Freedom of Religion or Belief: International Conference — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 9:30 am, 28th June 2022

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One aim of the conference is to share best practice on how countries can prevent FORB violations and how they can work together to do so. I am firmly convinced that the recommendations of the Truro review set a standard that it is worth other countries looking at and indeed following. However, no one country has all the answers; we need to work together to build the capacity of FORB defenders and persuade violators of the positive case for change.

Freedom of religion or belief needs to be mainstreamed by Governments globally. It is not a side issue for individuals, communities or countries; Governments need to recognise the importance of including FORB in foreign and other policymaking, or we will face increasing challenges to peace across the world. Legal systems need to be strengthened to ensure that when a country has signed up internationally to FORB principles, such as through article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, that translates into practice on the ground, so that when a young woman who has been so-called forcibly married—that is, raped—goes into a police station, she can expect justice, not to be turned away.

We will be asking questions such as, what best practice can countries share to promote FORB and prevent its violation? How can we better protect the many women and girls from minority groups who suffer double jeopardy on account of their gender and their beliefs? How can we ensure that victims receive better treatment and effective trauma care? How can we address the lack of religious literacy about FORB among policymakers, which was one of the excellent recommendations in the Truro review? And how can FORB, and the reasons why it matters to everyone and to whole societies, not just those with religious beliefs, be introduced into education syllabi to inform young people and, hopefully, to inspire a whole new generation of FORB champions to spread the word about its importance, just as they have about climate change?

Achieving real change will require international collaboration on FORB, involving not only Governments but civil society organisations, which are so often at the forefront of reporting FORB abusers. That is why civil society engagement with our conference is so critical.

Addressing FORB will require political will and enduring commitment from the highest level of Governments if it is to be effective, and that will need to be backed up by real resources. We need to find ways to prevent violations of FORB from occurring, working with religious communities to do so and to discover flashpoints. We must seek to identify and disarm sources of tension. We need to build resilience and to encourage and foster dialogue.

The international community needs to develop mechanisms to help co-ordinate the increasing number of groups concerned about and working on FORB internationally. How can we better monitor FORB violations? Governments need to develop effective early-warning mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities. Countries need to work together to hold perpetrators of FORB violations to account through targeted sanctions, to ensure more follow the lead of the UK and other countries on human rights-based sanctions. Last month, I held a debate about FORB and digital persecution. We need to look at ways to prevent the misuse of technology and at how to use digital mapping to identify and track FORB violations in order to deliver more targeted interventions.

As we have planned the conference, we have deliberately invited a good number of young people. We need to help, support and inspire the next generation of FORB champions and to provide support for FORB defenders, particularly those persecuted for speaking up for this human right. The next generation need education curricula promoting an understanding of FORB, as do the wider public.

In the months running up to the conference, I and my deputy special envoy, David Burrowes, have toured the UK with a roadshow, speaking to community groups in about 25 towns and cities and raising awareness of FORB. This is a typical reaction:

“I had no idea that this amount of persecution is happening in the world today.”

More information about our tour is on the website, including free toolkits for places of worship, schools and communities to help spread the word about FORB and its importance.

We are looking for more countries to sign up in support of FORB, to develop coalitions of the willing. This year, I chair the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance—or IRFBA. I have been pleased to see more countries become members—there are now 36. We work to ensure that FORB is championed across the world and that FORB violations are called out.

The work of IRFBA is strengthening. In the past year we have issued statements on Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine and Nigeria, and in support of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Ahmadiyya and the Baha’i. Most pleasing has been the action that has followed these statements, such as in Afghanistan. IRFBA helped trigger one of our countries to provide visas for targeted religious minorities, and another country to provide a plane so that 190 people from Afghanistan, threatened on account of their beliefs, were flown out to safety. Many of them would almost certainly be dead now had IRFBA not intervened.

Our IRFBA education working group has informed the ministerial conference session, as has our deep dive into protecting religious heritage. The sight of the hugely significant UNESCO religious sites in Ukraine being destroyed by Russian forces has been appalling and is an affront to the people of Ukraine and the world. We at IRFBA now look forward to being a key vehicle to help deliver on the outcomes of the ministerial conference and to further galvanise multilateral efforts.

Working internationally on FORB, I have come to realise how our Parliament’s cross-party work on FORB is pre-eminent across the globe. The UK has a unique, good story to tell about our cross-party work, and the impact of our all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. I have no doubt that the ministerial conference would not be happening next week but for the work of our APPG over the past 10 years. It is now the largest APPG in Parliament, with almost 160 parliamentarians as members. I pay tribute to our current chairs—in the Commons, Jim Shannon, and in the Lords, Baroness Cox.

Next week, in addition to the UK Government hosting the ministerial conference, we will have a superb range of more than 100 FORB fringe events, co-ordinated by the APPG and the growing UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum of civil society groups. Some of those fringe events will be in the QEII centre, where the ministerial meeting is being hosted, but others will be in Parliament, elsewhere around Westminster and across the country, with most needing no pass to attend—see the website for details. For anyone who cannot travel, the ministerial event will be livestreamed—see the FORB ministerial section on the website. Together, let us ensure that the right to FORB is shared across the globe and reaches those parts where freedoms are dimmed or darkened today—places such as China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and many others.

I will finish where I started, in Ukraine, and with the wording of the statement on Ukraine, which I issued as chair of IRFBA:

“As members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, we commend the courage, dignity and determination of the people of Ukraine and their leadership. We stand in solidarity with them, including religious communities throughout the country. We condemn Russia’s premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine, our fellow IRFBA member.

Ukraine is a strong democracy whose diverse population includes Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, non-believers, and members of other religious groups. With its multiplicity of faith perspectives, Ukraine has been a strong and active defender of the human right to freedom of religion or belief, and was one of the earliest countries to commit to membership of the IRFBA and its principles. Its legislation guarantees the equal rights of people of all religions or beliefs.

We denounce President Putin’s cynical attempt to misuse, for his own ends, the history and suffering of people during the Holocaust and World War II, including Ukrainian Jews. His baseless claim that Ukraine is a hotbed for neo-Nazism is just one of the many pretexts fabricated for his war of choice. This is not the first time the Kremlin has falsely accused its neighbours of neo-Nazism and fascism as a cover for its own provocations and human rights abuses.

We urge the Kremlin and Russia’s military to cease its illegal invasion and respect the safety of the civilian population of Ukraine, including all religious communities, and to respect the individually held human right to freedom of religion or belief at all times.

We call on all Russians, whatever their religion or belief, to stand up for peace.”