Published: November 12, 2015
Lord Alton and Fiona Bruce MP: Our aid programme must support religious freedom
By Lord Alton
Last updated: November 12, 2015 at 7:16 am
Lord Alton of Liverpool is an Independent Cross-bench Peer. Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton, a member of the International Development Select Committee and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
“You only get real long-term development through aid if there is also a golden thread of stable government, lack of corruption, human rights, the rule of law, transparent information.” – David Cameron
While the argument about whether our development aid programme funding should be ring-fenced divides parliamentary and public opinion, a common ground for all is that if we are going to invest in this way then we should get good value for money.
It is sometimes said that putting expectations of behaviour on aid to foreign governments would further fuel extremism, and make life more difficult for Christians and other minorities in those countries, who might be blamed for the reduction. Certainly care should be taken not to make matters worse – the ‘do no harm’ principle – and there may be truth in the idea that Christians in some countries could suffer further if aid was withdrawn. An alternative to simply withdrawing aid would be to channel more aid through non-governmental organisations and civil society.
Concern for minorities, pluralism and tolerance – a rich harvest
But it is not unreasonable to expect, where aid is being distributed, certain behaviour in terms of treatment of minorities, as well as the need for pluralism, tolerance and diversity. Such an approach can yield both a pragmatic harvest as well as chiming with the very best of “British values”. Where these values flourish, extremism can be confounded; where these values wilt, we see the catastrophic driving out of millions of people from their homes.
Around the world, ideological hatred of difference is driving a systematic campaign of deportation and exodus, degrading treatment, including sexual violence, enslavement, barbaric executions, and attempts to destroy all history, culture and beliefs that are not their own.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others”. Gross violations of this human right conflict with some of the key values our country stands for. However, UK Aid is sadly going to some countries in which violations of Article 18 occur. It is important to understand and challenge this where appropriate, for the very reasons expressed above. Where freedom of thought, belief, or speech are restricted, other human rights violations can follow in their wake – discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and even genocide.
No one left behind
David Cameron has been key in the drafting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set a bold vision for a fairer, better future for tomorrow’s world. In a marked departure from the Millennium Development Goals which preceded them, the much broader aspirations of the SDGs include, as Goal 10, to: ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries,’ and, as Goal 16, to: ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all.’
Reflecting on these SDGs, Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for International Development, says that taxpayers’ money should be spent to promote peace, jobs and justice: “leaving no one behind.” Committing to the SDGs, as the UK and 192 other countries did this autumn at the United Nations, means a radical review of how we ‘do aid’. This is therefore a timely opportunity for a fresh consideration of the application of Article 18 in terms of aid provision.
So how do we measure the success of such an approach in places like Pakistan? What would we regard as success or failure? How can it be ensured, for example, that funding for education is not being spent on promoting a curriculum that fuels intolerance, or to extremist madrassas that preach hatred?
This year, our aid programme to Pakistan is £405 million – £1.17 billion since 2011. This is a country where a mob of 1,200 people 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 to bring 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. This week, as we took evidence from the minorities who have suffered in Pakistan, we heard the story of that country’s one remaining self-professing Jew – from a community which was once numbered in its thousands. Minorities groups —Shias, Ahmadis and Christians—have experienced discrimination and outright persecution. While Pakistan has been receiving vast sums of money, the response from Pakistan, to these concerning issues and incidents, has been indifference, at best, .
Britain is a significant contributor to the European Union aid package of $300 million handed over to the Eritrean regime, led by Isaias Afwerki. In June a United Nations Commission of Inquiry accused it of “gross human rights violations.” Recently, at a hearing in Parliament, witnesses described to us deaths, torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, indefinite military conscription, forced labour and 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. In total 10 per cent of the population (350,000 people) have fled. Many of those individuals who try to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing are fleeing Eritrea. Persecution dogs their steps at every turn, and Christians who flee into Libya face the risk of beheading by the local mutation of ISIS.
The challenge for DFID is how to ensure that the substantial monies flowing into Eritrea are used to create better conditions for its people and in ways which genuinely tackle the root causes of the exodus of refugees fleeing such regimes, without which we are never going to see an end to the refugee crisis or the sprawling camps which are now home to millions.
