My ministerial colleagues and I are committed to defending freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all, and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. Indeed, promoting the right to FoRB is one of the UK's longstanding human rights priorities. Regrettably, however, HM Government remains deeply concerned about the increase in FoRB violations globally.
Nobody should live in fear because of their identity or beliefs, including those who have no religious convictions or beliefs. Officials from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) regularly raise concerns with national governments who are not meeting their obligations to this end, both publicly and in private, including at a ministerial level.
The FCDO also works via multilateral fora, such as the UN, G7, and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to promote and protect FoRB for all, and in July, the UK hosted an International Ministerial Conference on FoRB to energise collective efforts on this agenda. This is just the latest step in the UK’s leadership on this matter.
In December 2020, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to FoRB by appointing Fiona Bruce MP as his Special Envoy for FoRB. She works with Ministers, officials, and others to deliver the Government's goal of seeing everyone, everywhere able to have and practice a faith, belief, or no religious belief, in accordance with their conscience. I commend Fiona's determined action on this issue as Envoy.
Most prominently, Fiona is working with the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad, to drive forward the implementation of the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro's report on FCO support for persecuted Christians in a way that improves the lives of those persecuted for their faith, or belief, or for not holding a religion. I was encouraged that at the FoRB Conference in July the Foreign Secretary made clear that those 22 recommendations have been taken forward in a way that will make a real change. I am also convinced that the Truro review has set a standard that it is worth other countries following too.
As was discussed in the Westminster Hall debate on this issue in June, women are more likely than men to be victims of religious discrimination and violence. It is therefore welcome that the Foreign Secretary has put women and girls at the heart of British foreign and development policy, and that Minister Ford used the UK-hosted Conference on FoRB to advocate for them.
On 5 and 6 July 2022 the UK Government hosted a human rights conference to urge increased global action on FoRB for all, building on previous conferences hosted by the US and Poland. It provided a valuable opportunity to drive forward international efforts to protect and promote FoRB for all - a right enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - and to consider what more can be done to prevent people being discriminated against or persecuted because of their faith or belief.
The Conference brought together governments, parliamentarians, faith and belief representatives and civil society. National governments represented at the Conference were invited to co-sign an overarching conference statement and seven thematic statements relating to FoRB.
Indeed, achieving real change will require international collaboration, involving not only governments but civil society organisations, which are so often at the forefront of reporting FoRB abuses. That is why civil society engagement with the UK's international ministerial conference on FoRB, as you rightly note, was so critical. To this end, I am encouraged that 29 countries signed the resultant statement on FoRB and civil society, committing, amongst other things, to enhancing space for civic engagement in government policy decisions on the right to FoRB.
I welcome that one such statement focussed exclusively on FoRB and gender equality; recognising that the right to FoRB and rights related to gender equality are interdependent, intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, around the world, millions of women and girls experience discrimination, inequality and violence on the grounds of both their religion or belief and their gender. I have confidence that the commitments made by states at the UK's Conference will help to encourage the participation of women and girls from religious minority groups in national and local decision-making.
When FoRB is respected, societies are more likely to be stable and secure, and to flourish economically. They are also less prone to extremist attacks. It is therefore not to put too fine a point on it to say that in promoting FoRB we are promoting peace, and doing so now is as critical as ever.