James Cleverly, Minister for The Middle East and North Africa, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on land rights for religious minorities, with specific reference to seizure of farmland from Baha’i communities in Mazandaran province in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Dr Huq.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I pay tribute to his considerable efforts and his tirelessness, not just as a member of the APPG on the Baha’i faith but as chair of the APPG on freedom of religion and belief.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who was right to say that the world, including Iran, should take note of the fact that from every corner of the United Kingdom and every political corner of the House there is unanimity of voice on the importance of the issue. I am glad that he made that point at the conclusion of his speech, enabling me to echo it at the start of mine.
The issue of inequality in land rights affects millions of people around the world, and it is of particular concern, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, to the most vulnerable and minority groups, including religious minorities.
The UK Government support good land governance as a key pillar of inclusive and sustainable economic development around the world. Securing land and property rights is necessary to release other human rights: the right to food, the right to water and the right to housing, to name just a few. The UK Government fund development efforts to support effective protections against forcible evictions and to facilitate responsible investment in land, which we believe are integral to economic growth, rural livelihoods, conflict prevention, environmental sustainability and fundamental human rights.
The House is well aware that we monitor human rights in Iran very closely. The recent deterioration in the land rights of religious minorities in Iran is deeply troubling. Our bleak assessment is that Iran continues to violate human rights across the board, including, sadly, the right to freedom of religion or belief. While some faiths in Iran, most notably Christianity and Judaism, benefit from constitutional protection, in truth, there is widespread discrimination against all religious minorities, but it is markedly worse for unrecognised faiths, including the Baha’i.
The Baha’i community in Iran faces systematic discrimination, as the hon. Member for Strangford outlined. They face harassment and targeting. Baha’i-owned shops and businesses have been forced to close across the country by the Iranian authorities, and the state’s efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’i people show little sign of abating. Those patterns of repression extend beyond property rights. We have seen Baha’i students, as the hon. Gentleman said, pressured to convert to Islam or be denied an education altogether.
The Government share the view of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Discrimination against the Baha’i community is legally sanctioned by a lack of constitutional recognition in Iranian law and by the absence of other meaningful legal protections. Alarmingly, our assessment suggests that there has been a rapid and severe decline in the rights to freedom of religion or belief in Iran over the last year, particularly for the Baha’i community. Arrests of Baha’i followers have increased. The sentences handed out have been arbitrary and disproportionately lengthy. Meanwhile, the Iranian authorities at local and national level have appeared to intensify plans to suppress religious minorities.
In late 2020, we understand several court judgments in Iran ordered the seizure of farmland from Baha’i communities in the village of Ivel in Mazandaran province.
These lands have been farmed by Baha’i families for more than 150 years. While the Iranian Government have reportedly been attempting to expel the farmers since the 1980s, the recent court ruling against the legitimacy of Baha’i ownership of land has had a profoundly negative impact. It presents serious wider implications for the property rights of other unrecognised religious minorities.
Members will be aware that the UK is committed to defend the freedoms of religion or belief for all and to promote respect between different religions and non-religious communities. We have concerns, and when we have such concerns we raise them directly with Governments, including at ministerial level. We do not shy away from challenging those who we believe are not meeting their obligations, whether publicly or in private. We remain deeply concerned about the violations of the freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, including in Iran. Where this right is under attack, other human rights are almost always under threat as well.
In response to the reports of persecution of the Baha’i, the Government have taken the following steps in recent months. At the Human Rights Council, the UK called on Iran to end the discrimination and persecution of religious minorities, which continue to persist, particularly towards the Baha’i and Christian converts. On 12 February, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon issued a statement expressing deep concern about reports of expropriation and repossession of land owned by Baha’i communities in Ivel. The UK continues to co-sponsor the UN Third Committee resolution on the situation of human rights in Iraq. The resolution expressed serious concerns about Iran’s violations committed against unrecognised religious minorities, including the Baha’is. Our efforts ensure there remains widespread global support to highlight and call out these issues.
In October 2020, we made a national statement at the UN Third Committee, focusing particularly on our concerns about the lack of freedom of religion or belief in Iran, and the treatment of religious minorities. The Government have consistently made clear to the Iranians our concerns at persistent violations of freedom of religion or belief, and many other human rights. Iran must comply with its treaty obligations to uphold human rights of believers of formally protected religions and of unrecognised ones.
We will continue to hold Iran to account on a wide range of human rights issues, including land rights, both through bilateral contacts directly with the Iranian Government and on the international stage, including using our membership of the Human Rights Council and at the United Nations, alongside like-minded partners.
On our broader action to support freedom of religion or belief, on 20 December 2020, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment by appointing my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as his special envoy. Mrs Bruce works with Ministers, officials and other parties to deliver the Government’s aim of seeing everyone, everywhere able to have and practice a faith or belief, or to have no religious belief at all, in accordance with their own conscience. In fact, her first joint external meeting, alongside Lord Ahmad, was with representatives of the Baha’is.
The Government have excellent links with the Baha’i community in London and more widely, and we continue to work with faith leaders to advocate for the rights of their communities in Iran and elsewhere. In November 2020, the Minister responsible for human rights, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, further underlined the UK’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief for all at a number of international meetings. These included speaking at the ministerial meeting to advance freedom of religion or belief and at the Ministers’ forum of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. I hope the House is reassured that we will continue to call out such violations for as long as Iran continues to commit them.
While we rightly discuss Iran’s violations towards religious minorities and its citizens, in response to a number of points raised by hon. Members I would like to take this opportunity to set out our wider engagement with Iran. The Government have been consistently clear that we want to put the relationship between the UK and Iran on a better footing, as we continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights record, including on the freedom of religion or belief.
We strongly believe that maintaining diplomatic relations will help to achieve our vision for a non-nuclear Iran—an Iran that acts as a responsible regional power and an Iran that does not pose a threat to UK and the UK’s interests. We maintain that that diplomacy is also the best way to secure the release of all arbitrarily detained dual British nationals. The Government will work with all international partners to deliver those shared goals and to keep our diplomatic door open for discussion on a wide range of UK interests.
Let me end by reassuring the House that our commitment to defend freedom of religion or belief for all and to promote respect between religious and non-religious communities endures. Let me also assure hon. Members that we will continue to monitor and assess the threats to the Baha’is and other minorities, including through violations of their land rights. We believe that one of the most effective ways to tackle injustices is to encourage states to uphold their human rights obligations. I assure the House that the Government remain committed to encouraging Iran to respect human rights, and calling it out on the international stage when it fails to do so. We will continue to make representations on those issues at every level, at every opportunity.