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.

Alexander Stafford: Renewables – not just providers of green energy, but enablers of levelling up

15 Jul

Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.

In every conversation around the clean recovery there is, rightfully, a tendency of NGOs and commentators to look at how we can take the steps needed to achieve our net zero ambition. Job-rich initiatives such as energy efficiency and EV charging development are particularly alluring. The development of green hydrogen is promoted as strongly for its regional growth benefits as much as its importance for decarbonising heat.

The potential role of renewables in the green recovery is celebrated, but often overlooked. But it is these that are already driving jobs in the North of England and would help with this Government’s “levelling-up agenda”, as well as being the most publicly popular.

The Government has an ambitious target of 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, which will bring over £50 billion of investment into the UK over the next decade. The industry is already transforming ports across the country such as Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Tyneside, employing thousands in high-wage high-value jobs and supporting our levelling up ambitions.

What’s more, as the cheapest large-scale new power source, the offshore wind that the UK will be building in the coming years, and indeed the onshore wind and solar, will be helping the British economy stay competitive.

Our competitive market framework of Contract of Difference auctions has ensured consumers get the lowest cost renewables, whilst supporting the development of a world-leading supply chain. New companies like Tekmar in Sedgefield have emerged as world-leaders in cables. Traditional oil and gas companies such as James Fisher, headquartered in Barrow-in-Furness, have found new contracts servicing offshore wind farms. However, we could be doing much more to support the development of the UK’s supply chain.

The Prime Minister is looking for infrastructure investment which will unlock future regional growth. The next generation of offshore wind turbines will be almost as tall as the Shard, so it is essential that we re-develop our ports so that they’re able to handle these incredible machines and their component parts.

Similarly, our manifesto rightly saw the opportunity of floating offshore wind, and the Government is looking at the CfD reform needed to develop it. We are well placed to become world leaders, with an established wind industry supply chain, expertise, and great wind resources. There’s the potential to power millions of homes by developing floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea and deep in the North Sea, but we need to invest in ports like Milford Haven and Nigg to do so – vitally, to maximise the development of the UK supply chain in the process.

We know proactive industrial strategy works in renewables. It was a mixture of market opportunity and Government support that unlocked £310 milliom of private investment in the Siemens Gamesa blade factory in Hull, which now employs over a thousand people, 96 per cent of whom live within a 30 mile radius of the factory.

We need to reignite bilateral conversations with major supply chain companies, and set up a policy environment that better supports the vast number of UK SMEs. Test facilities like the ORE Catapult in Blyth are fantastic in allowing UK innovators to trial new products on wind turbines but, once they’re proven, we will need to ensure the grants, tax relief or financial de-risking schemes are in place which help these innovators to scale-up their businesses.

Increasing our research and development funding to the levels of competitor countries like Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan will ultimately ensure UK’s companies are at the forefront of innovation and remain competitive in the global market.

When the global market in offshore wind is set to increase to at least £30 billion a year by 2030, we should be increasing our export ambitions and the support that government gives companies in entering these global markets.

Just as Denmark has an ecosystem of multiple agencies working to boost renewable exports, we too should work across Government. We’re rightly levering our role as COP President and world leadership in offshore wind to encourage countries such as Brazil, Mexico and India to take advantage of their vast wind and seabed resources too. We do so for the future of the world’s climate. But we should also acknowledge that, in doing so, we’re developing markets for our supply chain companies, and departments should act accordingly.

Finally, and most importantly,  the Government shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of also ensuring that people are re-skilled so they can take advantage of the jobs we create through the nurture of our renewables sector. We need to manage the transition.