Question for Short Debate
My Lords, in welcoming the Minister to her fairly new responsibilities, the lodestar in today’s short debate is Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated in the aftermath of the defining horrors of the Holocaust and in a century during which 100 million people were murdered because they chose in some way to be different. Today Article 18 is honoured only in its breach. In the light of new genocides, concentration camps, abductions, rape, forced conversions, forced marriages, imprisonment, persecution, public floggings, enslavement, mass murder, beheadings and the vast displacement of millions of people, we should ask ourselves: of what value are such declarations or conventions on genocide if they can be utterly disregarded with indifference and contempt?
Let us look at the evidence. The annual Pew study of religious freedom found that in 24% of countries, in which 74% of the world’s population lives, there were serious restrictions on religious freedom. One-quarter of the world’s countries have blasphemy laws and more than one in 10 have laws penalising apostasy. This has led, for instance, to a death sentence in the case of Pakistan’s Asia Bibi; to the public beating of Saudi Arabia’s atheist Raif Badawi; to the imprisonment for 10 years in Iran of Saeed Abedini, for “undermining national security” after hosting Christian gatherings in his home; to Chinese Catholics such as Bishop Cosma Shi Enxiang, who died at 94 after spending half his life in prison; and to Chinese Protestants, who since the beginning of 2016, have seen 49 of their churches defaced or destroyed, crosses removed and a pastor’s wife crushed to death in the rubble as she pleaded with the authorities to desist. Earlier this week, on Tuesday, Mr Speaker hosted the premiere of “The Bleeding Edge”, drawing attention to the harvesting of organs of Falun Gong practitioners in China.
In countries such as Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya, contempt for Article 18 has led to the targeting and murder of Christians, Yazidis and others by ISIS, the Taliban, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. In North Korea, a country I have visited four times, 300,000 people are incarcerated in gulags. A United Nations report describes it as a country “without parallel” and highlights the execution and imprisonment of Christians.
I have seen contempt for Article 18 in many other situations: among Rohingya Muslims persecuted in Burma; in degrading detention centres in south-east Asia where fleeing Pakistani Christians and Ahmadis are incarcerated; and at its bloodiest worst among Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and Yazidis fleeing the genocide in Syria and Iraq. Yet, for fear of offending countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have exported so much of the poison, we rarely call things what they are.
In Pakistan, for example, the Government describe events as “discrimination” and refuses to recognise them as persecution. Over the summer I was guest of honour at Liverpool’s refurbished Pakistan centre. It was a wonderful evening of celebration. Pakistan’s green and white flag was designed to represent the green of Islam and the white of the minorities. In 1947, Pakistan’s great statesman and founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, crafted a constitution which promised to uphold plurality and diversity and to protect all citizens. Jinnah said:
“You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State. Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure. There will be no interference of any kind with their freedom of worship. They will have their protection with regard to their religion, faith, their life and their culture. They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste and creed”.
However, whether judged against the backdrop of the assassination five years ago of the country’s Christian Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, who questioned the blasphemy laws, or the orgy of bombings, killings, rapes, imprisonment and abductions, notably in Lahore, Pakistan has allowed the systematic targeting of religious minorities in a culture of impunity. This persecution is catalogued in a report that I launched in Parliament.
One escapee recounted how his friend Basil, a pastor’s son, was targeted by Pakistani Islamists attempting to convert him. After refusing, his home was set alight. Basil, his wife and 18 month-old daughter were burned alive. No one was brought to justice and there is little evidence that Pakistan is striving to uphold Jinnah’s admirable vision. Perhaps the Minister, when she comes to reply, will tell us how the more than £1 billion of British aid, given over the past two years, is doing anything to support Pakistan’s beleaguered minorities, often the poorest of the poor, or to promote religious freedom or peaceful coexistence.
The UK fails to name persecution for what it is and, even worse, to name genocide for what it is. Words matter: they determine priorities and policies. The House of Commons, the United States Congress, the European Parliament and others have declared events in Syria and Iraq to be genocide.
In a leading article, the Times said that the destruction of Christians from the Middle East,
“now amounts to nothing less than genocide … That crime, most hideously demonstrated by the Nazis, now enjoins others to take active steps to protect the victims”.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the right honourable Boris Johnson said that ISIS is,
“engaged in what can only be called genocide … though for some baffling reason the Foreign Office still hesitates to use the term genocide”.
