Rehman Chishti and Jeremy P. Barker: Now is not the time to look away from the events in Sudan

2 Nov

Rehman Chishti is the MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and was formerly the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Jeremy P. Barker is Director of the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute.

On October 25, General Abel Fattah al-Burhan – who led a group of military officials in the unlawful arrest of Sudanese civilian officials, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – declared a state of emergency, the dissolution of the transitional cabinet and sovereign council, and the termination of the existing process of transition to civilian government.

While the military cut off internet and other communications across the country, thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets to make their voices heard, despite violence from military forces who killed at least seven and wounded nearly 150.

With a commitment to non-violence that has marked protests in Sudan, people filled the streets across the country. As communications are still restricted, some mosques across Khartoum were used to issue a call for “civil disobedience” that has continued across the country.

A military-led government imposed by force was not going to be accepted by the Sudanese who had seen tentative progress on fundamental freedoms since the ousting of brutal dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019 after his more than three decades in power.

As documented in a just-published Religious Freedom Institute report, Sudan – previously one of the world’s worst religious freedom offenders – has implemented substantial shifts in its religious freedom policy under the auspices of the new transitional government.

Furthermore, the death penalty was removed for apostasy violations, amendments were made to punishments for blasphemy, restrictions on hours of operation for Christian schools were removed, and Christmas was declared a national holiday.

The transitional government had committed to enshrining full religious freedom in the new constitution. Yet, with the demise of that government, it is vital that the international community stands with the Sudanese people immediately to ensure these positive gains are not lost.

While the changes remain fragile, they indicate something important is underway in Sudan. Since the fall of Bashir in 2019, the Sudanese people and some of transitional government figures have shown a determination to craft a political and cultural environment grounded in genuine respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Sudanese.

These improvements in fundamental rights, including a commitment to religious freedom for all, were instrumental in the decision by the United States in late 2020 to remove designations of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism and a country of particular concern for its international religious freedom violations.

With the attempted military coup led by Gen. Burhan these positive steps are now at risk.

As a statement released by the troika of the United Kingdom, United States, and Norway described, “the actions of the military represent a betrayal of the revolution, the transition, and the legitimate appeals of the Sudanese people for peace, justice, and economic development.

As news of the coup was breaking, Rehman Chishti (one of this article’s authors) raised concerns of the situation of religious freedom following the military takeover in an Urgent Question to the Vicky Ford MP, the Minister for Africa in the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office.

Along with condemnations, it is vital that the Sudanese people see the international community support respect for fundamental rights for all Sudanese for any investment and partnership with Sudan’s government and particularly its security forces.

Already the United States has frozen some $700 million in planned assistance, and the World Bank has suspended its aid to Sudan.

As next steps are considered, three vital areas of concern merit close attention.

Integration of human rights into security sector reform

As the events of this week demonstrated, the greatest threat to consolidating a civilian government that is respectful of fundamental freedoms is the outsized role security forces still play in Sudan’s politics.

The Sudanese military remains the one of the last bastion of Islamist support within the government, and the paramilitary rapid security forces also retain substantial influence over the near-term and long-term future of the country.

For any partnership to resume, the challenges of the security sector must be addressed.

Equip voices from across Sudan’s religious, ethnic, and regional communities

Just days before the coup took place, the newly resumed UK-Sudan Strategic Dialogue charted a path forward, with planned investments in education, drinking water, and elevating the voices of the Sudanese people, to include highlighting the role of women leaders who were vital in the 2019 revolution and political transition.

For long-term success in Sudan, there must be leadership that is accountable to voices from all sectors of society. Strong relationships across religious, ethnic, and regional lines will be integral in building a strong, stable Sudan that delivers for all of its people.

Multilateral approach

In his question to the UK Minister for Africa, Chishti urged the UK Government to work with the 32-member state International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which the United Kingdom joined as a founding member in 2019, along with the United States, to further religious freedom and advance Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on religious freedom.

As to engagement with Sudan and using the various levers the international community has – whether through the UN Security Council, the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, the Arab League, or Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (as Sudan is also a member of both of these organisations) – the international community must apply all modes of influence at its disposal to exert pressure Sudan to abide by its previous commitments on freedom of religion or belief and respect for Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now is not the time to look away.

Rehman Chishti and Knox Thames: Freedom of religion is under threat. Trans-Atlantic efforts can combat that.

12 Oct

Rehman Chishti is an MP and the former UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. Knox Thames served as the US Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.  

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) worldwide. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents a unique opportunity for joint action. And the time to act is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs, with the Pew Forum reporting 84 per cent of the global community lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on faith practices. That’s not to say everyone is persecuted, but that the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognised the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort to promote this fundamental freedom.

In the UK, the Truro report, launched the day after Christmas in 2018 by Jeremy Hunt, the then UK Foreign Secretary, specifically examined persecuted Christians. The report found troubling examples of Christian persecution, but noted that other communities also suffer, and recommended Her Majesty’s government do more to assist all persons persecuted for their beliefs. I (Chishti) was tasked with setting the 22 recommendations into policy, getting 17 into place before leaving office.

In the US, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 created a special ambassador at large on the issue and office, as well as required the annual reporting on religious freedom conditions worldwide. During the Trump administration, the State Department convened two ministerial-level summits that elevated the issue and launched a new Alliance to bring together the most committed countries on advancing religious freedom for all.

We both believe that holistically advocating for everyone’s right, as opposed to singularly focused on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, meet alone or with others for worship, and share one’s religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach focused on the right will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We’ve seen that it’s the most durable path to guaranteeing the right over the long haul. Environments where every individual is free to seek truth as their conscience leads is one where every community can thrive. In contrast, narrowly focused efforts, such as Christian persecution by Hungary or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s concentration on Muslim persecution, will most likely fall short of their long-term goals. It’s not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn’t happening – it most definitely is, and we must speak out.

But an environment providing freedom of conscience for all will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future. Otherwise, we risk creating religious Bantustans of special exemptions or carve-outs benefiting specific groups.

Working closely with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, and key civil society experts, we helped build an organisation of 30+ nations from different regional, political, and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles can meet the challenges of today. For instance, the Alliance devised new strategies to advocate for all, such as a statement on Covid to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t become a pretext to limit religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada – the International Contact Group for FoRB – was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. The challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organisation. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. Now, in addition to the US and UK envoys, others exist in several countries and organisations: Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, EU, the Netherlands, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief isn’t a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or costless. China is playing hardball, with its persecution of UighursTibetansChristians, and the pressuring of countries daring to speak out. Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer from Boko Haram.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases is another example, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. To further elevate, our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, or establish early warning systems.

More action is desperately needed. Governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, to stand in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle this issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate for soul freedom of all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, even outside their belief system, is most impactful for the global effort. By working together, as rights-respecting communities on each side of the Atlantic, we can make a difference.