Genocide and oppression of minorities
In responding to those from Syria who have had to abandon everything and become refugees we should also measure their plight against Article 18 – because the most vulnerable groups are undoubtedly the minority communities. A former Yazidi (a religious community in Syria) MP told us that 3,000 Yazidi girls are still in ISIS 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”.
We should indeed name this genocide for what it is. Our failure to do so in Rwanda had fatal consequences for millions.
Using the rule of law, and making it clear to those who are responsible for these crimes that their “Nuremburg moment” will come one day, would be consistent with our own values. So should be the way we direct our aid programmes – not least in the Middle East where we talk with great pride of our significant financial contribution.
So addressing the level of persecution of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, vulnerable people who clearly fall within the UN’s criteria of “specific need”, should be one of our priorities.
Even places of refuge can be dangerous
Many minorities escaping Syria have either fled refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the Kurdish Autonomous Region – or have never risked entering them. This is because they suffer attacks, inside the camps, by radical Islamists, and they are now instead living in informal tented settlements.
A British newspaper recently reported that ISIS is sending teams of men posing as refugees with the mission of either kidnapping or killing Christians, and sending gangsters to the camps to kidnap young refugee girls and sell them as sex slaves. The newspaper reported that aid workers dare not report such occurrences because of fears for their own lives.
That intolerance and persecution can even be exported from the region is already clear from Germany, where reports emerged last week of minorities being attacked within refugee shelters there by Islamists, with increasing frequency and ferocity.
The House of Commons International Development Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the Syrian Refugee Crisis. At an evidence session recently, a witness, speaking on behalf of an organisation which works in the region directly with refugees, gave testimony that “we are not aware of Christians being within UN registered camps” – the camps to which UK Aid makes a substantial funding contribution. The Committee was told that Christians avoid these camps – and therefore access to the support within them – because of fear: “if your culture is different, you stand out and are more of a target, which makes you nervous to go there.”
Another witness in written evidence to the inquiry states, “Christians are generally not able to go to camps for fear of intimidation and risk…Because many Christians and other minority groups do not enter the camps due to fear of religious persecution, this would result in them being doubly disadvantaged as they will not have equal access to the scheme.” This double disadvantage refers to effective exclusion from the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme – after having already been driven away from their home towns or villages, often as a result of religious persecution – these refugees, surviving outside the UN camps, have no chance of being selected as some of the 20,000 refugees the UK has committed to welcome here. An Archbishop familiar with the region says that if they are outside the refugee camps “The UN don’t really help these families.”
One of the challenges for aid organisations is to ensure that there is adequate religious literacy amongst those working for them, in an increasingly complex environment. So, a challenge for DFID should be to ensure that where aid is provided or contracts are awarded, it is channelled to civil-society organisations and government programmes which demonstrate a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the challenges in that area to the enjoyment of the human right of freedom of religion or belief, and can show how their work will have a positive impact in this respect.
This means not only attending to the needs of those who suffer the consequences of a breach of Article 18 – whether homelessness, malnutrition or worse – but also having the expertise to promote understanding, mediation and reconciliation within and between communities, and so help prevent fragile situations and states developing in the first place. It also needs to be pro-active in promoting international debate and dialogue around the implications of Article 18, for any faith or none.
We all need to have a greater understand of the golden thread which links religious freedom to safe prosperous and stable societies, and that doing so would be one way to help prevent forced mass migration and movements of people.
For, as the Prime Minister also says, “No believer should have to live in fear…Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe”.
Universal Declaration on Human Rights: Article 18
Question for Short Debate: Thursday October 10th 2015
Asked by 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.
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. I am grateful to all noble Lords for participating, and especially to the noble Baroness who will reply.
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.
At last week’s launch of Persecuted and Forgotten?, a report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need, on whose board I serve, we heard from the Archbishop of Aleppo. We learnt of other executions on 6 October in a village outside Aleppo, including a 12 year-old child. When his father refused to renounce his faith, ISIS tortured the child, with two other Christians, and crucified them to death. In an attempt to force his father to convert, the boy had his fingertips cut off. Their bodies were left hanging on crosses for two days under signs reading “Infidels”. If that is not genocide, what is?
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”.