Perhaps when she comes to reply, the Minister will ease Mr Johnson’s bafflement and tell us why the Government still fail to name this genocide for what it is, or to table resolutions in either the General Assembly or the Security Council seeking a referral to the International Criminal Court, or to help establish a regional tribunal to try those responsible. Great nations should not sign conventions or affirm declarations such as Article 18 and then fail to uphold them.
The Minister might also tell us why DfID fails to recognise Christians and Yazidis as “vulnerable” under the criteria for aid and whether it has assessed the reports that Christians and other minorities are too frightened to enter the refugee camps and have even been targeted again when they reach Europe.
ISIS works in a consistent manner, killing men, women and children, but also destroying their holy places, doing its utmost to eradicate any collective memory of a people’s very existence. While the ISIS genocide in Syria and Iraq may simply be seen as inhumane butchery, it is fundamentally an attack on freedom of conscience and belief.
Our failure to prevent, protect and punish contributes directly to the refugee crisis. There are 55 million people now living as refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons, with a further 60 million people forcibly displaced. Conversely, in those countries that promote freedom of religion or belief, there is a direct correlation with prosperity and the contentment and happiness of the populace.
How right is the BBC’s courageous chief correspondent, Lyse Doucet, when she says:
“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world”.
But western Governments are often illiterate when it comes to religious faith. We just call it “terror” and have developed a worrying, timid moral equivalence, refusing to call evil by its name for fear of giving offence.
Although I welcome strongly the Article 18 conference, which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will host in October and which I hope the Minister will be able to tell us more about, does the FCO still have only one desk officer dedicated to Article 18 issues? Learning to live together in respect and tolerance, whether we have a religious faith or not, is truly the great challenge of our times. Scholars, the media and policymakers need to promote far greater religious literacy and shape different priorities.
The life-and-death urgency that this task represents was starkly underlined by the recent execution of the 84 year-old French priest Father Jacques Hamel, and by the murder of the Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah, who often reached out to his Christian neighbours and customers. Tanveer Ahmed allegedly drove up from Bradford to kill Mr Shah because he said that he was disrespectful of Islam. Mr Shah was an Ahmadi. In Pakistan, millions of Ahmadis are denied citizenship and 10,000 have fled this year. Now it seems that they are to be targeted in Britain too.
If Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists and others are no longer to see one another as an existential threat, we must provide an alternative narrative, based on Article 18, capable of forestalling the unceasing incitements to hatred which especially pour from the internet and which capture unformed minds.
Britain, for all its faults, is a society in which adulterers are not flogged, gays are not executed, women are not stoned for not being veiled, churches are not burned, so-called apostates had not, until recently, been killed, and non-believers are not forced to convert or treated as “dhimmis” or second-class citizens. In thanking all noble Lords for participating in today’s short debate, I conclude by saying that we should be proud of the freedoms we enjoy and must work hard to achieve the same freedoms for all. In that task, Article 18 must remain our lodestar.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing today’s debate and draw attention to my interests in the register.
Only yesterday, at an event hosted by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, the new UN special rapporteur, Dr Shaheed stated: “Freedom of religion or belief is in crisis”.
Last July, my noble friend Lady Anelay stated:
“Freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra, or nice to have; it is the key human right”.—[Official Report, 16/7/15; col. 599.]
This is crucial now that the UK itself is entering a new era of human rights and freedom of religion and belief post-Brexit. While the major focus is on Brexit and trade, the UK will no longer be part of the human rights diplomacy of the EU and the EAS, so we need to look elsewhere to replace this avenue. The warmth of the embrace given our Prime Minister by the Prime Minister of Australia at the recent G20 summit gives us the obvious answer: the Commonwealth.
As my noble friend Lady Anelay is also now the Minister responsible for the Commonwealth in Her Majesty’s Government, this gives your Lordships’ House a key role in engaging with this institution. Section 4 of the Commonwealth charter 2013 for the first time references freedom of religion and belief in a Commonwealth instrument and, on 22 January, in a Written Answer, Her Majesty’s Government stated:
“We will also continue to encourage Commonwealth partners to embrace the values set out in the Commonwealth Charter, including the freedom of religion or belief. We also look forward to discussing freedom of religion and other issues with the new Commonwealth Secretary General when she takes up office in April”.
