Civil Society Space — [Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 26th January 2017.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 1:30 pm, 26th January 2017

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his action in this House on human rights. He regularly brings issues to the attention of Ministers and Departments, for which I thank him. In his intervention he gave another example of exactly what happens, which is that spreading across. It is imperative that civil society space is protected; otherwise, repressive practices and violations of human rights could spread further. We need to have debates such as this one and what I hope will be a positive response from the Minister and the Government.

The debate provides an opportunity to identify the many benefits of thriving civil society spaces and the innovative ways in which the UK can support them. Furthermore, we can raise the issue of the considerable pressures on civil society and of civil society’s important role as a driver for positive socioeconomic and political development, as well as for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Unfortunately, there is today an extremely worrying trend in many parts of the world: that those who stand up for those in need are themselves increasingly subjected to various forms of attack for doing so, including physical attack. Today, in this House, we need to stand up for human rights and liberties, such as people’s right to pursue their religious beliefs, not to suffer persecution and to worship their God.

As chair of the APPG on international freedom of religion or belief, I have heard of far too many people far too often being in desperate need of others to support and speak up for them. This is our chance to be a voice for the voiceless—to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and who might not know what we are doing. We do so because we want to and because we have a job to do in this House. Sometimes, all it takes is for something to be said for a difference to be made. That is what is so worrying about the restrictions on civil society: they are making it even more difficult to let people support, speak out and make positive changes for each other. That is what we should be trying to do.

What exactly is civil society? It includes all NGOs and institutions that manifest the interests and the will of citizens. It includes the family, the private sphere and other special interest organisations. It also includes bodies and individuals who organise to represent a religious, business, academic, social or quasi-political interest within a community. That is a large raft of issues across all of society.

Without input from civil society, both the legislature and the Executive would be less informed and more disengaged from issues that affect members of the community. Such input has been critical to humanitarian and human rights reforms, of which one of the most conspicuous was the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century. Other input was on issues such as child labour laws, property and electoral reform, women’s rights and the maintenance of human rights. We are here because of our interest in human rights, so I want to make that point very clear.

The ebb and flow of information between legislators and civil society is an integral part of modern democracy. Moreover, sectors of civil society frequently possess deeper knowledge and expertise on some subjects than is readily available from Departments. It would be a gross error for the legislature or the Executive to hamper in any way the expression of the views of civil society. Civil society is protected through rights such as those to freedom of association, assembly, expression and religion or belief.

The role of NGOs is significant, but civil society goes beyond simply collective organisations of people. Hence, the definition of civil society must be expanded to include how people organise themselves today in the 21st century, because how it is done has evolved. As technology develops, people increasingly frequently utilise the internet to raise human rights and other issues online, as well as through social media and other platforms. It must be noted that none of those spaces in which civil society operates is immune from the pervasive measures being implemented throughout the world to restrict civil society.

The angle that I am coming from as I set the scene is that of freedom of religious belief and civil society. As everyone present probably knows, that right is an area that I am deeply passionate about and it is deeply linked to and affected by the closing of civil space across the world. When the Pakistan minorities APPG members and I met those NGO administrators and other people in September, I recognised that what they were describing was happening on the ground not only to them in Pakistan, but in other parts of the world.

The link with religious freedom can predominantly be seen in two ways. First, the closing down of civil society directly limits individuals’ ability to exercise their freedom of religion or belief, as civil society often includes people simply coming together to promulgate their faith or beliefs. The restriction of such activity directly contravenes article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which includes the freedom to manifest and practise religion or belief in public—it is right there. That is a clear example.