Commonwealth Summit 2018 - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 2nd November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 6:32 pm, 2nd November 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for securing this debate, and declare an interest as the co-project director of the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on that subject.

Last Wednesday, the all-party group launched a new report, Article 18: From Rhetoric to Reality. At that event my noble friend the Minister highlighted the Government’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief and promised to “take this commitment further”. Last Shrove Tuesday the Prime Minister said:

“We must reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practise their beliefs in peace and safety. And I hope to take further measures as a government to support this”.

So I trust that my noble friend the Minister will outline how the Government will use the Commonwealth summit to take this commitment forward.

The Commonwealth is a mixed picture when it comes to upholding Article 18, and the problems are not restricted to one faith or country. Pew research from April 2017 shows high levels of government restrictions in India and Pakistan and medium levels in Kenya. It is sobering to note that the same research highlights high and rising social hostilities based on religion here in the UK, shown especially in levels of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Two of the Commonwealth’s most populous states are witnessing increasing problems. In India there were 316 attacks on Christians in the first five months of 2017, compared with 365 incidents in the whole of 2016. In Nigeria, according to the International Crisis Group, recurring violence between the Muslim Fulani and Christian settlers resulted in more than 2,500 deaths in 2016. This is the reality for too many young people growing up in the Commonwealth. According to Aid to the Church in Need, about 15,000 children have become orphans in conflicts relating to religious intolerance.

Violations of Article 18 can of course be barriers to education—one of the key sustainable development goals that the Government are committed to achieving. According to the Hindu American Foundation and the Aurat Foundation in Pakistan, around 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls are kidnapped, forcibly converted and raped each year. This has led to many Christian and Hindu families being too afraid to send their young girls to school. On 27 August this year in Punjab, classmates beat a Christian boy, Sharoon Masih, to death after they had initially bullied him for being a Christian and told him not to drink from the same glasses as Muslims.

More than 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30 years old and the Prime Minister stated on September 19 that,

“we will put young people at the heart of the Commonwealth”.

But it seems that too many young people are growing up in the Commonwealth without their Article 18 rights, while thinking that those who hold no faith or a different faith to theirs are somehow other. Can my noble friend the Minister please assure this House that the UK will ensure that freedom of religion or belief is in the summit communiqué as a priority for the Commonwealth, under the Fairer Future theme? It is important that freedom of religion or belief comes under this theme as it highlights its role in building an equitable and prosperous future across the Commonwealth, and that freedom of religion or belief is valued as an inherent good in its own right rather than being subsumed into a wider counterextremism agenda.

While this is a Heads of Government meeting, it is vital that the resource of parliamentarians is harnessed, as the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, outlined. There are many MPs who are champions of human rights and freedom of religion or belief within the Commonwealth. In Pakistan, the NGOs Asia Foundation and Pattan—financed by the Canadian Government—helped to resource parliamentarians to engage in debate and legislation around religious freedom. As a result, religious freedom caucuses were established in two provincial assemblies—in Punjab and Sindh—to promote interfaith harmony and highlight issues affecting minorities. Through my own involvement in a panel of international parliamentarians, I have seen representatives of the National Assembly of Pakistan form a model of an all-party group within their assembly. It is important that this best practice is spread across the Commonwealth.

It is also important that freedom of religion or belief is on the parliamentary forum’s agenda in February, and that that forum feeds directly into the communiqué. Her Majesty’s Government rightly spend UK taxpayers’ money on parliamentary training through the laudable auspices of CPA UK and CPA International. While the UK chairs the Commonwealth between 2018 and 2020, it is important that this training should become increasingly professionalised and linked, where possible, to the very best the academic world has to offer. This is one of the reasons why the Commonwealth initiative I outlined is based at Birmingham University. Surely, to make full use of the ongoing CPA training a parliamentary forum should become a feature of future Commonwealth summits. Will my noble friend outline whether Her Majesty’s Government are speaking to the Government of Malaysia, which will host the 2020 summit, to press for a parliamentary forum as part of the next Commonwealth summit?

I have no doubt of my noble friend’s personal commitment to the issue I have outlined. I hope that the Commonwealth summit and our chairmanship will see more reality than rhetoric on Article 18, which is what so many young people in the Commonwealth need to ensure a fairer future.