The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs (CRGA) welcomed the debate held by the members of the House of Lords on freedom of religion and belief on July 16. It once again demonstrated the worrying nature of the global trends on persecution of religious minorities and denial of freedom of religion and belief (FoRB). It also demonstrated the increasing attention being given to the subject by the British public and politicians.
A key challenge is to find tangible and meaningful ways by which Her Majesty's Government (HMG) can contribute to efforts on protecting freedom of religion and belief internationally.
With the aim of supporting the development of effective and long term responses to a truly complicated human rights concern, this brief statement from CRGA provides comment on on-going discussion of the issue as well as subsequent recommendations to UK Government policy and decision makers.
1- CRGA believes that while it is extremely important for Her Majesty's Government to address FoRB concerns globally, it must not seek to address the issue by appointing a special envoy that exclusively focuses on FoRB. In other countries, such appointments have yielded limited results, and often resulted in isolated personal interests and performances within diplomatic structures.
2- During the last decade there have been many initiatives to advance religious freedom, driven by and large on reactionary strategies responding to emerging persecution cases. The work of organisations focusing on documenting particular abuses have been key to raising awareness among the wider international public. Two sets of excellent reports produced by the US State Department and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom have been invaluable resources on specific countries where FoRB faces vulnerable conditions. Therefore, any new initiative by HMG must not seek to duplicate the efforts of international partners, but focus on new strategies to leverage maximum impact with the limited resources available.
3- Religious Freedom can only be advanced as part of a broader focus by HMG on the place of religion in today's global affairs. Religious persecution is only a symptom of the complex inter-change between religions, religious identities, sensitivities and politics in today's world. It cannot be addressed or protected without holistic analysis and long term strategies. Currently, the FCO plays a key role within international platforms by raising religious freedom concerns through its annual human rights reporting and participation within the EU and UN, as well as limited funds that could be used by UK representations abroad for supporting local projects. Therefore, any new HMG should build upon previous accomplishments and move the overall UK response to a more proactive stance.
4- Departmentally, the burden of addressing the issue cannot be limited to the FCO. Both FoRB and overall issues emerging from the intersection of religion and global affairs require a deep understanding within HMG and a whole-of-Government approach. DFID's substantial programmatic engagement on issues of governance, development and stability is targeted at or within countries which sees high levels of religious conflict, persecution and denial of religious freedom. Similarly, the UK's engagement on these global issues must be based on the UK's domestically, necessitating the engagement of the Home Office. The link between FoRB and radicalisation, as well as FoRB and economic developments and opportunities is well established. Thus, the issues surrounding religion and global affairs have a direct impact on domestic concerns and opportunities.
In light of the above analysis, the CRGA urges the Government to:
5- Appoint a full time Special Advisor to HMG on Religion and Global Affairs. The Advisor should be given a mandate to provide proactive policy proposals across Whitehall departments, in particular the FCO, DFID, Home Office and the Prime Minister’s Office. Only a co-ordinated response across government departments will enable the UK to achieve the necessary understanding and enable a coherent and effective response to the issues.
6- Appoint a group of External Experts to support the Special Advisor. A global portfolio in one of the most complicated topics in today's world is not possible without adequate professional support. Given budgetary constraints, the role of the Special Advisor can be enabled by the appointment of voluntary external experts with the requisite professional, academic and geographic experience. External Expert roles can be advertised publicly, and a group of experts representing key areas can be chosen with a voluntary commitment of 3 days a month. The Special Advisor, or HMG, can commission the External Experts to conduct new research or run specific programmes if necessary and if funds are available. This will also serve as a bridge between the Special Advisor and stakeholders.
7- Provide Funds for Programming on FoRB. The office of the Special Advisor must be given an adequate level of funding, from within existing departmental funding envelopes, to be able to pursue strategic research, diplomacy and local projects with stakeholders. Some of these can be implemented through the funding structures already present within the FCO, DFID and other departments. Issues emerging from the interplay of religion and global affairs and opportunities to increase the impact of the UK on these global challenges, however, will demand direct initiatives by the Special Advisor.
The Centre on Religion and Global Affairs remains convinced that the UK can contribute significantly to ongoing efforts by pursuing a whole-of-Government approach which is focused, effective and long-term in its outlook. We welcome the renewed attention given to religious freedom, and urge that any response developed by the government takes into consideration points raised above.