In a message read out at the launch of that report, the Prime Minister, the right honourable David Cameron MP, said:
“No believer should have to live in fear … Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe”.
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And outright persecution there is. 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
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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”?
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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 had seen 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): My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is an extremely doughty campaigner on behalf of freedom of worship throughout the world and it is a privilege to follow him today. He may even be aware that it was Queen Elizabeth I who in 1558 famously declared that she had no desire to open “windows into men’s souls”. It sounded like a magnanimous promise of tolerance and religious freedom after the persecution presided over by her predecessor. Sadly, however, events made her tolerance wear thin by the end of her reign. Now, some 450 years later, men and women in many countries continue to suffer terribly as a result of their deepest-held religious convictions. Windows are still being opened into people’s souls, often with brutal consequences and a shocking disregard for freedom of conscience.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, urged nations to guarantee freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Organisations who now have experts in this field agree that attacks on religious freedom have increased in recent years. Christians have been caught up in the revolutionary turmoil which has swept through many countries in north Africa and the Middle East in the last few years, and they have suffered especially as a result of the murderous extreme groups such as ISIL, and Boko Haram and al-Shabaab in Africa, which kill Muslims as well as Christians. The great Sunni/Shia divide is another source of persecution, and there are warnings that those of the Jewish faith are facing a fresh surge of anti-Semitism.
It is shocking that only last week the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, reported that the number of countries in which those who practise the
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Christian religion are suffering extreme persecution has risen to 10. In one of those countries, Eritrea, it is estimated that in 2013 a total of up to 3,000 people, the majority of them Christians, were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. In Pakistan, the blasphemy laws often have adverse consequences for religious minorities. In Nigeria last year, around 276 girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok by Boko Haram, and it is reported that many of them have been forced to convert to Islam. In a message at the launch of the report, the Prime Minister said:
“Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe”.
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?
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, who instigated this debate, and others have called in the past for the Government to establish the position of a high-profile international ambassador for religious freedom. Previously, the Government have said that our Ministers and ambassadors are sufficiently active in promoting freedom of religion and belief. Can the Minister tell us why the Government are not adopting a bolder stance, as the United States of America and Canada have? The US Congress has passed the necessary legislation and Canada has already appointed a religious freedom envoy.
My time is up. I will just say, finally, that we must redouble our efforts to raise this matter higher up the agenda of democratic Governments around the world. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno (LD): My Lords, first, I express my appreciation to my very good friend of many years’ standing, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. To be rather more home-based, I remember that when I was a child, we used to say in school, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. The truth of course is that names can hurt and can lead to abusive and destructive actions. We should take great care what we say in our speeches—not only the content but the tenor and the
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tone of our voices. It is difficult to hide behind the words that are expressed. I suggest that even Home Secretaries, sometimes, could think about what they are saying and the effect it will have, especially on vulnerable and sensitive people or on those who are in uncertain situations. The press, too, can sow seeds of anxiety in pursuing its own agenda. Think of Germany in the 1930s and the papers, and the daubing on the windows of shops: “Jews out”. That led to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust. Words can break our bones—millions and millions of bones.
Of course, the first need is to respect those who differ from us and to not make scapegoats of them, for any reason whatever. Sometimes we or others might do this to further a religious cause or to advance our electoral or political prospects. We should avoid doing anything that causes people to lose their respect and dignity or that is a step towards them not achieving their potential. A massive step forward is how we teach our children. We can teach them, when they are in schools, churches, mosques and so on, to respect one another.
A subject that is causing a great deal of controversy and leading to a great deal of bitterness at the moment is immigration. Some of our newspapers especially are guilty of not always quite telling the truth. We have to look at that. When they talk about “swamping” Britain with asylum seekers, the truth is that of the EU countries, Britain stands 10th when it comes to the number of asylum seekers per head of population. You have to present facts that are real and true and can be respected. The Association of Chief Police Officers has stated that,
“ill-informed, adverse media coverage … has contributed to heightened local tensions and resentment of asylum seekers”.
However, when the facts are presented positively, that can increase the respect that communities have towards one another and reduce tensions before they come to the breaking-bones stage.
