World Watch Monitor

A new report urges the UK and other governments to take practical measures to turn the rhetoric of ‘freedom of religion or belief’ into reality, to protect the millions who are vulnerable to violence, discrimination and disadvantage as a result of its abuse.

The report, presented in the UK Parliament on Wednesday is an initiative of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), to mark the International Day focussing on the issue, today (27th October), marking the anniversary of the date in 1998 when the International Religious Freedom Act was signed into US law.

In the foreword to the report, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, says: “Despite global commitments to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief, the scale of violations remains enormous, with almost 80 per cent of the world’s population living in countries with ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions and/or hostilities towards certain beliefs”.

Despite 243 States having signed international human rights’ provisions on FoRB, the scope of violations is extensive, the report notes.

In a radio interview with the BBC earlier this week, Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, co-chair of the APPG, called for strong leadership on the issue, and for a “mainstreaming” of the theme of freedom of religion or belief in policies of both the UK Foreign Office and the Department of International Development “because there is so much that can be done through international development that can build cohesion in communities”.

FoRB therefore can be used to inform policy, according to the report, which states: “In many countries with the highest expenditure of development aid, advancing FoRB – building understanding, tolerance and respect between belief groups – is critical for building lasting peace and stability. Recent studies have also shown that FoRB can positively impact economic development and prosperity.”

The APPG’s co-chair told the BBC: “We want to see the causes that come up in different countries be worked into proper policies so that we can do some more preventative work. So if one takes the issue of the Rohingya Muslims...much more potentially could have been done preventatively because this has been an issue that’s been going on ever since the independence of Myanmar.”

Despite the fact that nearly 85 per cent of the world’s population is affiliated with a religion (or a ‘belief’ such as atheism), Baroness Berridge acknowledged that the UK government has been slow to recognise the importance of religion and its role “in education and in development, but also the role of religion as, sometimes, a driver for conflict – and also a driver in peacebuilding. So yes, we have been behind the curve because...we are ‘Western European exceptionalism’ here. The rest of the world is intensely religious and we don’t necessarily always, in terms of policy or in terms of the people who are employed by the civil service, know enough about religion to understand its role in the world”.

The report notes some positive developments in recent years, such as an increase in international collaboration to protect and promote FoRB - for example, establishment of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for FoRB. A delegation of its parliamentarians, for example, recently visited Nepal, where it met with civil organisations and government ministers to discuss issues around religious freedom.

Meanwhile, the UN vote in September to create an investigative team to collect evidence of genocide and war crimes committed against civilians by IS members was hailed as a “milestone”. The report stresses that the team needs to be adequately resourced to be able to succeed.