Has my noble friend Lady Anelay indeed met the Commonwealth Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to discuss the UK’s approach to the promotion and protection of Article 18 in Commonwealth countries? What focus will human rights and Article 18 have at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in spring 2018, to be held here in the UK, and for the two years following when we will chair the Commonwealth? I also hope that Her Majesty’s Government will make time available for a lengthy debate in your Lordships’ House on the UK’s future strategic plan to engage with the Commonwealth.
While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is looking to strengthen rules-based international systems on human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is no longer enough to rely on international compliance with human rights instruments as an effective mechanism for human rights implementation, not least because it can serve as a smokescreen for only prima facie safety compliance. As we can see across the globe today, this is at the expense of ensuring that human rights and, more specifically, freedom of religion or belief, are accessible and meaningful to the individuals who bear those rights.
Unlike the EU, or indeed the UN, the Commonwealth has no binding formal obligations. Rather, its channels are considered informal and relaxed but none the less effective. Will my noble friend confirm that the new £400 million soft power fund will be open to projects to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief and other human rights in the Commonwealth? This neglected, multifaith network is vital to the UK’s future trade, diplomacy and human rights work. My noble friend Lord Howell previously called the Commonwealth the soft power network of the future but, in the light of Brexit, it is the soft power network of today.
My Lords I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this short debate and pay tribute to him for his continuing mission to give voice to the persecuted minorities of many faiths in our troubled world. In the few minutes available, I will focus on the situation in Iran—a truly dreadful situation that goes on and on. I should add that it is now 30 years since I first got involved in trying to get our Government to talk at the United Nations about the persecution of minorities and the abuse of human rights in that country.
Once again, we are discussing the persecution of religious minorities. This debate is very important, but I and many colleagues in both Houses believe that it should not be a substitute for concrete action to end systematic persecution.
The persecution of Christians, Baha’is and Sunni Muslims in Iran cannot be denied. It is well documented, and the Government and the FCO point to this in their latest Human Rights Priority Country update, published in July. It said:
“The Iranian constitution only formally recognises 3 religions other than Islam: Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Despite this, minority religions, and even non-Shi’a Muslims, face persecution and harassment in Iran”.
On 5 August the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned the execution of 20 Sunni Muslims in Iran. It was deplored that:
“In many of the cases, there were serious doubts about the fairness of the trials, respect for due process and other rights of the accused”.
Christian communities in Iran are not allowed to build their own churches. They are forced to turn their homes into churches for their congregations. These in-house churches are repeated targets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and plain-clothes agents of the intelligence ministry. On 12 August, 11 Christians were arrested during a raid at an in-house church in the city of Isfahan. Several days later, five converted Christians were arrested. They were all charged with bogus national security allegations, similar charges to those used by the Iranian authorities to justify the arrest and detention of British dual nationals in Iran. The Baha’i religion is not even recognised by the authorities in Iran. The Baha’i are hence deprived of their most fundamental rights and constantly harassed. It is essential to understand that the deteriorating human-rights situation in Iran, including the persecution of religious minorities for the past three decades, is a direct consequence of the culture of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators.
In this context, it is worth noting and highlighting the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988, which for 28 years was overlooked by the West and the international community, and it still is. New revelations from a recently released audio file and information exposed by the Iranian democratic opposition, the NCRI, show that at least 59 of those officials responsible at the time are today holding senior and ministerial positions in Iran, including the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Justice Minister of President Rouhani’s cabinet, Mostafa Pourmohammadi. This shows that those actively involved in oppression of people and annihilation of dissidents are rewarded rather than held accountable. Minister Pourmohammadi recently said of his role in the 1988 massacre, “We take pride in eliminating those who wage a war against God”.
If our aim is to improve the situation of religious minorities in Iran, the best approach by our Government is to take a lead on the global scene and make the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre accountable before an international tribunal. These officials are those who oppose religious minorities. In November last year the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, speaking at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee about the progress in human rights, said that it was high time for words to be translated into actions. May I respectfully ask the Minister that her words be pursued more forcibly in the coming weeks and months, whenever the opportunity arises?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. There are many areas of concern about the implementation and promotion of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The key point is that it is an essential component of the UN charter, from the UN’s original formation when the United Nations Assembly was conceived. It is very important because of that.
