25 November 2021
Freedom of Religion or Belief: 40th Anniversary of UN Declaration

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a Government debate on 40th anniversary of the UN declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate on the anniversary of an incredibly important day. I also pay tribute to her tireless and inspirational work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and to the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which also works so hard. It would be deeply remiss of me not to put on record my thanks, huge respect and admiration for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who works so tirelessly on this issue, and for the incredibly effective work of the APPG, which he chairs.

It is fitting that this debate falls in the week of Red Wednesday, a day to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. This debate marks the 40th anniversary of the declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance. Fittingly, today is also the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which I will touch on later.

The shared passion in this House for protecting the freedom of religion or belief, alongside other human rights, is clear, and it is something of which we can all be proud. Members on both sides of the House have made incredibly thoughtful and, at times, moving contributions. Although time is limited and I cannot attach remarks to them all, I will try to cover at least some of them.

The UK is fiercely committed to defending the freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. That point was spoken about so well and so characteristically thoughtfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who is a good friend.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, I am pleased that, with the full and enthusiastic support of the Prime Minister, the UK will be hosting an international ministerial conference on FORB on 5 and 6 July 2022 right here in London. Conference planning is well under way, and we expect to engage with stakeholders including religious and non-religious groups. I know that my hon. Friend is playing a key role in supporting the efforts to deliver that conference, and I thank her for her positive comments about the work done by Ministers and, perhaps more importantly, by officials in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, both over the road in King Charles Street and in posts around the world.

In addition to hosting the conference, we are pursuing three broad avenues to advance freedom of religion or belief and to tackle the associated human rights concerns. First, we are working through multilateral bodies. Secondly, we are working directly with states to encourage them to uphold their human rights obligations. And thirdly, we are continuing to take forward the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations to strengthen our support for those persecuted for their faith or belief. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) is right to be proud of the work he has done.

On multilateralism, we work with organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the G7 and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her active representation of the UK at the alliance. I am delighted that she is being considered for the chair. With characteristic humility, she managed not to mention that in her speech, but I think she should have done. I am glad she is being considered for the chair in 2022.

I also congratulate my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon on the important role he plays, representing the UK so ably within the alliance and the UN, as well as leading the UK’s human rights advocacy around the world. I welcome the three joint statements issued recently by the alliance, which covered Iraq, Afghanistan and Myanmar.

On Afghanistan, we continue to work with the UN to deliver our FORB objectives. For example, on 7 October we co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Afghanistan that established the mandate of a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation, including for religious groups, as well as for non-religious groups. As for other multilateral organisations, in June, alongside G7 members, we urged North Korea to respect human rights for all and engage substantively with the international community on FORB. In May, we secured the inclusion of language on FORB in the G7 communiqué for the first time, demonstrating our strong leadership on this issue and ensuring that FORB remains firmly on the world stage.

On our bilateral work, we regularly raise specific issues with other Governments, both in public and, when we believe it is most effective, in private. For instance, Lord Ahmad raised the issue of reports of discrimination and violence against religious and belief minority communities with Prime Minister Khan during his recent visit to Pakistan.

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, let me underline that we condemn forced marriage and the forced conversion of women and girls in the very strongest terms. A particular case has been raised by a number of hon. Members. Although 

I am often uncomfortable speaking about specific cases for fear that the safety of individuals could be compromised, I can assure Members from across the House that we fund projects in Pakistan to help to address forced marriage and bring up the plight of both communities and individuals where we can. No one should suffer because of their religion or belief, and as many Members from across the House have said, no one should suffer twice because of both their religion and belief, and their gender.

Beyond the concerning issue of forced marriage in Pakistan and elsewhere, I also condemn all the violence in Nigeria. Terrorist attacks in north-east Nigeria and incidents of intercommunal violence across many states in Nigeria have had a devastating effect on both Christian and Muslim communities. Religious identity is a factor in the violence, but the root causes are of course more complex. In July, the former Minister for Africa raised those concerns with the Nigerian Foreign Minister in the margins of the global education summit. We will continue to raise issues and to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations.

Turning finally to the Bishop of Truro’s review, we are making good progress on all 22 recommendations in the final report, including the recommendation that called for an independent review—again, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton raised that. Just this week, the FCDO estate was lit up to mark Red Wednesday, standing in solidarity with persecuted Christians across the world. That follows specifically from recommendation 19 of the bishop’s report about marking and promoting days in support of FORB for all. Recommendation 5 is about bolstering our research, and I am pleased that the FCDO launched the John Bunyan fund for FORB. We have used it to fund research on intersectioning vulnerabilities experienced by religious minorities living in Nigeria and in India in the shadow of covid-19. As has been highlighted, recommendation 8 concerns the use of sanctions to address FORB issues. In March, alongside the European Union, the United States and Canada, we imposed sanctions on four former Chinese Government officials and one Government entity for the gross human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) highlighted.

To conclude, the UK has a duty and a drive to promote and defend equality, inclusion and respect, both at home and abroad. I assure the House that that will remain a foundation stone of UK foreign policy and that the Government do not take that duty lightly. We are and will continue to be a voice for the voiceless and defenders of the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere.