledge the formidable work my noble friend does, along with other noble Lords across this House, in the area of freedom of religion and belief. It remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government to focus on freedom of religion and belief in the context of the Commonwealth summit. During the summit week, various fora will be ​held, including the Commonwealth People’s Forum, where civil society groups will have an opportunity to directly raise issues, including freedom of religion and belief, and there will be an opportunity for Foreign Ministers and leaders to hear about the outcomes of those fora. The UK will be chair-in-office for two years. I assure my noble friend that we have received various bids and we will certainly be focusing on all elements of human rights, including freedom of religion and belief.

Lord Anderson of Swansea

Does the Minister agree that the Commonwealth has been strong on declaration —Harare and the charter—but less strong in practice? For example, of the 58 countries in the world where capital punishment is legal, 36 are in the Commonwealth. The recent report of Open Doors shows that, of those 50 countries in the world where it is difficult to be a Christian, seven are in the Commonwealth. Is this a priority of the Government?

Lord Ahmad

I assure the noble Lord that, on all issues of human rights and opposing the death penalty, the Government remain very clear and firm, including in the context of Commonwealth visits. For example, most recently I visited the Gambia and raised LGBT rights and the death penalty directly with the appropriate Ministers. We will continue to do so. I agree with the noble Lord that declarations from the Commonwealth are always strong but the actions have perhaps not delivered on those declarations. Together, working with the Secretary-General, it is our aim to revitalise and re-energise the Commonwealth.​

Written Questions

Tom Brake: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Religious Freedom (21 March)

Jeremy Lefroy: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Religious Freedom (21 March)

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Religious Freedom (20 March)

Bishop of Leeds: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Religious Freedom (20 November)

Bishop of Coventry: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Religious Freedom (20 November)

Lord Alton: Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting: Religious Freedom (11 July)

Lord Ahmad (15 January)

The importance of freedom of religion and belief is a priority for this Government. As the Minister responsible I am meeting with all groups, including people of no faith and the humanist society, to ensure that the agenda at the Commonwealth summit and the programme for the UK’s two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth reflect those priorities.

Parliamentarians and religious leaders from around the Commonwealth will gather at Lambeth Palace next month to discuss ways to strengthen religious liberty. (Anglican News)