There are many parts of the world where Article 18 is not respected but I want to speak about one country in particular and support what the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, has said. I hope that by both of us speaking on this issue this point will be addressed; namely, concerns about Iran. Iran has been identified as one of the worst countries in the world. Article 18, which sets out the right to believe, not to believe, or to change your belief, is broken every day in Iran, which last year executed almost 1,000 people because of their religious or political beliefs. The recent upgrading of our relations with Iran is most puzzling in the light of consistent human rights violations.
It is especially concerning that the Christian community in Iran is so much under attack. Christians in Iran are prevented from openly exercising their beliefs or promoting their religion. It has also been highlighted that Baha’is are being executed, tortured or imprisoned in great numbers. Christians are criticised as illegal and systematically harassed and intimidated. Iran is one of the world’s 10 most inhospitable countries for Christians and those of other beliefs.
It is right that this matter should be addressed. Looking at Iran, we see that many of those who committed the 1988 massacre of political prisoners are still very much in charge so it would be naive to think there will be any change unless the international community raises the cost for the Iranian authorities of committing these atrocities against members of religious minorities and ordinary citizens. I urge the Government to publicly demand the prosecution of those who are known to have committed the 1988 massacre and impose sanctions on the identified perpetrators for their role in the systematic abuse at that time.
Like my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, I am very interested in Iran and have been to the many international events that have been held. I urge the Government to listen to Maryam Rajavi, who symbolises interfaith harmony between Christians and Muslims in that country, and to examine her 10-point democratic platform. Her plan, absolutely required in Iran, is also a possible route for many other countries. I hold it in great regard, and we in this country should support what she says and its implementation in Iran.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate, and for his tireless search for a solution to the problem of promoting universal adherence to the principles that underlie this article. Reduced to its simplest terms, Article 18 seeks to protect two inalienable rights. The first is the right to freedom of religion or belief itself. The second is the right to manifest that religion or belief in whatever way one chooses. Without the first one cannot have the second, and so it is the threats to the first that are of the greatest concern. They are legion, and they affect every faith.
The question is: what can be done to eradicate violations of the article? As a lawyer, I would love to think that there was a legal base for the article so that it could be enforced. After all, rights are not really rights unless the person whose rights are being infringed has access to a remedy. Two examples come to mind of legal bases which are to be found in other human rights instruments. There is the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9 of which is a mirror image of what we see in Article 18. As everyone knows, Section 2 of that convention set up the European Court of Human Rights with jurisdiction to say what its articles mean, to receive applications from individuals and to provide just satisfaction if there has been a violation. That mechanism was practicable within a small group of relatively like-minded nations such as we have in Europe, but we have to face the fact that it would have been beyond the reach of the universal convention, which was designed to apply across the entire world. So it is not there.
The other example is the 1984 torture convention. It was entered into having regard to Article 5 of the universal declaration—so there is a link there—and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which provide that no one shall be subjected to torture. Article 4 of the torture convention provides:
“Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law”.
Article 5 provides:
“Each State Party shall take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over the offences referred to in article 4”,
where, among other things,
“the victim is a national of that state”.
However, the convention goes even further than that. It requires,
“any State Party in whose territory a person alleged to have committed any offence … is present shall take him into custody”,
and to prosecute him there; failing which, to extradite him to the state of which the victim is a national so that he can be prosecuted in that country. We in this country, as many will remember, were asked to give effect to our obligations under that convention in the case of Senator Pinochet by extraditing him to Spain so that he could be prosecuted there for acts of torture committed in his own country but perpetrated against Spanish nationals, although he was able to escape from the consequences on grounds of ill health.
The Question which the noble Lord asks is directed to the Government. In the absence of a mechanism such as those to which I have referred, which would enable breaches of the article to be brought before a court, it surely is the Government’s responsibility to do all they can to eliminate the appalling violations to which other noble Lords have referred. But perhaps the time has come for someone to develop the idea of a freedom of religion convention along the lines of that which was devised to address the problem of torture. We cannot go on just talking about the problem. Something more fundamental needs to be done. I ask the Minister to at least take this suggestion away for further thought and consideration.
