In failing to discuss freedom of religion or belief, Commonwealth leaders missed a key opportunity
Confronting religious intolerance would strengthen the Commonwealth and society at large, writes Preet Gill
Last week, over 50 Heads of Government from around the Commonwealth of Nations descended on London for the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM). The meeting’s agenda focused on trade, security, democracy and climate change. It was just one short week to ponder some of the greatest issues that we share – an opportunity to bring about change together.
But as I reflect on the meeting’s agenda, I can’t help but feel that they missed a key opportunity. Yes, the Commonwealth of Nations share these areas of interest and can harness what they have in common to develop mutual solutions – but there’s another area of commonality that I think they have missed, and that’s religion and belief.
When it comes to religion we are all too quick to focus on what divides us rather than what brings us together. Every major religion is practised within the boundaries of the Commonwealth, and each of these major religions are to be found in some way, shape or form in every Commonwealth country. While not everyone practises the same religion, the use of religious ritual, ceremony and tradition are key practices which these nations have in common.
One’s religious observance and practice is also ingrained in one of the Commonwealth Charter’s main values: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of the declaration, the international right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), espouses the right to choose or change one’s religion or belief. This is a significant right which affects individuals of every religion and no religion alike.
The pursuit of Article 18 should be a desire which 2.2 billion citizens across the Commonwealth have in common – and it’s a right which should have underpinned CHOGM’s agenda.
As with most things, the Commonwealth is a mixed bag when it comes to Article 18. We have to face up to it. The West has often fallen short both past and present: from the British state’s use of the Penal Laws to force Catholics and Protestant dissenters to adopt the state-established Anglican Church throughout the 17th and 18th century, to the banning of the burka in Quebec, Canada in 2017. Nobody’s perfect.
Eight Commonwealth countries are also to be found on the anti-persecution charity Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. From widows in Nigeria whose husbands have been killed by Boko Haram fighters, to girls in Pakistan who have been raped, forcefully converted and married against their will, to the 635 Christians detained without trial in India last year: this is real life.
But the Commonwealth is also teeming with positive examples which can be shared. From Ghana’s growing inter-faith movement, to Singapore’s decision to mark each of its citizens’ religions with a public holiday to ensure each can take time to not only identify with their religion but practise it too, to the Caribbean’s first international Religious Freedom & Economy Symposium which met to discuss FoRB and business in November 2017 – these are good practices to celebrate.
Last week was an opportunity for these positive stories to be shared and for Commonwealth countries to begin building a movement in defence of FoRB. When we begin to recognise that strengthening FoRB around the Commonwealth will lead to a more prosperous and stable world, we will also begin to see trade, security, democracy and climate justice bolstered, too.
This isn’t just wishful thinking. Research conducted by Brian J Grim at the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation has highlighted how a focus on religious freedom can be extremely favourable for business and trade. According to Grim, making religious freedom a part of corporate social responsibility can produce many positive benefits to company operations, improve trading relationships, and lead to positive changes in communities where freedom of religion has not traditionally been respected as a human right.
Furthermore, amongst the terrible FoRB violations around the world, there are also signs of hope, with Tanzania, ranked 33 on Open Doors’ World Watch List in 2017, seeing a significant drop in its citizens being attacked for their faith and dropping off Open Doors’ World Watch List in 2018. As the government has refused to tolerate Islamic extremism, Tanzania has become a much less violent country.
The FCO has also begun to recognise the important role FoRB can play in tackling extremism and promoting democracy, as was evident in its 2016 Preventing Violent Extremism conference. But we need more than just words. That is why the Labour party committed to a special envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief in its 2017 manifesto, an individual who would ensure that the defence of FoRB was mainstreamed throughout the work of every government department.
Considering FoRB in their discussions could have spurred the Commonwealth Heads of Government into action.
As each Commonwealth country honestly confronts its own demons in regards to FoRB, and shares positive practices with one another, we can begin to build a movement in defence of the right to choose or change your religion or belief and make strides towards a more stable world.
Preet Kaur Gill is Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Shadow International Development Minister