My Lords, rising conflict and insecurity across Nigeria are having a devastating impact on all affected communities. The principal causes are complex and varied but include violent extremism, criminality and resource competition. We are deeply concerned about the level of humanitarian need in Nigeria. [Interruption.] I will not comment on the musical accompaniment from that mobile phone, but coming back to my script, we are concerned about the level of humanitarian need in Nigeria, including in the north-east, where tragically 8 million people need life-saving humanitarian assistance. We are working with Nigeria to respond to rising insecurity and are a leading donor in the response to the humanitarian crisis.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have visited Nigeria twice this year, once on a parliamentary visit and once with my NGO, HART, and obtained direct evidence of the horrific escalation of killings, atrocities and abductions in middle belt, where at least 3,000 predominantly Christian civilians have already been murdered this year and millions are displaced? I therefore ask: what steps are Her Majesty’s Government taking to prevail upon the Government of Nigeria to fulfil their responsibilities to end the attacks on civilians and to call the perpetrators to account?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness: the primary responsibility of any Government anywhere in the world is the security of their citizens, irrespective of who they are or what faith they may follow. I assure her that, bilaterally as well as through multilateral fora, we continue not only to condemn these kidnappings and the violence that occurs but we are also working, through our security and defence partnership with Nigeria, to try to build capacity to respond to the kidnaps and bring communities together.
The noble Lord makes an important point about the broader issues of population growth. I referred to resources because it is often the issues that occur over land that cause further disputes, and those who are seeking to divide—particularly extremist groups—then use that very basis to cause further communal violence against different groups and, indeed, to take up arms and commit acts of extremism against vulnerable communities.
My Lords, in this week of the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Article 18, which the Minister himself has done so much to facilitate and entrench—and we are all grateful to him for that—will he reflect on the remarks of the Bishop of Ondo, who saw 40 of his own parishioners in his diocese murdered in their church only last month, and also on the continued abduction of Leah Sharibu, a teenager who was abducted, raped, impregnated and told that she must forcibly be made to convert to a different religion? Surely, this is a time to uphold freedom of religion or belief, Article 18, which insists on the right to believe, not to believe or to change your belief.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. That is why the United Kingdom Government are hosting the conference across the road. We are seeing not just government but, importantly, faith leaders and, most importantly, civil society leaders and survivors who have now become powerful advocates against religious persecution at the forefront of the discourse. Equally, we condemn the atrocities that have taken place repeatedly in Nigeria, including the recent attacks on the church, which caused further fatalities, and the shocking abduction and ongoing captivity of Leah Sharibu. I hope that there will be a focus on Nigeria when we host the PSVI conference on conflict-related sexual violence later this year. I look forward to working with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in this regard.
My Lords, on behalf of the House, will my noble friend salute the intrepid bravery of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who time and again goes to dangerous places to report back to your Lordships’ House? Can he assure me that Nigeria will be high on the agenda at the next meeting of Commonwealth Ministers? We have to reflect on the credentials for membership of the Commonwealth. Persecuting and killing people for religious reasons does not march well with being a member of it.
My Lords, I certainly associate myself with my noble friend’s remarks on the courage of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and her endeavours to keep this issue on the front burner. The Commonwealth is now a group of 56 states; it provides the ability to tackle the very issues that my noble friend has raised and to determine how we can work constructively to improve human rights.
My Lords, I welcome the conference starting today and the noble Lord’s speech, for which I was present. Nigeria’s constitution contains very positive words about prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, yet in the sharia states, particularly in the north and centre of the country, these are frequently disregarded. I have raised with him the case of Mubarak Bala, a humanist who has been sentenced to 24 years despite these guarantees of freedom. Can the Minister tell us just how he engaged with the Nigerian Government at this conference— I did not notice their presence—and what he will do to raise this issue in a more public way, particularly for the rest of this conference?
I think the noble Lord was eavesdropping on my conversation with my private secretary as I dashed over from the conference—I was asking who was here from Nigeria. I await that answer, but I assure the noble Lord that I am seeking to engage quite directly with the Nigerians. I have been in various back-to-back bilaterals this morning. He raises the important case of Mubarak Bala, which we have talked about previously. It is condemned; he is quite right to talk about constitutional protections, but in every country, no matter where it is in the world —Nigeria is no exception—constitutions are there for a reason: to provide all citizens with protection and security. Governments need to ensure that they are practically applied.
My Lords, I had the pleasure this morning of chairing the first of the parliamentary parallel events supporting the FoRB ministerial. I chaired a panel of women, including representatives from Nigeria. I will ask the Minister a question I asked the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, a month ago. Why is UK support for Nigeria being cut by two-thirds going forward? In particular, there is no guarantee that projects for supporting women in violence and conflict which have been cut would be protected. The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said that he could not answer my question. A month on, can the Minister be clear? Are projects being protected which support women and children in Nigeria in the very difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, or are the Government cutting them?
My Lords, when my right honourable friend became Foreign Secretary, she made very clear that the budgets on issues relating to women and girls would be restored to previous levels. That is a priority for my right honourable friend and for me. On the specific area of women and girls within Nigeria, I welcome the noble Lord’s feedback. There is also a session at the conference focused on the issue of freedom of religion or belief for women and girls. That will not be recorded; the tragic reasoning behind that is that there are courageous women there who will endanger their own lives if they are filmed. I look forward to talking with the noble Lord.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for an excellent start to the FoRB conference down the road. In the spirit of that conference and this terrifying escalation in communal and religious tensions in Nigeria in the build-up to the 2023 elections, will the UK use its seat at the UN Security Council to seek a resolution that significantly enhances the security given to communities in Nigeria at risk of attack, including Christian farms and villages in the middle belt that have already been attacked by Fulani militia?
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his kind remarks. In terms of the UN Security Council, it depends very much on who is chairing a particular session during a given month of presidency. The issue of religious freedom is high up the United Kingdom’s agenda, and I will certainly take on board his suggestions when it comes to Nigeria, and indeed other countries.
My Lords, the history of Nigeria, and indeed other parts of Africa, is important in determining how different communities and tribal loyalties also play into the unity of a given country. As we are attempting to do at this conference, it is important to bring together civil society leaders with decision-makers to ensure that, as we help and construct an important, bright and inclusive future for religious freedom, we talk to the people who are directly impacted.