We should imagine what we could do. I suggest to the Minister that we could try to include the facts on immigration and emigration in the school curriculum, in the history or geography classes, so that people know what is happening. When that happens, people will be able to think, “This is the truth; this is something we can rely upon”, instead of having to rely upon stories that are often exaggerated or totally unhelpful. To reduce tensions we must stop shouting the names before we start breaking the bones.
Baroness Mobarik (Con): I just remind the Committee that we would be grateful if noble Lords could adhere to the three minutes.
Baroness Cox (CB): My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on this important debate and his powerful introduction. I will focus on the violations of religious freedom in two countries largely ignored by international media but in need of urgent attention. In northern Nigeria, attacks on those who do not adhere to Boko Haram’s ideology occur almost daily. Since October 2014, nearly 4,000 people have been killed and around 2.2 million internally displaced.
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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: My Lords, I, too, am very grateful for this debate. I will focus my comments on the interface between religion and national identity, and the theological and political dangers of too close an alignment between them. 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
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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): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. I am particularly grateful for his advisory board membership on the University of Birmingham’s recently launched Commonwealth initiative on freedom of religion or belief, which I co-direct and declare as an interest. 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
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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: Avijit Roy, the popular science author, who was hacked down outside the renowned international book fair; Washiqur Rahman, whose satirical blog identified the many topics on which Islamist extremists demand silence on pain of death; and, most recently, Niladri Chatterjee, the organiser of a local science and rationalists’ association, who had posted on Facebook aligning himself with atheists and sceptics of religion, and who was killed in his own home by intruders who locked his wife on the balcony while they butchered him. We pay tribute to them for their courage and for standing for what they believe in, but 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
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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?
Finally, we must be sure that we too in our daily lives do not discriminate against atheists. Why is it that the DCMS persistently refuses to allow on Remembrance Day the Armed Forces Humanists Association from being represented? It is a disgrace and the Government should take it up and do something about it.
Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve (CB): My Lords, I intended today to speak in the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on palliative care but a rather happy slip of the cursor entered my name for this debate—fortunate, because the topic of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is of the utmost importance and because I shall have the opportunity to speak on palliative care in the debate on the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, tomorrow. I declare interests relevant to this debate, both as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and on account of publishing and lecturing on this and other rights.
There is a great deal of confusion about Article 18 rights in the United Kingdom at present. This is not because the UK is a society in which there is flagrant violation of this right. We do not criminalise apostasy and we are, in the main, a tolerant society. However, confusion has arisen about the proper interpretation of the phrase “religion or belief” from a number of cases in the lower courts dealing, it must be said, mainly with employment issues. A central confusion is about the meaning to be given to the term “belief”. On the one hand, courts have held:
“A belief must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information”,
and on the other, that any belief that is to be protected by this right should,
“attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance”.
Peter Edge and Lucy Vickers conclude in their recentReview of Equality and Human Rights Law Relating to Religion and Belief that the,
“broad definition of belief currently being applied by the courts is unclear, and some rulings appear inconsistent with others”.
Their views are widely shared. It is puzzling to find opposition to fox hunting classified by one tribunal as a religion or belief, but support for fox hunting not classified as a religion or belief. Things would be much clearer if the courts noted that Article 18, like Article 9 of the European convention, yokes religion and belief, suggesting that the kinds of belief that count must be life orienting rather than bearing on a single aspect of life—a Weltanschauung rather than a specific political or ethical position. More occasional or disjointed beliefs and their expression are properly protected by rights to freedom of expression. I suggest that this troubling confusion about Article 18 rights in the UK can be settled only by further legislation or—but it is probably too slow—by the accumulation of further court decisions that do not simply point in contradictory directions.
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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.
Of those driving Iraqis and Syrians from their homes, ISIS/Daesh has been the most fanatical. Its true believers include some seeking an austere and ethical life, but it also attracts some psychopaths. A combination of idealists and thugs is dynamic and dangerous as well as being totally intolerable. Military means alone will not be enough to defeat ISIS. Muslim minds must be won over by showing that better ideas can work in practice. I am glad to note that the Catholic Church and many other churches, together with Muslim and other groups, are now meeting the needs of refugees and the displaced. This is true all the way from Calais and the Mediterranean to Baghdad.
