HUMAN rights should be a key component of international trade deals, a high-level church document has stated.
The document, an official paper submitted jointly by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to the independent review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) support for persecuted Christians, criticises the limited scope of the review.
It also criticises Foreign Office officials for regarding freedom to religious belief (FoRB) as a “problematic” and “secondary” right.
“The impression is given that FCO officials see Article 18 [the right to freedom of religious belief] as a problematic right and one that is either at odds with other rights, such as women’s rights, or it is seen as a ‘Western Christian’ right and one that is best promoted through an array of associated rights, such as the right to assembly. . .
“The FCO needs to show greater self-confidence when defending core human rights.”
The submission, published on Wednesday, argues that, if this remains uncorrected, the Foreign Office will be unlikely to be able to provide “appropriate and proportionate” support for Christians, or other religious minorities.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The submission states: “For the vast majority of people around the world, religion matters. Some 84 per cent of the world’s population identify with a specific religious group. For billions of people it is therefore an inescapable part of identity and meaning.”
It quotes research to show that “religious freedom is a key ingredient to peace and stability”; also that “FoRB is a powerful and effective means of countering violent religious extremists.”
Announcing the independent review in December, the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: “With Christianity on the verge of extinction in its birthplace, it is time for concerted action that begins to turn the tide. . . We must never allow a misguided political correctness to inhibit our response to the persecution of any religious community” (News, 4 January).
The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, is chairing the review.
In his Easter message Mr Hunt spoke of the 245 million Christians who face persecution worldwide. He wrote 40 letters to persecuted Christians, church groups and leaders around the world.
A letter to Dutch missionary Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors, read: “As a man of faith, free to practise in line with my conscience, I am appalled at the plight of the 245 million Christians worldwide currently facing persecution as a result of their belief.
“I want you to know that the UK stands in solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world.”
In a letter to Bishop Mounstephen, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the RC Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, write: “The UK has a great capacity to increase its support and protection for those who suffer violations of this most fundamental human right. As we know from the cry of our own communities around the world, this action is needed now.”
Concern was expressed at the review’s terms of reference when they were published in February: it looks only into the Foreign Office, and not other Whitehall departments (News, 15 February).
This is taken up in the Churches’ submission: “While we welcome this Review, we are disappointed that the Terms of Reference are limited to the FCO rather than including other Whitehall departments and bodies, not least the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade.
“The Government’s work promoting FoRB should not be seen as an isolated strand of diplomatic activity, but incorporated into aid, trade, resettlement, asylum and security policy.”
Perhaps the submission’s strongest assertion concerns international trade. It argues: “Trade negotiations should have human rights at their centre, and provide an important opportunity for addressing the persecution of minorities in countries we have an economic relationship with.
“The Department for International Trade (which has established offices in 12 ‘human rights priority countries’ where the FCO has raised concerns about FoRB violations) should make human rights including FoRB an intrinsic part of its mission.”
It also says that restrictions on religious belief can have a negative economic impact: “Religious hostilities and restrictions also create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies.”
The submission also raises concerns about the scope of a review devoted solely to Christian persecution. It argues: “Focusing on the persecution of individuals from one religion without due regard to an understanding of broader dynamics is likely to skew the Review’s analysis and recommendations.”
It suggests that the review should use the Pew Research Centre’s 2014 definition of religious hostilities. This includes the “abuse of religious minorities by private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith; violence or the threat of violence used to compel people to adhere to religious norms; mob violence related to religion; religion-related terrorist violence and sectarian violence”.
It is argued that the Foreign Offices’ current approach “lacks consistency and depth”. Following the US State Department’s process “would create a sharper focus, allowing trends, gaps and opportunities to be identified”.
While noting that the suffering of Christians in countries such as Iraq is “unambiguously of a different magnitude”, the submission says that experience there “highlights the importance of addressing less visible systematic persecution”.
It goes on: “It is important to not only focus on the most egregious manifestations of persecution or discrimination. Even in democratic states, unjust policy or legislation may impact upon religious minorities.” The example given is of discrimination against Christians, as well as Palestinian Arab citizens and other migrants in Israel.
The submission concludes that the discrimination and persecution that people experience because of their religious beliefs is a “grotesque violation of the human dignity innate to all people”.
It states: “The UK Government has consistently spoken up for freedom or religion or belief, but has so much more potential to make a real and lasting difference on the ground.”
There are 17 recommendations in the submission:
- The Government should focus on promoting FoRB as a fundamental human right, rather than limiting its attention to specific religious communities.
- The Government should take a joined-up approach to FoRB in foreign, aid, security, trade, resettlement and asylum policy, rather than treating it as an isolated diplomatic activity.
- Human rights should be at the heart of trade negotiations. Future Human Rights and Democracy Reports should include a summary of trade agreements with human-rights-priority countries and human-rights standards incorporated in them — including those relating to FoRB.
- Sanctuary should be offered on the basis of need not background, but measures should be taken to ensure that religious minorities have access to resettlement programmes (taking account of religion or belief as a vulnerability criterion where appropriate).
- In addition to reviewing the training provided to staff on human rights, further attention needs to be given to improving the religious literacy of ministers, ambassadors, and diplomats.
- The Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief should be a dedicated post, not combined with other roles.
- Diplomatic posts should provide mandatory reports about the FoRB situation in their respective countries.
- Promoting women’s right to religious freedom should be recognised as an important part of work on gender equality.
- Training about local faith communities should be given to diplomats in advance of postings.
- Training on FoRB should be included as one of the Faculties provided by the Diplomatic Academy and linked to career progression.
- Heads of Mission (or other appropriately senior staff) should routinely meet with local faith communities, and these meetings should be centrally logged.
- Heads of Mission in parts of the world where FoRB is under threat should also be encouraged to meet representatives of respective faith communities when they are in the UK.
- A session on FoRB, involving academics and expert practitioners, should be included as a matter of routine in the annual Leaders Conference for ambassadors.
- The FCO’s Freedom of Religion or Belief Toolkit should be actively used by all diplomatic posts and this use should be routinely monitored.
- A target should be set to increase the amount spent on FoRB initiatives through funding streams such as the Magna Carta Fund.
- The Foreign Affairs Select Committee should annually scrutinise the Government’s work promoting FoRB.
- The Government’s approach to FoRB should not only focus on the most egregious manifestations of persecution (e.g. mass killings) but also address less visible systemic issues (e.g. discriminatory legislation), including in democratic states.