Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 1st March 2018.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:30 pm, 1st March 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his membership of the all-party group. He is there, as we all are, for the same purpose: to try to make lives better and to fight—not physically, but verbally and emotionally—for those across the world who are persecuted.

The Nigerian Government have developed neither early-warning systems nor rapid response mechanisms to violence, and the federal police are rarely deployed. That worries me. Actors on the ground who spoke with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom universally reported that when the police are deployed, they stick to main roads and do not venture into more rural areas where the violence occurs. If they do not go where the violence is and try to stop it, it does not work. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the problem. As Nigeria is a member of the UNHRC, I hope that the Minister and his team will urge the Nigerian Government to do more to defend their citizens. I hope the Minister will offer support to help them do just that.

I will now discuss the situation with freedom of religion or belief in Nepal, which is also a member of the UNHRC. As the Minister knows, article 26(3) of the Nepalese constitution prohibits

“any act or conduct that may jeopardise other’s religion” or

“convert another person from one religion to another”.

On 8 August 2017, the Nepalese Parliament passed a criminal code Bill that strengthens those constitutional restrictions and outlines significant criminal penalties for offenders. In other words, it is another level of persecution, this time legal. The Bill greatly threatens the rights of religious minorities in Nepal, as the broad definition of the criminal code’s provisions means they can be applied to legitimate expressions of religion or belief. For example, the charitable activities of religious groups or speaking about one’s faith could be considered to be attempts to convert another person. The wording of the Bill is also similar to the wording of blasphemy laws in neighbouring countries, which have been widely misused to settle personal scores, to target religious minorities and to further extremist agendas. The introduction of the Bill is concerning for advocates of human rights and freedom of religion or belief.

What is even more concerning is that the Bill was signed into law on the very same day that Nepal was elected to be a member of the UN Human Rights Council. On Nepal’s appointment to the UNHRC, its permanent representative to the United Nations said:

“This election offers post-conflict Nepal an unprecedented opportunity to prove its worth as an international contributor to the cause of human rights in Nepal and around the world”.

I challenge Nepal to prove to the world that what it is saying in words will happen, because the legal position in Nepal at the moment is contrary to the UN Human Rights Council and what it says. I hope, as I am sure everybody in the room does, that Nepal intends to take this opportunity. I hope that we will challenge Nepal, and that it will change its laws on blasphemy and religious conversion. Nepal’s new role means that it is even more important that the country takes protecting the rights of religious minorities seriously.

It is also important to remember that between 2014 and 2020, the Department for International Development will spend approximately £600 million in Nepal. The UK Government thus have significant influence, through which they can encourage the Nepalese Government to promote freedom of religious belief, not in words, but with action. I ask that the UK Government use that influence, and hold bilateral meetings with Nepalese representatives at the United Nations Human Rights Council, to encourage Nepal to live up to its obligations as a member of the UNHRC.

Another area of grave concern for those who take an interest in human rights and religious freedom is the plight of the Baha’i community in Iran. We have some people in the Gallery today who are here to represent the Baha’is, and we are here to represent them as Members of Parliament and from a legal point of view. The Baha’is in Iran continue to face systematic, state-sponsored persecution. This session of the UNHRC happens to fall during the second cycle of the universal periodic review of Iran’s human rights record. As part of the review, many UNHRC countries have made recommendations to Iran on how it could improve its treatment of the Baha’i community. Those recommendations have covered detention, access to education, access to employment and non-discrimination in legislation. I am sad to say, however, that it seems that none of them has been implemented, which is frustrating.

Moreover, since the election of Dr Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013, ostensibly on a reformist agenda, more than 150 Baha’is have been arrested. As of January 2018, 77 Baha’is were imprisoned because of their beliefs, and more than 30,000 pieces of anti-Baha’i propaganda have been disseminated in the Iranian media. We are here today to speak for the Baha’is and to reassure them. They are people whom we will probably never meet, but we meet their representatives.

I understand that the UK Government are likely to co-sponsor and support a resolution on human rights in Iran at this session of the UNHRC. Perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to confirm that? I certainly would welcome it, and I look forward to that confirmation. The resolution, if adopted, would renew the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, a post previously held by the late Asma Jahangir. I should like to return to the tragic and untimely passing of Mrs Jahangir later.

Given the sad absence of a report from the special rapporteur on Iran at this session, would the Government kindly consider making a statement during the interactive dialogue on Iran, referencing the dire situation of the Baha’is in that country? Of course, many serious violations of human rights require attention, but I suggest that a statement on Iran is needed to emphasise the intensification of abuses against Iran’s unrecognised Baha’i minority. If people cannot access education, either at secondary or higher level, are unable to own a business or a house, cannot access healthcare, and do not have freedom of religious belief, something needs to be done. The treatment of the Baha’is can, in many ways, be seen as a litmus test for Iran’s sincerity on wider questions of human rights progress.

Another vital issue that I would like to raise is forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan. Pakistani non-governmental organisations, such as the Movement for Solidarity and Peace, have estimated that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls are kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and forcibly married or sold into prostitution annually in Pakistan. I cannot begin to understand what has happened to those young girls. The horror and brutality that they go through is unbelievable, and most be recognised by the Government at the UNHRC.

As the Minister will no doubt be aware, Pakistan had a universal periodic review of its human rights record in November 2017. As part of that process, Pakistan received and accepted three recommendations about tackling forced conversion and forced marriage. Pakistan accepted that something has to be done, which is a welcome development, but there are concerns that the recommendations will not be pursued. I am aware of situations in the past where recommendations have been made and no progress has followed, which is unfortunate. I do not want just a verbal confirmation that Pakistan will do something; I want to see actions, because actions are better than words.

In November 2016, the Sindh provincial assembly unanimously passed a Bill against forced religious conversions. The Bill was sent to the governor for approval, but in January 2017 he refused, citing concerns raised by religious scholars and political parties that the clauses were against the teachings of Islam. Such pressure has also impeded the establishment of a national council for minorities’ rights. In 2014, the supreme court ordered the Government of Pakistan to set up such a body to monitor cases of violence and persecution against minorities. The court also ordered the establishment of a special police force to protect minorities and their places of worship. As far as I am aware, those two bodies are yet to be established. Again, there has been verbal commitment, but no action. Let us see if we can move things on. Would the Minister be willing to speak to his Pakistani counterpart to find out about the status of the Sindh Bill and those new bodies? I am also aware of the problems of education, of access to books, and of books that tell stories that are slanted against Christians.