Pope Francis and many other leaders have appealed for practical help and for the resettlement of the most vulnerable. These are all reasons why human rights and religious freedoms must be upheld.
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.
We are here to discuss one of those freedoms: freedom of religion, as enshrined in Article 18. This right, I am glad to say, is widely recognised and respected in the UK. It can be possible to underplay the importance of this right. It can seem somewhat less salient when compared to the humanitarian necessity of freedom from fear and the lofty idealism of freedom of speech and expression, but it is one of the most precious liberties we have in our society. 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
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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): My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton of Liverpool for bringing this debate to us and introducing it with his usual passion and eloquence as he spoke about the problem of religious intolerance and intolerance of belief across the world. I am grateful, too, as I am sure others are, for the slip of the cursor that ensured the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, made a contribution. Indeed, I want to pick up from her contribution where she spoke about the troubling confusion that seems to be around in the UK about these matters. It seems that there is now a pervasive lack of knowledge and understanding of what religion is about. Indeed, the religious affairs correspondent of the BBC said in one of the broadsheets some months ago that it would no longer be possible to successfully make a satire like Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” because there are not enough people around now who understand what the satire was about. That seems to me to be something of a condemnation of the BBC, in that it has failed in that aspect of its educative mandate and to ensure that people do understand the importance of these matters. But 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.
Much of this is to do with a lack of understanding of the psychology of large groups and how they function and, in particular, of how groups think. For example, people will talk about all religions talking about the same thing or having the same views. They do not. That is just nonsense which can be maintained only by somebody who does not know anything much about any of them. Religions are different and have very different results in the lives of the people who believe and follow them. However, there is another fundamental difference, between fundamentalism and
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other ways of viewing religious faith. This question of how religious faiths are held and the way in which people think, whether they are religious or not, is perhaps the most important one, because there can be atheistic fundamentalists just as much as religious fundamentalists. In many ways, those with different religious faiths who hold their beliefs in a non-fundamentalist way are often closer in understanding than so-called coreligionists. 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 Report2014 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 counterextremism 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”.
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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): My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate and thank him for giving us another opportunity this year to debate an issue of crucial importance not only to us but to the whole country. I take into account very much what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. There is often a misunderstanding about the fact that religions are different and that we cannot treat them as all the same. It does not mean that one is discriminating just because one is treating people differently. I was particularly gripped by the words of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, when she talked about confusion in the courts about the way that they address belief. Those are matters that I would like to consider further.
This Government remain 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
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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
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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
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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?
Statement: 22 Oct 2015 : Column 813
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend Hugo Swire. The Statement is as follows.
“We are in the middle of a hugely positive state visit, which the Prime Minister has said will benefit not just our nations and our peoples but also the wider world. Yesterday, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary had extensive discussions with President Xi Jinping and his delegation. Those discussions continue today, including when the Prime Minister will host President Xi at Chequers.
As we have made very clear, the strong relationship which we are building allows us to discuss all issues. No issue, including human rights, is off the table. The UK-China joint statement, which we have agreed, commits both sides to continue our dialogue on human rights and the rule of law.
Turning to the case of Zhang Kai, we are aware that Zhang Kai has been accused of “endangering state security” and “assembling a crowd to disrupt social order”, apparently in relation to his work with churches in Zhejiang province. We are concerned that his whereabouts are undisclosed, and he has been reportedly denied access to legal representation.
At the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue, which was held in Beijing in April this year, we raised issues relating to religious freedom in China, including the destruction of churches and religious symbols in Zhejiang province. We raised a number of related individual cases.
A transparent legal system is a vital component of the rule of law, and we urge the Chinese authorities to ensure that proper judicial standards are upheld”.
Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. In July, the Minister expressed deep concern over the detention of Chinese Christian lawyers arrested that month as part of a major crackdown. She fully supported the subsequent EU statement calling for the release of those detained, who had sought to protect rights under the Chinese constitution. Now, we have the case of Zhang Kai, who was taken into custody by the police on 25 August. On 31 August, China Aid reported that he had been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for gathering a crowd to disturb public order and charges relating to stealing, spying, and buying and illegally providing state secrets and intelligence to entities outside China. The Minister referred to some information that she had. Could she go into more detail about what is
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available to the British Government in terms of this case, and in particular whether further charges have been made and whether there will be a further hearing?
