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Commonwealth Summit: Freedom of Religion or Belief

Volume 790: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they took to promote freedom of religion or belief as part of the human rights agenda discussed at the Commonwealth Summit.

My Lords, last week the Heads of Government from the Commonwealth pledged to work together to foster a fairer future for all Commonwealth citizens. During the summit, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced a £4 million accountable democracy programme, working with Commonwealth organisations and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. The programme will focus on the political participation of marginalised groups, including religious minorities and women. While we are chair-in-office, we will continue to raise freedom of religion or belief with Commonwealth members as a core value of the Commonwealth charter.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and declare my interest in relation to a Commonwealth initiative on freedom of religion or belief. While it is unfortunate that Her Majesty’s Government’s priority of freedom of religion or belief did not find its way into the communiqué, especially bearing in mind that the communiqué makes reference to the Rohingya population in Bangladesh who have fled religious persecution, I would be grateful if the Minister could outline how the two-year chairmanship-in-office will be used to highlight the freedom of religion or belief aspects of issues such as the Rohingya Muslim population.

First, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s work in this area. Let me assure my noble friend, and indeed all noble Lords, that this continues to be a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government. During the course of the Commonwealth summit, various announcements were made on the broader human rights agenda, including a financing proposal in support of this. As a further assurance, I am sure that she has read the Written Ministerial Statement from my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, which was laid in this House by my noble friend the Leader of the House. It talks specifically about the values agenda, ensuring that all people’s rights, wherever they are in the Commonwealth, are fully protected. I also offer to work with my noble friend Lady Berridge on key priorities as we plan for our two years in office.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his efforts at CHOGM to ensure that these issues were raised. Of course, he is quite right to point out the importance of freedom of religious belief in terms of combating extremism and promoting democracy. Is there not now a case for ensuring that freedom of religious belief is mainstreamed across all Westminster departments, because it is not just simply the Foreign Office that needs to be responsible for this? Is there not a case for a champion who can work across government departments?

The noble Lord makes an important point. Let me assure him that we are working across Whitehall on this important priority as with other areas, particularly with our colleagues in the Department for International Development. The other notable feature is that, on taking this office, I wrote to all our diplomatic missions—not just in the Commonwealth but throughout the world— prioritising this issue. We have champions within key priority countries as well, who are focusing on the very issues of freedom of religion or belief and the protection of minority rights, guaranteeing their rights as citizens of those countries.

My Lords, the Heads of Government emphasised the importance of promoting and strengthening good governance for all of our democratic principles. It was subsequently reported—I think the Minister has already confirmed this—that the Government are going to contribute further funds, some £4 million, towards these aims. In that event, can the Minister commit to clarifying the Government’s plans in the context of engagement with other agencies, both in the UK and overseas, to deliver on those objectives? Do they plan to include parliamentary oversight of such programmes, drawing on the expertise of both Houses?

I am sure that the noble Lord knows that I regard parliamentary expertise across parties and across both Houses as something that I personally value. I thank the noble Lord and others for their contributions to the events last week. Let me assure him that we are working with partners: I mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and we also work with the accredited Commonwealth organisations and institutions to ensure that we deliver on the key priorities of that values agenda.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why, despite regular reports about the ill-treatment of women and religious minorities in India, that country has been left off the list of Commonwealth countries where we have concerns about human rights. Could that be because India is an important trading partner?

We foster positive engagement with India, and it is right that we do so. Our diasporas here in the UK reflect the strength of our relationship with India. On the specific point about human rights, I assure the noble Lord that, while we prioritise, for example, 30 priority countries in the human rights report, that in no way reflects the fact that we raise these issues with other countries in the world. Whether with India or with other parts of the Commonwealth, we will continue to raise the issue of human rights.

My Lords, I declare my interests, and I congratulate the Minister on the role he played in the success of the Commonwealth summit last week. Would he accept that, in addition to a number of government initiatives that were announced in the communiqué, the real force and value of the Commonwealth network nowadays lies increasingly in civil society and the private sector, and the massive and growing data connectivity between the younger generation throughout the whole 53 members of the Commonwealth? The future value of the Commonwealth network lies in those areas and in the huge and new consumer markets of Asia and Africa.

I agree with my noble friend, and as I am sure everyone saw, we put the issue of young people at the heart of the Commonwealth summit last week, as well as the issue of civil society. We had record numbers of civil society organisations—representative of all aspects of civil society, whether on issues such as youth or LGBT issues or religious freedom—represented across the four fora. That underlines our commitment as a Government and as chair-in-office for two years, to take forward the very priorities my noble friend put forward.