My Lords, Pakistan is a country that has prevalent issues in its adherence to Article 18 of the UDHR. Today, minorities are subject to forced conversions and marriages, blasphemy laws and even rape. The current situation is a sad state of affairs when we consider Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speech to the New Delhi Press Club in 1947 which pre-empted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He highlighted the importance of religious pluralism and freedom of religion or belief, and in his address he set out the basis on which the new state of Pakistan was to be founded. In particular, he forcefully defended the right of minorities to be protected and to have their beliefs respected, saying:
“Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion, faith or belief will be secure”.
Today, however, minorities do not have the safeguards he spoke of and from current trends it appears that the realisation of Article 18 in Pakistan may become a distant dream. One area that is exacerbating the situation for minorities are the curricula and public school textbooks, which contain indoctrinating teachings against minorities. There is considerable evidence that many children from religious minority backgrounds are discriminated against in schools and some do not attend at all due to a culture of intolerance and hatred against them within classrooms. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has highlighted issues with many textbooks used in Pakistan, which are sowing discord and animosity against minorities. Its major findings are that the content of Pakistani public school textbooks related to non-Islamic faiths and non-Muslims continues to teach bias, distrust and inferiority. This perhaps provides some explanation of the deteriorating state of religious freedom in Pakistan today.
Considering that over 30% of DfID’s aid to Pakistan is allocated towards education, it is important to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government do not in any way contribute towards perpetuating the negative portrayal of religious minorities and the incitement of intolerance and hatred. Instead, we must ensure that we support vulnerable children from religious minority backgrounds and address the discrimination or persecution they may face. Not only would this help encourage more students into education but it would contribute to building peace and stability while countering prospective radicalisation. It is imperative that that these curricula and the culture are reformed to ensure that a generation of children are not brought up with a skewed and intolerant attitude to religious minorities as this provides fertile conditions for radicalisation.
Inevitably, the manifestation of intolerant attitudes will further inflame an environment which is already hostile towards minorities. It will further degrade the fragile condition of freedom of religion or belief in Pakistan. Thus we must ensure that we are doing everything we can to bring about cultural change in Pakistan in order fully to respect Article 18.
My Lords, I also offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this important debate and for the vast amount of work he does in this field. All too often, debates and questions in this House describe the appalling treatment of religious minorities across the world. Unfortunately, the response from government is in my view far from even-handed. The world, it seems, is still seen in terms of friendly countries to be spoken to quietly, if at all, and the characterisation of those who are not dependent on us for trade or strategic influence as nasty regimes to be condemned in the most strident terms.
Let me give an example. In 2014, the Government described the human rights record of the Sri Lankan Government as “appalling” and called for an international inquiry. I asked whether the Government would press for a similar inquiry into the Government-led massacre of thousands of Sikhs in India. The short, sharp response was that it was “a matter for the Indian Government”. Why the lack of even-handedness? I have asked the same question several times both in the Chamber and in Questions for Written Answer, but always to no effect. On the last occasion, some six months ago, I was promised a considered reply from the Minister, but I am still waiting for it.
In France today, Sikhs are being humiliated by being asked to remove their turbans for identity photos in defiance of a UNHCR court ruling that the actions of the French Government are an infringement of the rights of Sikhs under Article 18. There was no mention of this in our Government’s recent report on human rights abuses across the world. France, after all, is a “friendly” country. These examples of religious discrimination are especially hurtful to the followers of a religion in which freedom of belief is considered to be so important that our Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, gave his life defending the right of Hindus, those of a different religion from his own, to freedom of worship.
What is of concern to me and others is that we, like other members of what we euphemistically call the Security Council are still living in a world of 19th-century power politics, a world in which the abuse of human rights was conveniently overlooked in a greed-fuelled era of strategic alliances. If there are any doubts about the failure of our power-bloc politics, we should reflect on the current tragedy of the Middle East, which began a century ago with the carving up of the former Ottoman Empire by British and French diplomats.
As a Christian hymn reminds us:
“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth”.
The great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov said that,
“there can be no real peace in the world unless we are even-handed in our attitude to human rights”.
