Religious Liberty

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:20 pm on 24th October 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Government Whip, Lord in Waiting (Whip) 10:20 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, this has indeed been an extraordinarily well informed and wide ranging debate. Obviously I have been taking notes as I have been going along. The countries referred to have included China, Vietnam, North Korea, India, the Sudan, Russia, Uganda, Egypt, Nigeria, Syria, Northern Ireland, Malaysia, and I may have missed one or two. I have to say to your Lordships that 12 minutes to respond to all those countries' problems is beyond the capacity of the Government Front Bench. However, I shall do the very best I can to deal with some of the issues raised. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on raising this issue. It is one on which I know she campaigns tirelessly.

I shall refer to certain speeches as I go through the various comments that I want to make, but perhaps I may be allowed a little prejudice of my own and refer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield, who happens to be my own right reverend Prelate. He spoke astonishingly movingly on the basis of his experience in Uganda.

Our starting point is familiar. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion".

However, as we have heard today, reality can fall tragically short of the standards set down in international law. Despite improvements made in a number of countries, many believe that the world-wide trend is towards increased discrimination against minorities. The Government are committed to upholding the values that underpin our own security and prosperity--values of human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms. That includes, I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the right to change one's religion, which is obviously fundamental. We unreservedly condemn the persecution of individuals because of their faith, wherever they are and whatever religion they practise.

At the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 2001, all European Union member states co-sponsored a resolution to work to eliminate all forms of religious intolerance. Intolerance is not the monopoly of any particular state or religion or indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, suggested, the monopoly of any particular point in history. It can occur with monotonous geographic regularity and historically with wearying regularity.

Following the terrorist attacks on 11th September it has become clear that, regrettably, there are some people in Britain who have sought to stir up hatred against members of religious groups, especially Muslims, a point to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred. As a result the Government are considering proposals for legislation that will make it a criminal offence to incite hatred against members of religious groups.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, quite rightly stressed that we must be very careful how that is phrased and how it is dealt with, and obviously it must be properly scrutinised. Even my limited experience of your Lordships' House tells me that there will not be any lack of scrutiny when the legislation comes to be considered by this House.

In parallel with everything that goes on here at home, we will continue to work actively abroad to promote understanding and tolerance. I can reassure your Lordships that our missions overseas are working closely with local non-governmental organisations--the importance of NGOs was again a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and I wholly endorse that--to achieve specific human rights objectives in many countries of the world.

One example of the practical work that they are engaged in is an initiative in the southern Philippines--one country that was not mentioned by anyone this evening--to increase understanding, respect and tolerance amongst local religious groups as an essential first step towards resolving conflicts there.

In all of our actions we work closely with the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to some of the measures taken by the United States in combating violations of religious liberty. That matter was also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. We share with the United States a common commitment to universal human rights standards. But the approach of our two Governments inevitably differs, given our different constitutional structures. The noble Baroness suggested the establishment of an envoy for religious freedom and a commission with representatives of different faith communities. This Government greatly value dialogue with those outside government and have worked hard to strengthen it.

For that reason, Ministers and officials regularly discuss human rights concerns in a range of countries with non-governmental groups. For example, as part of our preparations for the 2001 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, my good honourable friend, John Battle, the then FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights, held detailed discussions with UK-based NGOs. Furthermore, officials at the FCO's Africa department met staff from the office of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford before his visit to Nigeria. I can also tell the House that arrangements are in hand to hold the next meeting of the FCO's contact group on religious freedom in the near future. That contact group aims to enrich the foreign policy debate through discussion with NGOs and religious organisations.

We believe that the correct approach for this country is to reinforce the existing mechanisms which we have when dealing with the issues which we all agree are important. I echo the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield in saying that ultimately it must be our government of whichever political persuasion who make decisions which we think are right for our country in the light of our particular circumstances and the traditions of our foreign policy.

Our approach is to treat religious freedom as an integral part of our foreign policy. Human rights are inter-related and interdependent, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, stressed. In practice, violations of the right of freedom of religion are often accompanied by violations of other rights; for instance, of freedom of speech and association, freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial. Protecting and promoting freedom of religion is most effective when it is done in the context of the promotion and protection of other human rights. The noble Lord, Lord Weidenfeld, stressed that in particular in the context of the Middle East.

Therefore, we emphasise that human rights are everyone's business. That is why we have made human rights an essential element of training for policy staff, including ambassadors and staff serving overseas as entry clearance officers or managers. All decision-makers in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate receive training on the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1999 and the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes freedom of thought, conscience and religion. We have developed human rights strategies to promote human rights in many countries overseas, so we can target our efforts where they have most effect. With advice from our embassies overseas and the people working in them, we must of course ensure that we tailor our contacts and discussions to the particular needs of the particular states, including all those referred to in today's debate. We are expanding our network of human rights advisers to our missions overseas. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, may be pleased to know that we are already increasing funding for the FCO's Human Rights Project Fund for the next financial year.

Aid and international development were mentioned by a number of speakers--indeed, several noble Lords who have contributed to today's debate have been most active in the international development legislation currently going through this House. The strategy of the Department for International Development on realising human rights for poor people makes it clear that in order to eliminate poverty, development should promote inclusive societies based on the values of equality and non-discrimination and the promotion of all human rights. That means that British development programmes support the inclusion of all groups, whatever their religious persuasion or cultural background.

The Government were pleased to publish their fourth annual report on human rights on 17th September as a demonstration of our openness to scrutiny. The report sets out some of the action that we have taken to promote religious freedoms in, for instance, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and China. The European Union also produces an annual report on human rights, which highlights some of the work that has been carried out to promote human rights, including freedom of religion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the need to monitor international religious laws. European Union members and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe regularly consider new legislation on religious registration. Relevant issues of concern were raised by several noble Lords this evening. Where appropriate, we remind governments of the need to comply with their international obligations and to uphold freedom of religion. In some cases, we offer technical assistance. For example, the UK funded the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights--an institution of the OSCE--in its discussions with the Government, parliamentarians and NGOs in Kazakhstan. That resulted in a number of changes to their new draft law on religious organisations, to bring it closer into line with OSCE standards. The UK participated in an OSCE seminar on freedom of religion and belief in June this year, which considered, among other issues, the registration of religious groups.

We will continue to use our influence in the world to promote human rights, including religious freedom, and to confront oppression and human suffering wherever it appears. We defend human rights for others because those are the values that we demand for ourselves and which are integral to the kind of society in which we all want to live.

In conclusion, the Government continue to take very seriously indeed the issues that have been raised in this debate and the fundamental principle of religious freedom that underpins them.