From Baroness Berridge: Religious freedom should be at the heart of this Government's foreign policy
One of the cornerstones of conservatism is the deeply rooted belief that every human being should be free to live according to their convictions and fulfil their potentials without any hindrance from the state. If, as Conservatives, we take a high view of freedom, surely the most basic freedom - and therefore the most fundamental - is the freedom of one’s thoughts and conscience.
Regimes that violate freedom of religion or belief, or allow non-state actors to violate this freedom with impunity, are their own worst enemy. It is a fundamental truth about human beings that without the freedom to form what we think, believe or don’t believe, and express it, neither the individual nor the society he or she belongs to can ever advance.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights therefore enshrines this freedom in the Article 18:
“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 and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
These abuses can take the form of denial of the right to worship in community with others, preach or teach beliefs to congregations, or publish materials. They can also be evidenced by discrimination in the form of denial of access to health, jobs, education, housing or justice, simply because of one’s religion or affiliation. Most worryingly, all studies show a sharp increase around the world in violence against religious minorities, either directly by states or by their indirect approval, by impunity granted to attackers.
As Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, therefore, it was with a sense of urgency that I launched our first report, which examines this subject: “Article 18: an orphaned right”. In it, a group of leading experts outline the international standard expected of states in terms of protecting this human right, and compare it with actual circumstances on the ground. Perhaps their greatest contribution to the debate on this long-ignored topic, however, is the solidity of the case they make for placing freedom of religion at the heart of British foreign policy.
Take the example of the Arab Spring. The best indicator of how democratically the new governments forming across the region are being run has not been whether there were fair and free elections, but whether they are committed to protect freedom of religion and belief for all within their borders, and in particular for precarious religious minorities. All of the constitutional debates, as well as most worrying incidents of violence and exclusion, have been centred on the issue of religion.
It is in Britain’s interests to help countries that see low levels of religious freedom and high levels of religious violence to build stable and free societies. Only such societies can engage healthily with the rest of the world. Only such societies will be able to solve issues of militancy, radicalisation and religiously motivated violence. Unaddressed abuses of Article 18 create serious implications for security, as well as producing more vulnerable victims who have no option but to seek asylum in countries where they can enjoy these basic freedoms without fear of repercussions.
It is thus not surprising to see how, increasingly, the topic of religious freedom arises in debates and questions asked in both Houses of Parliament. Among our MPs and peers there is a clear and growing concern about religious freedom, which reflects the worries of constituents, faith groups and diaspora communities.
The report commends much of the current work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by Baroness Warsi - but makes several detailed recommendations of ways that the FCO can further raise the profile and awareness of freedom of religion or belief as a human right, including the creation of a dedicated freedom of religion and belief post at ambassadorial level. However it also, crucially, directs two of its recommendations towards the Department for International Development, urging it to prioritise freedom of religion or belief in its work, and to ensure that where aid is provided or contracts awarded overseas, it is channelled to civil society organisations or government programmes that demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of this human right. As spending on overseas aid continues to be protected, this remains a very practical way in which the UK can promote freedom of religion and belief in difficult situations around the world.
It is important that Conservatives grasp this agenda and promote it in their manifesto - which will enable MPs and PPCs to show that we are the Party that understands the issues for many of Britain’s faith communities, who often host the most well-attended hustings. Also Conservatives will be displaying that they understand that it is often the relatives of British citizens who are being killed in Nigeria and Pakistan.Over the coming months, this new All Party Parliamentary Group has set itself the task of fighting for recognition of freedom of religion and belief as a full member of the human rights family, with all the status that entails. In many ways I am not surprised that it is hitherto been neglected. Even defining this right in a world, and indeed a nation, of enormous religious diversity is beset with complexity. But this work cannot be circumnavigated. It is impossible to imagine a world that is free, fair or safe without the freedom of every individual to adopt, change or reject religion or belief as their conscience dictates.