We will fail future generations if we do not heed his far-sighted words.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. My noble friend Lord Alton has again raised a major question of conscience on a subject that I approach with trepidation. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is so important that it needs to be read aloud like a catechism. Admittedly, we are dealing with only one article today, but it touches millions who are suffering from flagrant abuses of human rights, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
I want to look briefly at one aspect of this abuse, which is the condition of the Dalit community worldwide. This is an area about which my noble friend has considerable knowledge and is another form of modern slavery, which this Government say they want to eliminate. I have visited Dalit communities in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere supported by Christian Aid, meeting human rights lawyers, aid workers, journalists and other activists who investigate atrocities. I recall houses burnt down, Dalits raped or murdered, young Adivasis made to worship and become prostitutes, and the daily humiliation of millions of Dalits who carry out the most menial tasks. The responsibility for these crimes may lie with their employers or their higher-caste neighbours, but they are almost always condoned by people in authority—village leaders, police and even judges.
We think of the Hindu and Sikh caste system but Dalits belong to every religion and they are abused, persecuted and killed by their own people, often for petty reasons of long-outdated customs and prejudices. Muslims and Christian Dalits are a persecuted minority within a minority and they are victimised by other Muslims and Christians. I am glad to say that there is a vast international network of NGOs and individuals dedicated to this campaign and some MPs in India have joined it, although that can also be an electoral bandwagon. Plenty of legislation exists to end discrimination but it is rarely implemented and few politicians take it seriously. However, earlier this year, Prime Minister Modi passed minor laws to speed up the judicial process and to support Dalit entrepreneurs. These must be welcomed.
In Nepal, the Kamaiya are a similar group to the Dalits in India. Later this month, I will be there asking similar questions, although the bonded labour system was supposedly banned in 2002.
On 11 July in Una in Gujarat, four Dalits from a sub-caste that skins animals for hides professionally were tied to a car and flogged for skinning two cows that they claimed had died naturally. This caused an explosion of anger from 10,000 Dalits in Ahmedabad, which ended with the dumping of carcasses, roadblocks and burning buses. A month later, on 15 August, Prime Minister Modi celebrated India’s 70th Independence Day in Old Delhi while thousands of Dalits gathered in perhaps the largest ever demonstration. Meanwhile, the Government have again proclaimed their commitment to changing the system. We will have to see whether this is a political move, considering that state elections take place in Punjab and UP next year.
Finally, I remind the Minister that this issue also concerns the United Kingdom, whose response to human rights abuse was reviewed only last month by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. While complimenting the UK on its new legislation on human rights, the committee also expressed concern that several provisions of the Equality Act 2010 have not yet been brought into legal effect, including Section 9(5)(a) on caste-based discrimination and Section 14 on dual discrimination. I know the Equality Act is beyond the scope of this debate and I only point out that on an issue of such international importance the UK may not be putting its best foot forward at home, although I recognise, and perhaps the Minister will repeat, that DfID is very well aware of the condition of Dalits worldwide.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. It is just under a year since the last short debate on this topic and since then we have seen the publication in May of the department’s excellent Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015. As noble Lords have done in today’s debate, it highlights the harsh reality of the world we live in and the fact that countries that do not respect religious freedom or the right to have no belief invariably do not respect other basic human rights. I also highlight the horrific acts of genocide in Syria and Iraq. I use the term because, as reflected by the unanimous decision of the House of Commons, what Daesh is doing has all the hallmarks of genocide as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In the light of previous assurances that we have received, both in this Committee and in the Chamber, what progress are the Government making in gathering evidence? When do they intend to take the evidence to the UN Security Council so that the matter can be referred to the courts and due legal process?
The FCO’s thematic approach to human rights raised concerns about whether the work on freedom of religion or belief would suffer. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, reassured us last year that it would remain integral to what the Foreign Office does. However, how does this work in practice? How will the Minister ensure that the FCO’s spending on freedom of religion or belief projects under the new Magna Carta fund is not reduced any further?