I understand what the Minister said about raising this and other cases. However, will she confirm that she or other Ministers have had the opportunity to raise this further case with their Chinese counterparts, either before the current state visit or during it?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making reference to the fact that the Government are being consistent in their relationship with China and to the fact that we have pressed the importance of human rights upon our interlocutors there, because human rights underpin a stable and prosperous society.
On the noble Lord’s first question, with regard to the case, I am not in a position to give further information at the moment. What I can say is that it is the usual occurrence for diplomats in post in Beijing to keep a very close watch on any cases that are under way, to make attempts to visit people in detention and, when they are brought to trial, to ensure that they make every attempt to attend those trials. I am advised that, if denied access, they will remain in place in the court during the day to make the point that we are trying to see that there is proper judicial process. We have assistance in that from our EU colleagues.
In his second question, the noble Lord asked about the matter of imprisonment and the details of whether or not this issue has been raised, either before or during the course of the state visit. I cannot say further than I have at present because, as I mentioned very briefly in the Statement, there are continuing discussions this afternoon at Chequers and I would not wish to try to pre-empt what they may cover.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD): My Lords, first, will the Minister reassure us on one point? The other day, we heard worrying comments from the new Permanent Secretary to a Commons committee that the issue of human rights is now a lower priority in the FCO than the prosperity agenda. It would be very good, in the context of issues such as this, to have some reassurance. Secondly, could she explain how we have got into such a contradiction about our approach to countries such as China? We are extremely relaxed about sovereignty and Chinese foreign investment and anything else coming in, although human rights is, nevertheless, something that we talk about. However, in our relations with our European partners we are totally neuralgic, even sometimes hysterical, about invasions of sovereignty, and do not think that they should have the right to talk about human rights at all. How do we handle that sort of intense contradiction between our approach to democratic countries such as our European partners and authoritarian countries such as China?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, we are consistent throughout in our approach to human rights and in discussing these matters with countries around the world. Fortunately, I do not have neuralgia, either mental or physical, and have not detected any sign of it yet among my colleagues—I will keep watching, though.
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for giving me the opportunity to set out clearly the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with regard to human rights. What the Permanent Under-Secretary made clear in his exchange in the Select Committee is that the issue of human rights underpins everything that we do at the Foreign Office. It is embedded across the Foreign Office. I was concerned that the previous way, in which we set out a list of priorities, meant that there were categories of people in this country who could look at those priorities and think, “I am not there; they don’t care about me”. There were people on that list who might think, “Why am I fourth on the list?”—freedom of religion and belief or of no religion was fourth. So in seeking to redraft the way in which we present our commitment to human rights, I was driven by the belief that those in the LGBT community or those who are disabled should realise that we are for all people. As I mentioned at the PinkNews event last night at the Foreign Office, no one person is more valuable than another; we are all valuable. That is what our redrafted approach to human rights makes clear, and it is embedded across all departments in the Foreign Office.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, will the Minister confirm that Zhang Kai has been at the forefront of the fight in the Zhejiang province in speaking out for both the registered and unregistered churches, more than 1,500 of which have had their crosses removed and been subjected to intimidation and the kind of discrimination that she has just referred to? Will she further confirm that over 280 rights lawyers have been detained or disappeared in China since 9 July, including Zhang Kai? Rights lawyers in China are at the forefront of the defence of Article 18 freedoms: the right to believe, to not believe or to change your belief. As a result, their own human rights and freedoms are subject to heavy restrictions. Perhaps the most well-known rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, remains under house arrest after years of imprisonment, torture and enforced disappearance. I hope that the Minister will assure us that she will pursue that case. Would she be willing to meet, during his present visit to London, Chen Guangcheng, the barefoot, blind human rights lawyer who was imprisoned for four years after exposing the coercive one-child policy in China?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I always do my very best to meet those who seek to meet me. I have to say that my attention has been somewhat diverted at the moment by the European Union Referendum Bill. However, I will certainly see what I can do with regard to his request. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has put on record the work of Zhang Kai, which is significant. He is one of those people whose bravery can only be admired by those of us who see the importance of human rights defenders around the world.
