Today the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published its Human Rights and Democracy Report for 2011. This annual report highlights the British Government’s global human rights priorities. It is produced with the intention of increasing awareness of the UK’s role in promoting human rights worldwide, as well as to influence countries with poor human rights records to take more concrete steps towards upholding their international human rights obligations.
The report is extensive and covers many areas in detail. Below is the section on freedom of religion and belief in full. If you visit the Freedom of Religion or Belief page that this is taken from, at the bottom on the right you can access more information on the 28 countries with the greatest cause for concern and find out in more information about what our government is doing to tackle religious persecution in each of these countries.
Protecting religious freedoms and preventing discrimination on grounds of religion or belief are priority human rights issues for the UK Government. The UK strongly supports the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and the right to freedom of opinion and expression as set out in such key international human rights instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on Religious Intolerance.
Freedom of religion and respect for religious plurality is at the core of British society. In countries around the world, religious freedom is often crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding. Indeed, many conflicts have their roots in the tensions between different religious communities. Violence against a religious group can be a forewarning of wider conflict. Freedom of religion or belief is therefore important to achieving the UK’s wider security agenda.
At the first meeting of the Foreign Secretary’s Advisory Group on Human Rights in December 2010, freedom of religion or belief was identified as a key human rights issue. We worked to strengthen our policy throughout 2011. As part of this, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Alistair Burt hosted a conference in July (see the case study on the Wilton Park Conference) entitled “Promoting religious freedom around the world” to discuss how the international community can strengthen its ability to protect religious freedom, and to identify practical actions that can be taken to support those wishing to exercise their right to peaceful worship.
Since 2009, the FCO has been using a freedom of religion or belief “toolkit” to help posts implement our policy in this area. Our embassies and high commissions are encouraged to draw on the toolkit in raising our concerns about religious freedom with host governments whenever issues arise and in taking action on cases of persecution or discrimination. We lobby for changes in discriminatory practices and laws.
In addition, as restrictions on religious freedom vary widely from country to country, we are increasing our focus on how we work in individual countries to ensure that this takes better account of the local situation. We have identified several pilot countries where we will be more focused and proactive in promoting freedom of religion or belief, including by supporting local activity with dedicated funding.
Each of the countries of concern (see Section IX) in this report has a sub-section on freedom of religion or belief which records the issues and developments in 2011. Examples include the murders of high-profile politicians in Pakistan for their views on the treatment of religious minorities and the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to target specific individuals, deadly bomb attacks on Shia pilgrims in Iraq, and the action we took in response to the death sentence passed on Iranian Church leader Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, after he refused an order to recant his faith.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, concerns have been raised about the impact on religious diversity in some countries in the Middle East and North Africa. We regularly stress to countries undergoing transitions that respect for human rights and dignity are universal rights which must underline all political systems, without exception, benefiting all. Furthermore, as reiterated by the Minister of State Lord Howell of Guildford, during a debate in the House of Lords in December on Christians in the Middle East, the UK Government believes that the treatment of religious minorities will be a valuable litmus test of whether we are watching a truly democratic process unfold in the region. Sections I and IX of this report contain more detail on specific country issues in the region.
There have been significant developments in other regions. In October 2011, President Nazarbayev signed a new law on religious activities and religious organisations in Kazakhstan. It is justified by the authorities as allowing improved regulation of the increased number of religious groups in the country (4,500 estimated) while protecting Kazakh citizens from extremist ideology. We are concerned, however, that it may restrict the freedom of religion for religious activities and organisations through its onerous requirements for registration, its removal of any legal basis for religious groups with fewer than 50 worshippers, its criminalisation of unregistered religious activity, and its requirement for vetting of religious texts.
We welcome encouraging progress on issues related to religious freedom in Turkey. The Turkish government took decisive action in amending the 2008 Law on Foundations, which will see the return of properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, and we support their efforts in implementing the new legislation. The return of church services in Sumela Monastery and the Church of the Holy Cross in Akhdamar demonstrated greater freedom of worship. There was continued dialogue with non-Muslim religions. We continue to urge the government of Turkey to address outstanding issues surrounding discrimination against non-Muslim religious communities and to implement the necessary legal frameworks in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and European Court of Human Rights judgments.
Indonesia’s constitution provides for “all persons the right to worship according to his or her own religion or belief”. In practice, all Indonesians are required to identify themselves with one of six faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism. Although Indonesia has a strong tradition of religious diversity and tolerance, there has been a rise in the number of attacks on places of religious worship with links to minority faiths in recent years. We frequently raise freedom of religion with the government of Indonesia. For example, on 28 November our Ambassador met the deputy minister for religious affairs and raised UK concerns about religious freedom specifically in relation to the Ahmaddiya and Christian communities. At the most recent EU–Indonesia Human Rights Dialogue on 9 March, the EU condemned attacks on the Ahmaddiya community and incidents of Christian churches being attacked. In response to the sentencing of those involved in an attack on the Ahmaddiya community in Banten in February, the UK fully supported the EU statement of 29 July, which expressed strong concern that “sentences imposed for violent crimes against religious or other minorities should always be commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed”. We will continue to call for religious tolerance across Indonesia and support the efforts of those working to promote pluralism and freedom of religion.
Religion plays an important part in the lives of most Nigerians, and the government of Nigeria respects and protects their right to practise and exercise the religion of their choice. The increasing number and scale of attacks on both Christian and Muslim places of worship are of concern because, amongst other things, they raise religious tensions in the country.
The UK took advantage of various opportunities in a number of multilateral organisations in 2011 to raise further the profile of freedom of religion or belief as a priority human rights issue.
The EU adopted council conclusions in February reaffirming its strong commitment to the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief. These conclusions expressed concern about the increasing number of acts of violence and terrorism against religious communities and called for enhanced EU bilateral and multilateral action to promote freedom of religion or belief.
There were significant developments at the UN in 2011. The March session of the UN Human Rights Council saw the adoption by consensus of a resolution against religious intolerance, discrimination on religious grounds and negative stereotyping. This marked a welcome break from the focus in recent years on whether the international community should adopt a new international legal standard on “defamation of religions”, which the UK opposed as impinging on freedom of expression, and indeed on the right to freedom of religion or belief itself. We are pleased that this new approach was consolidated by a follow-up resolution adopted at the UN General Assembly in December. We will work with international partners to promote more constructive debate on these lines during 2012.
The UK continued to support the EU’s UN focus on freedom of religion and the elimination of religious intolerance. The UN General Assembly adopted by consensus the EU’s annual resolution on “the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief.” This resolution advocates practical action and reform by states to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief and religious worship, and to ensure non-discriminatory access to public services. It emphasises the positive relationship between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, and their importance in the fight against all forms of intolerance and discrimination.
In September, the UK hosted a side event at the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), aimed at developing a strategy for securing freedom of religion or belief in the OSCE region.
In 2012, we will continue to highlight and condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals because of their beliefs, wherever they occur. In particular, we will assess the impact on religious minorities of political transitions. We will look to build on the bilateral approach to developing our freedom of religion policy, employing more broadly the lessons learned from our pilot countries. We will look at how we can better train FCO staff in the importance of understanding the way that religion influences policy in many parts of the world.
We will continue to promote freedom of religion or belief in international forums. We will ensure that freedom of religion is included in relevant EU country human rights strategies and dialogues, and encourage the development of an EU freedom of religion or belief toolkit for use by EU diplomats overseas. At the UN we will continue to support the EU’s resolution on “the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief” and look to strengthen its language where possible.