The FCO’s conference on freedom of religion and belief in October is welcome, too, as is the updating of the FCO’s current toolkit. However, concerns remain, as the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, highlighted, over how the Government will ensure that they will keep momentum on freedom of religion and belief post-Brexit. Earlier this week we heard that Brexit is about seizing opportunities and putting the national interest first. If that is so, it is important to be clear where those opportunities lie. One area is to hold different nations to account over their human rights and freedom of religious belief violations by including human rights clauses in the trade agreements that the UK will be renegotiating. EU trade policy has increasingly incorporated human rights considerations, and the Commission’s published trade policy states:
“Trade policy can be a powerful tool to further the advancement of human rights in third countries in conjunction with other EU policies”.
What reassurances can the Minister give us today that the FCO’s important work on human rights and freedom of religious belief can be mainstreamed throughout the Brexit negotiations across the three main departments? We need to be serious about human rights not being a constraint on trade but an enabler of it.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for this very thoughtful debate, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton, not only for securing it but for his kind welcome to me, which I much appreciate. This is an important issue and I welcome the contributions that we have heard today. Support for the freedom of religion or belief is at the heart of the work that the UK Government do, both at home and abroad, to promote global security and stability. In societies where freedom of religion or belief is respected, it is much harder for extremist views to take root. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, made a very eloquent contribution about the value of human rights and the importance of respecting them. I confirm that the Government remain firmly committed to promoting and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The noble Lord made a number of specific points about India, as did the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and I hope I may write to them both about the points that they raised.
Since the last debate in this House, the Government have continued to work hard to promote and protect this basic human right. We have done so through bilateral and multilateral engagement, and through our project work overseas. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has enough staff and raised the important point about having only one desk officer working on freedom of religion or belief. All our foreign and Commonwealth embassies and high commissions are also responsible for raising human rights issues in the countries to which they are accredited. We believe that these issues are best handled by those who understand the individual concerns and countries in detail, rather than trying to do that remotely by a separate policy unit.
We continue to work hard to improve the quality and range of projects that we support under the Magna Carta fund to tackle this whole issue. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, in particular made an important point about that: he expressed concern about the fund, asked whether there was enough money in it and sought an assurance that it would not be reduced further. In the 2015 spending review, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office more than doubled its annual funding commitment to the human rights and democracy fund, newly titled the Magna Carta fund, and in 2016-17 the fund has a budget of £10.6 million compared with £5 million the previous year. I hope that offers some reassurance.
In Iraq we are promoting legal and social protection for freedom of religion or belief, to prevent intolerance and violence towards religious communities. In Syria we are supporting a project that aims to build dialogue between different communities, including between Syrians of different faiths. In south Asia, working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, we are building a network of human rights defenders and religious minority leaders across the region.
The noble Lords, Lord Cotter and Lord Suri, raised specific issues about Pakistan. They particularly wanted reassurance that we are attentive to the situation in Pakistan and that we are cognisant of the challenges in that country. They were two very thoughtful and eloquent contributions. In March this year, during a visit to Pakistan, the then Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, raised with the Pakistan Government the importance of safeguarding the rights of all minorities, including religious minorities. In April, Philip Hammond raised UK concerns about religious freedom and human rights with Sartaj Aziz, the adviser to the Prime Minister on foreign affairs. Again, under the Magna Carta fund, we are supporting projects in Pakistan to promote greater tolerance and religious freedom. So Pakistan remains a priority for UK development assistance, with programmes to try to improve human rights.
Before the Minister leaves that point, she will know that we have spent over £1 billion in aid to Pakistan over the last few years. Can she indicate to us, if not now then perhaps in a letter to those who participated today and raised the issue of Pakistan, how much of that £1 billion has been used to promote coexistence, to support these beleaguered minorities and to help those who have been fleeing the country and are held in the degrading detention centres that I visited last year in south-east Asia?
I thank the noble Lord for raising that point. I do not have that specific information to hand but I will undertake to try to ascertain it and to write to him.
In general, we also continue to work closely with international partners in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I am pleased that the UK continues to be represented on the Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief by Dr Nazila Ghanea of Oxford University. She follows in the eminent footsteps of Professor Malcolm Evans of Bristol University. We would like to see the OSCE make regular use of that panel.
The UK Government also supported the meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief that took place last September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. That growing parliamentary network shows real promise. I hope we can continue to work together, to strengthen the voice of parliamentarians in countries where freedom of religion or belief is regularly violated.
