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.

Daniel Hannan: Politicians can’t win. When they don’t give us what we want, we protest. And when they then do, we carry on.

19 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The exam fiasco is a neat demonstration of what is wrong with our administrative state, our media culture and, frankly, our own double standards.

A bad thing happens. We demand, in an angry but unfocused way, that Something Be Done – in this instance, that schools be closed. When confronted with the consequence of our own demand – i.e: that there is no way to be fair to exam candidates other than to let them sit the papers – we howl with protest.

We don’t blame ourselves, obviously. Nor do we blame those who made it impossible for schools to reopen: teachers’ unions, hostile councils and, indeed, reluctant parents. Nor yet do we blame the people who actually drew up and applied the grading system. No, we focus all our anger on the politicians – the same politicians whom we insisted should “step back and trust the professionals”, should “let teachers get on”, should “stop using our kids as a political football”.

It’s the same story every time. Voters demand that technical agencies be free from political interference, but then rage at ministers when those agencies screw things up. Thus, in an inversion of Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the press barons, ministers have responsibility without power.

There is, for example, an unwritten media rule that, whenever failures in procurement by Public Health England or the NHS are reported, these bodies must always be called “the Government”. The verbal trick allows us to draw a distinction between public sector officials (who are presented as undervalued heroes) and politicians (who are vaguely assumed to be malevolent as well as incompetent).

No one suggests that ministers were directly involved in the procurement failures, any more than that that Gavin Williamson personally drew up the grading algorithm (which drew on input from hundreds of interested parties, including the teaching unions, who were perfectly happy with it). No one needs to point to anything specific, because politicians enjoy the automatic disbenefit of the doubt.

It has long been a convention in this country that ministers carry the can – a good and necessary one. The problem is when ministers have had nothing to do with the can until it is thrust into their hands.

Let’s go back to those grades. Most of us will have come across cases of individual injustice. A young friend of mine, who was top of her year, had had 15 A*s at GCSE and was predicted 4 A*s at A-level, knew as soon as she learned how the algorithm had been drawn up that she was likely to be penalised (one of her predicted A*s was in further maths, so she understands how these things work).

Her school – not an underperforming inner city comprehensive, but a successful private girls school – had had two dud years in two of her subjects, and she knew that no computer would award her the grade that she would have achieved in the exam itself. Sure enough, the algorithm did its work and she missed her university offer.

People in her situation were rightly furious. A computer model had deleteriously altered the course of their lives. Those on the other side – of whom there must have been a great many, since results overall rose this year – naturally attributed their good fortune to themselves rather than to the system. That is how these things work.

When ministers stepped in to redress the grievances of the losers, they created new losers. They reversed years of work against grade inflation and gave many students artificially high marks. The losers thus include those who took their exams last year or will take them next year, those who took them this year and would have done well without the boost, and, not least, universities which now face an administrative nightmare.

As Phil Taylor reminded us on this site yesterday, the algorithm had in fact worked in most cases: “Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend”.

My point is not that the U-turn was wrong. My point is that all our options were bad once we had made the calamitous decision to close schools – despite the fact that there has still not been a single identified case of anyone catching Covid-19 from a child anywhere in the world. The time to complain was then, not now.

I know I have banged on a great deal about the hopelessness of our quango state, but the past six months have made my case for me. It’s not just the obvious incompetence of PHE and NHS administrators. It’s every unelected agency, from an immigration service unable to deport illegal migrants to our super-woke police constabularies.

In a powerful article for The Atlantic, Tom McTague argues that “Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus.” His article, which sets out in pitiless detail our various cock-ups, has had a huge impact, reminiscent of the gloom provoked by the valedictory despatch of our Paris ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, in March 1979, which unflinchingly set out the mess that Britain was then in.

In fact, though Sir Nicholas didn’t know it, Britain was on the cusp of a national revival. Its administrative state was failing, but the country as a whole was not. In the 1980s, free to pursue their ambitions, the British outperformed every European economy and resumed their place at the world’s top tables.

Now, as then, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that the failure of our bureaucracies denotes a general national failure. Going into the Covid-19 crisis, we were a prosperous and successful country, leading the world in biotech and artificial intelligence, higher education and the audiovisual sector, legal and financial services. We face a specific and remediable problem, not a general decline.

The good news is that, even before the pandemic hit, this Government was determined to tackle the quangocracy. Back in January, that might have seemed a slightly recherché and eccentric priority. Not any more.

Politicians should indeed carry the can – over the electoral cycle. Ministers must by now be aware of how rusted and useless the machinery of state has become. They have four years to fix it.