The FCO's human rights work in 2013 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

7  Freedom of religion or belief

68. The Government made the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief a key priority in 2013. Ministers were asked to be "ambassadors for religious freedom", and diplomatic staff are undergoing a new programme in "religious literacy" to equip them to "understand and influence the complex role religion plays in global politics today".[127] The FCO ran one-day training courses on religion and foreign policy, and organised a programme of seminars, covering issues such as 'Religion, Politics and Human Rights in the New Middle East', 'The Islamic Worldview: its relevance to foreign policy' and 'An Introduction to the Baha'i faith' for FCO staff. Since January 2013, 107 members of staff across government have completed training courses on the freedom of religion or belief. Of these, four were senior civil servants, 20 were heads of sections, 73 were desk officers and 10 were support officers, and one-third of these attendees had come from other government departments.[128]

69. A new Advisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief was formed as a sub-group of the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Group in March 2014. The members of the group are:

Table 2: Members of the FCO Advisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Kate Allen, UK Director, Amnesty International

Waqar Azmi, Chairman, Remembering Srebrenica

Mashood Baderin, School of Law SOAS, University of London

Shami Chakrabarti, Director, Liberty

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Association

Joel Edwards, International Director, Micah Challenge

Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law, University of Bristol

Tom Gallagher, Professor of Ethnic Conflict & Peace, University of Bradford

Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Edward Kessler, Executive Director, Woolf Institute

David Mepham, UK Director, Human Rights Watch

Trevor Pears, Executive Chairman, Pears Family Charitable Foundation

Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies, University of Oxford

Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive, Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Roger Trigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick, and Senior Research Fellow, Ian Ramsey Centre, University of Oxford

The sub-group met in March 2014 to discuss "vision and strategy" but no strategy document has been published.[129] Baroness Warsi, as Chair of the new sub-group, said after the first meeting that "the persecution of people because of their faith or belief has, I believe, become a global crisis"[130]; and the Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, Minister of State at the FCO, has described freedom of religion or belief as a "litmus test for other human rights", which could be a "catalyst towards securing other fundamental freedoms".[131]

Restrictions on religious freedoms

70. According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, with increases reported in every major region of the world expect the Americas.[132] There is a rising trend in the number of reports of violence against religious minorities. The FCO's 2013 Report gave examples of restrictions in a number of countries. During the course of 2013, 16 people were awaiting execution, and another 20 were serving life sentences in Pakistan under the country's blasphemy law; there has been no reduction in the persecution of religious minorities in Iran; the security situation in Iraq worsened in 2013, with increased attacks on Christians and Sunnis; extremist Buddhist groups in Burma and Sri Lanka were responsible for organised violence against Muslim communities; and there has been an intensification of hostilities against Ahmadiyya, Christian and Shi'a communities in Indonesia, which has a tradition of religious diversity and tolerance.

71. We asked witnesses what the right to freedom of religion or belief actually meant in practical terms. Professor Evans was candid about the difficulty in defining this right: he said that no serious attempt had been made to "lend greater specificity to what the freedom of religion and belief actually means".[133] Baroness Warsi said that the FCO had been "much more outspoken" in defining this right.[134] She defined the right as:

    "the freedom to have a religion or a belief, freedom to manifest that religion or belief, freedom to change that religion or belief, and freedom not to have a religion or belief".[135]

Baroness Warsi said that one of the challenges with the right to freedom of religion or belief is that "it is sometimes interpreted very differently in the West as opposed to the East. We protect believers, whereas large parts of the East like to protect the religion. It has been really hard to reconcile that space politically and internationally".[136] We also note that protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief may conflict with other human rights such as LGBT rights and women's rights.

72. Restrictions on the freedom of religion or belief can fall into two broad categories: direct state denial of religious freedom, and state failure to protect. Direct state denial includes situations where the government either actively persecutes individuals or communities on the basis of their beliefs, or denies them the possibility to choose freely what they believe. In practice, this might mean legislative frameworks which deny religious groups a "legal personality", rendering it impossible for them to own property or places of worship for example.[137] Restrictive laws on apostasy[138] or blasphemy[139] mean that individuals who wish to change belief are threatened by conviction or even death: the case of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death over charges of apostasy in Sudan, has been widely publicised.[140]

73. The other of these two categories is state failure to protect, which occurs when governments fail to protect religious groups that are subject to abuses by non-state actors. The Pew Research Centre found that in 51 countries, there were clear instances when the government did not intervene in social discrimination and abuses of religious groups by non-state actors. Professor Evans noted that states' failure to protect was often "acquiescence in traditional rivalries and hostilities which governments at different times have encouraged when it suits their interests".[141] The persecution of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma and the Shia communities in Pakistan are two such cases.

FCO's work on freedom of religion or belief

74. The FCO's response to what it describes as a "rising tide of restrictions" has been carried out in four main ways: through multilateral organisations; bilateral engagement; project work; and training and expertise for FCO ministers and officials.[142] We asked Baroness Warsi what the FCO hoped to achieve through its new emphasis on the freedom of religion or belief. She said:

    "We started off from a very low base… [because] the concept of faith in the public sphere—even talking about faith in the public sphere, or belief, or religion—was considered in itself to be politically either naive or stupid. When we first came into Government, it was important to me that the first speech I made was that this Government would "do God". I wanted to signal a change."[143]

She added that it was important to increase "religious literacy" to build "confidence" in officials to have the "tough conversations" around sensitive issues around the world, and she said that the FCO wanted to bring in expertise and had done so through the sub-group on freedom of religion or belief, to help the FCO formulate campaigns and policy.[144] She said that speeches such as the one she had given in Georgetown about the persecution of Christians had "indicated a much more confident and front-footed Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as a Government who are prepared to tackle these issues. Ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, are now much more frank about discussing these issues".[145]

75. The FCO spent £204,000 on project work on freedom of religion or belief in 2013-14: that is equivalent to three per cent of the total Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund. Baroness Warsi told us that the FCO would be spending more than £204,000 on project work in 2013-14.[146]

76. We welcome the steps taken by the FCO in promoting the right to freedom of religion or belief. Given the rising trend in restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief and the role religious intolerance plays in fuelling conflict, we also welcome the FCO's indication that spending on project work to support freedom of religion or belief will rise from 2013-14 levels. The formation of a sub-group of the Secretary of State's Advisory Group on Human Rights to advise specifically on freedom of religion or belief is a sensible and worthwhile step. We recommend that the FCO publish the strategy being drawn up by the sub-group specifying what the FCO is trying to achieve and how it plans to spend the funding allocated to project work. The strategy should specify which countries the FCO is targeting, if any, which partners it plans to engage with, and what practical steps it will take to bring about change.

127   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 21; page 66  Back

128   Memorandum from the FCO (HRS0036)  Back

129   "Foreign Office Advisory Group on freedom of religion or belief", FCO press release , 25 March 2014, Back

130   Ibid. Back

131   HC Debate, 1 May 2014, col 1094 [Commons Chamber] Back

132   Pew Research Center, "Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High", January 2014, Back

133   Q 49 Back

134   Q 63 Back

135   Ibid. Back

136   Q 64 Back

137   Q 44 Back

138   Apostasy is the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle.  Back

139   Blasphemy is an action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things. Back

140   "Meriam Ibrahim, Christian threatened with execution in Sudan, arrives in US", The Guardian online, 1 August 2014, Back

141   Q 44 Back

142   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 21 Back

143   Q 63 Back

144   Q 63 Back

145   Ibid. Back

146   Q 65 Back

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Prepared 27 November 2014