The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, made the important request that he wants words translated into deeds. No doubt that is a sentiment with which in any debate we have a lot of sympathy, but I hope that what I am telling the Committee today and what I am about to outline will reassure him that there are many deeds taking place and we are not just talking about unfounded rhetoric. For example, my noble friend Lady Anelay will be attending the launch of the Open Doors Hope for the Middle East report on 12 October. That report, which is a call to action, looks at the impact and significance of the Christian presence in Syria and Iraq. My noble friend will continue to work closely with Open Doors and with all our key partners as we further develop our policies to support religious minorities in the region.
We are appalled by the barbarism of Daesh towards all of Iraq’s communities. Daesh is conducting a campaign of violence and terror in both Syria and Iraq and has carried out atrocities against many communities including Muslims, Christians and Yazidis.
Reference has been made to the London conference, which my noble friend Lady Anelay will be hosting on 19 and 20 October, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton referred to. It is an important event that will discuss how protecting freedom of religion or belief can help to combat violent extremism by building inclusive societies. It will be an important forum and if any Members are interested in attending, I urge them to contact my office and I will do whatever I can to facilitate their attendance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, asked whether my noble friend Lady Anelay had met the Commonwealth secretary-general to discuss freedom of religious belief. I reassure her that my noble friend has met the Commonwealth secretary-general on a number of occasions to discuss human rights issues. The Commonwealth secretary-general was very keen to be involved in this forthcoming conference, which we are holding at the FCO. Sadly, she has another engagement, but she herself suggested that she participate virtually in the conference, and she will be recording a visual message for the event. I hope that reassures my noble friend that there is engagement.
The conference will bring together a wide range of experts, including from the environments of government, business and the media, as well as parliamentarians, lawyers and NGOs, to share best practice and identify opportunities for working together. I am delighted to be able to confirm that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has agreed to speak, along with Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, who may be known to some noble Lords, and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed of Essex University. The aim of the conference will be to provide staff working on human rights at our embassies across the world with practical and innovative ideas to help in their work to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. To that end, we will also be updating the Foreign and Commonwealth Office freedom of religion or belief toolkit for staff, which was first published in 2009.
I come to the characteristically erudite and thoughtful contribution from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. He raised the interesting prospect of a freedom of religion convention. I understand that given the polarised nature of discussions at the United Nations, we assess that a convention would be difficult to negotiate as it is not predictable that there would be universal assent to it. The difficult balance that we need to strike is that we need to consider whether our time is best spent negotiating such a convention or whether it is better to spend our time working in individual countries where the freedom of religion or belief is under attack and we feel we can do something about it. That is not to say in principle that this idea is not worthy of being kept on the radar screen, and it was very important that the noble and learned Lord referred to it.
We greatly value the work of all the partners with whom we work on this important issue. Ministers, diplomats and officials continue to meet regularly with leaders of different religious groups from around the world, UK faith groups and civil society organisations. We try to understand their concerns and endeavour to examine how we can better work together to promote a universal commitment to religious freedom.
My Lords, before the Minister concludes, as we have a few minutes before we have to finish our proceedings, may I just press her on the point that the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, and I raised about the declaration of events in Syria and Iraq as a form of genocide? She will record that I cited the current Foreign Secretary’s remarks, before he was appointed, that he was baffled by the failure of the Foreign Office to make such a declaration. What is the Foreign Office doing not just to collect evidence but to take it forward and place a resolution at either the General Assembly or the Security Council so that proceedings may be brought against those who have committed these heinous crimes?
With the change of regime of the Foreign Office, it may be timely to refer the question again. That is all I can offer to do, and I undertake to the noble Lord that I will do it. We can only see what response is forthcoming.
I thank all contributors today for this serious and thought-provoking debate. It is an area where there is no monopoly on wisdom and all worthwhile suggestions and contributions are very welcome and received with great warmth. I reassure noble Lords of the continued commitment of the UK Government in support of Article 18. I hope I have done that by giving just a few examples of how we are working with groupings such as academics, think tanks, NGOs, faith representatives and parliamentarians in further pursuit of this fundamental human right. The Government will continue to work towards the full realisation of the right to freedom of religion or belief for every individual and we look forward to doing that in tandem with everyone, such as your Lordships, with an interest in securing that vital objective and undertaking that vital task.