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International Development: Freedom of Religion or Belief

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 6 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure the protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief in their international development plans.

My Lords, we remain deeply concerned by violations of freedom of religion or belief. Her Majesty’s Government are protecting these rights by raising individual cases, highlighting discriminatory legislation and funding targeted programme work. Last year we launched the John Bunyan fund and announced funding through a UK Aid Connect programme for a consortium led by the Institute of Development Studies to address the key challenges in building these freedoms. DfID’s use of country context analysis has increased the extent to which religious dynamics are factored into our country programmes.

I thank my noble friend for her response. In Myanmar, years of unaddressed violations of freedom of religion or belief against Rohingya Muslims led to enormous and costly humanitarian disaster. The Department for International Development responded admirably to this crisis but it seems it has still not learned the lesson that, in certain countries, prioritising FoRB can save not only lives but taxpayers’ money by helping to prevent humanitarian disasters before they emerge. Can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that specific plans for the promotion of FoRB have been included in DfID country strategies for all countries with significant conflict due to religious tensions?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that prioritising freedom of religion or belief can save lives and prevent humanitarian disasters before they emerge. Through DfID’s building stability framework, our programmes aim to tackle the drivers of instability that can create an environment for conflict and humanitarian disasters. When considering our programme, we undertake a full analysis of a country’s politics, society, state and economy to identify the most significant problems hindering development. That includes the role of freedom of religion and belief.

My Lords, freedom of belief is so central to Sikhism that Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life defending the rights of those of a different religion to worship in the manner of their choice. Yet inexplicably, the BBC tried to stop me speaking about this incident, which carries a significance in Sikhism comparable to that of Easter. The Times condemned it and asked for the director-general to apologise. Does the Minister agree that it would add to the clout and voice of the Government if they too condemned such acts of censorship?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that the Government step up and call out such issues when we see them arise. We are working to protect the right to freedom of belief in individual cases. We have also recently appointed Rehman Chishti as our Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. DfID funds two posts in the FCO to work on that. We are stepping up our advocacy of freedom of religion or belief through our diplomatic network.

My Lords, apart from the grants, which the Minister mentioned, are there any circumstances in which our aid will be reduced or postponed as a result of gross religious persecution, which, as the recent Open Doors report shows, is increasing throughout the world? Can she give specific examples of this? If not, it is clearly inconsistent with the Government’s acceptance of the Bishop of Truro’s report and the declared policy on human rights generally.

My Lords, withdrawal of our overseas aid will obviously affect the persecuted minorities and the very poor, whom we are aiming to help. The noble Lord refers to the Bishop of Truro’s report, which was commissioned by the previous Foreign Secretary. That sets out a number of challenges to us to implement new programmes and procedures. We have accepted those recommendations in full and are implementing them.

My Lords, following the previous supplementary question, I understand that in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office there is a champion for promoting freedom of religious belief at director-general level. In the light of the report just mentioned, commissioned by the previous Foreign Secretary, will the Minister consider appointing a similar champion to influence policy formation at the most senior level in her department?

The right reverend Prelate is right that the Foreign Office has a director-general-level freedom of belief champion, the FCO’s chief operating officer, in that case. DfID has a director-level champion on all aspects of faith and belief, who promotes freedom of religion and belief through seminars, blogs and training.

My Lords, the United Nations took a stand in June that it would withhold support, beyond life-saving assistance, to the Rohingya camps in Myanmar, which the United Nations described as entrenching apartheid and encouraging isolation. It has been reported that the United Kingdom broke ranks with the United Nations and will keep funding those closed Rohingya camps in Myanmar, despite fears that they entrench those conditions. Will the Minister clarify the United Kingdom’s position on those camps?

My Lords, the UK remains deeply concerned by the plight of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Myanmar. I saw the situation for myself on a recent visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar and saw the good work that both UK aid and the UN are doing in those camps. I am not aware of the situation that the noble Baroness raises, but I will go back, look into it and write to her.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the acute suffering of the Yazidi people, particularly girls and women, simply because of their beliefs? Will she be willing to say—I am sure she will—that freedom of belief encompasses the Yazidi faith as well as everybody else’s, and that their suffering should never have happened?

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend and thank her for highlighting the plight of the Yazidis. The UK has played a crucial role in galvanising international efforts to secure justice for the Yazidi people and the many other victims of Daesh crimes in Iraq. That includes leadership in UN Security Council resolutions and support through our aid programmes. I look forward to meeting her guests later: we have some Yazidi ladies visiting us today and I join my noble friend in paying tribute to their incredible courage and resilience in the face of such challenging circumstances.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s efforts on freedom of religious belief, both in the FCO and in DfID—I am a member of the APPG—but we have to be aware on occasion of false prophets. I heard earlier today that at the National Prayer Breakfast in the United States, President Trump is about to announce an international religious freedom alliance. He has a reputation, does he not, on LGBT rights and women’s rights? Can I be assured that the Government will not fall in step with such false prophets and will resist joining President Trump in such an organisation?

I am afraid I have not seen President Trump’s words this morning, but I refer back to the Bishop of Truro’s report. We are determined to ensure that we take action in this area. It is an incredibly important, fundamental belief of the UK that we must promote religious freedom overseas, and we will continue to do that through our diplomatic and aid efforts.