The noble Lord is right: we are extremely concerned about the activity of crosses being removed. We are told that, sometimes, the rationale behind that is that there are planning restrictions, but it seems odd to us. Certainly, detention and disappearance should not be part and parcel of a normal judicial system. Perhaps we will
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have the opportunity to look at this further when the noble Lord has a Question for Short Debate in the Moses Room about Article 18.
It is important that we continue our discussions on these matters. Last week at the FCO, my right honourable friend Hugo Swire, who has country-specific responsibility for China, met 14 people from the China NGO Network, representing those who have a particular interest in fighting for human rights in China.
Lord Lea of Crondall (Lab): My Lords, does the Minister think that one way of responding to the disconnect alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is to say that the deepening of our relations on industrial and such matters reinforces the need and the moral duty to raise human rights issues?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I certainly believe that a constructive economic relationship with another country gives one the opportunity to have a stronger voice on why human rights should underpin a stable and responsible government. That voice does not have to be a clarion call; it can be more modest. I am reminded that Tony Blair made the point that,
“ persuasion and dialogue achieve more than confrontation and empty rhetoric”.
I cannot often agree with him, but I do there.
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Tuesday 13th October saw the Launch of the 2015 edition of Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith, produced by the charity Aid to the Church in Need (UK).
Persecuted and Forgotten? assesses the extent of human rights violations against Christians in more than 20 countries where the problem is most severe, using in-country research corroborated against existing material. Each country report examines the causes of persecution through incident reports dating from 2013–present.
At a time when refugees have dominated the headlines, the launch event, which will take place in the British parliament and will be chaired by Lord (David) Alton, will hear from witnesses of persecution. They each have their own stories of those who have fled their homes in search of sanctuary and others who have stayed behind.
In addition to a brief overview on Persecuted and Forgotten?, speakers included:
• Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart from Syria: Ministering in Aleppo, severely affected in the conflict, the archbishop’s cathedral and home have been bombed at least a dozen times
• Victoria Youhanna from Nigeria: Aged 15, she and her family were captured by Islamist terror group Boko Haram but they escaped.
• Archbishop Silvano Tomasi: The Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the UN based in Geneva
• Timothy Cho: A young man who witnessed persecution of Christians in North Korea
• Father Douglas Bazi – from Erbil, northern Iraq who was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad
Opening Statement by David Alton: Lord Alton of Liverpool – at a meeting held in the House of Lords on October 13th 2015, organised by the charity Aid To the Church In Need
Syria and Iraq “a genocide that dares not speak its name.”
|Masking itself in the cover of conflict, and no doubt fortified by the world’s silence, in Syria and Iraq a genocide of Christians is underway.
With its echoes of the genocide launched against Armenian Christians one hundred years ago, in 1915, other defenceless ethnic-religious minorities, such as the Yazidis, are also victims of this Islamist genocide.
Deep rooted religious hatred, a hatred of difference, is driving on a systematic campaign of deportation and exodus, degrading treatment, including sexual violence, enslavement, barbaric executions, and attempts to systematically destroy all history and culture that is not their own.
By way of example, three weeks ago three Christians captured from Assyrian Christian villages in Syria, were executed after Jihadist demands for $10 million ransom were not met.
As they were lined up, on their knees, garbed in orange jumpsuits the three Christian men were murdered with a single shot to the back of each head.
In its video of this execution, ISIS threatens to kill the 202 remaining Christian hostages who were seized in the same raid. Meanwhile, over 2,000 Yazidi women and girls remain sexually enslaved by ISIS, and some are now pregnant, while others have been forced to undergo abortions.
This genocide – which was named as such by Pope Francis – but which western political leaders refuse to speak its name – is part of a wider picture.
Massimo Introvigne of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe spoke this summer at the “International Conference on Inter-religious dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims.”
Introvigne told the conference that the number of Christians killed every year for their faith is estimated at about 105,000. That number does not include those killed as victims of war: just those who were put to death simply because they were Christians
Put another way, a Christian is murdered every five minutes. I’ll say it again, according to these figures, on average, a Christian is martyred every five minutes — killed because of their faith. 24 will dies while we meet here this afternoon.
Introviigne said that the persecution of Christians is “a worldwide emergency” and that “If these numbers are not cried out to the world, if this slaughter is not stopped, the dialogue between religions will only produce beautiful conferences but no concrete results,”
According to Dr.Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, in “The Price of Freedom Denied” the number of Christian martyrs may be even higher, between 130,000 and 160,000 per year.
In human terms, numbers – statistics – can often become meaningless and may be disputed, which is why the stories being told in Parliament this afternoon, from Syria to Iraq, from Nigeria to North Korea – give these horrific numbers real meaning and why they demand our attention.
By illustration, just consider one or two shocking accounts from this month alone.
On October 6th Islamic State announced that, in an unnamed village outside Aleppo, it carried out an execution of 12 Christians, including a 12-year-old child, the son of a Christian leader, for refusing to recant their Christian faith and convert to Islam.
When the father refused, IS members tortured the child, with two other Christians, crucified them to death. The boy had his fingertips cut off, in an attempt to force his father to convert to Islam. Their bodies were left hanging on the crosses for two days, under signs reading “infidels.”
In the same week Christian Aid said that 20 people were killed for refusing to convert to Islam, including two women. When they refused, a 29-year-old and 33-year-old woman were brutally raped. Eight captives were then beheaded.
According to witnesses the victims prayed and said the name of Christ before they were killed. Others prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Some lifted up their heads to heaven declaring their faith in Christ. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, it is estimated that the number of Christians has fallen from about 1.5 million people in 2003 to less than 200,000 people today.
Elsewhere in the world – think of the depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria or the horrors perpetrated in Pakistan – Christians are also in the front line of unrelenting violent persecution.
At a meeting here at Westminster, which I chaired, a North Korean Christian woman, Hea Woo, gave a graphic and powerful account of her time inside a concentration camp – where torture and beatings are routine, and where prisoners were so hungry they were reduced to eating rats, snakes, or even searching for grains in cow dung.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry says that human rights violations, including persecution of Christians, is “without parallel” – with between two and three hundred thousand people incarcerated in the camps.
In such places the dignity of human life counts for nothing. Hea Woo told us:
“Sometimes we had soup with nothing in it, just full of dirt. In some places whole families were put into camps. They separated the men from the women and even if they saw each other they couldn’t talk to each other. The guards told us that we are not human beings, we are just prisoners, so we don’t have any right to love. We were just animals. Even if people died there, they didn’t let the family members outside know. “
To push this widespread but frequently ignored persecution up the political agenda Aid to the Church In Need is today launching a Pledge Card which constituents can ask their MP to sign. It a Pledge to use every opportunity to speak up for those who have no voice. It takes very little effort to ask an MP to take action – but in doing so it might just save a life.
|Either there is a genocide underway, or there is not; either there is worldwide persecution of Christians, or there is not; either someone is being killed every few minutes, or they are not; either there is a worldwide emergency, or there is not. After you have heard from today’s contributors you can draw your own conclusions and then decide if you can remain silent or indifferent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian murdered by the Nazis, said of those who remained silent in the face of great evil: “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds”. Let that not be said of us.
Why Hasn’t the Situation in Syria been Referred to the International Criminal Court for Crimes Against Humanity? See the Government’s reply…
Parliamentary Reply On Boko Haram
Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (HL2311):
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of progress in combating Boko Haram in Nigeria; what assessment they have made of how many deaths and acts of terror that group has been responsible for over the past year; and how many of the girls who have been abducted by Boko Haram have been rescued to date. (HL2311)
Tabled on: 17 September 2015
Baroness Anelay of St Johns:
While we welcome progress made by Nigeria and its neighbours, Boko Haram remains a threat to security in North East Nigeria and the wider region. Due to the nature of Boko Haram attacks, which often take place in remote areas, it is difficult to provide accurate and reliable figures relating to their activities, including the numbers of people killed and abducted. However we estimate that over 20,000 people have been killed, 2.2 million internally displaced and 4.6 million affected by the insurgency.
We are aware of several hundred women and children being released by Boko Haram this year. We have stressed to the Nigerian authorities the importance that they are provided with appropriate support.
Date and time of answer: 29 Sep 2015 at 17:30.