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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Elevating the UK’s Leadership on Defending Religious Freedom

The UK has a unique opportunity to defend religious freedom when it hosts an upcoming ministerial meeting. Here are some suggestions to make it a success.

In November 2021, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced that the UK will host the next ministerial-level meeting on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in July 2022. As a former US diplomat who conceptualised the first two ministerial meetings held in Washington, I believe the London summit provides a unique opportunity for the UK to lead the world on defending religious freedom for all. To ensure the 2022 ministerial meets Truss’s goal of ‘boost[ing] global efforts to tackle persecution’, I offer several suggestions for consideration.

The UK has been a leader in promoting international religious freedom, and, reflecting our shared values, an essential partner of the US. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has created a special envoy position for FoRB and named two very active MPs – first Rehman Chishti and now Fiona Bruce. In March, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development (FCDO) Minister Lord Ahmad convened a high-level UN meeting on the margins of the Security Council focused on ‘Religion, Belief and Conflict’. In May, the UK secured a reference in the G7 communique to FoRB, which was a first. While I was in government, US and UK cooperation was very close, and the State Department even co-funded, with the Department for International Department, a Wilton Park meeting on the unique needs of religious minorities in humanitarian crises.

These actions – and more – are needed, as persistently high restrictions on the free practice of faith indicate a profound problem with no quick solutions. Curtailing abuses and combatting unrelenting persecution will take a combination of efforts, including pressuring governments to reform and broader societal engagement on the benefits of pluralism and the importance of human rights. Moreover, likeminded governments need to take concerted diplomatic action to press abusers and enforce consequences, while finding new ways to partner with civil society actors and religious communities. The London ministerial is an opportunity to do both.

As a foundational point, the meeting should focus on religious freedom for all. Only when everyone can enjoy true freedom of religion or belief is every community safe. However, that is not to say specific situations should not be highlighted. Quite the contrary. In fact, we invited survivors of persecution to both Washington ministerials, which grounded conversations in the lived realities of individuals who suffered greatly for their beliefs. We ensured representation from various denominations of Christianity and Islam, as well as Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Baha’is, Yazidis, Buddhists and atheists. I hope this will continue next year. Their presence at an opening ceremony in Coventry Cathedral, for instance, could be powerful and uniquely British.

Likeminded governments need to take concerted diplomatic action to press abusers and enforce consequences, while finding new ways to partner with civil society actors and religious communities

With the Washington meetings, we invited over 100 countries and 1000 members of civil society. The worst abusers – like China, Russia and Burma – and others did not make the list, however. Still, we took a broad approach, inviting countries who uphold Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) at home and promote it abroad, and those who are more aspirational or support it rhetorically. My advice for the FCDO planners is to invite most, but not all, the world. We need countries from every region engaged.

But smaller discussions with the most committed countries are important, and Truss should convene the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA) after the ministerial. The Alliance, of which the UK is a founding member, provides a space for countries fully committed to UDHR Article 18 to share information and plan joint interventions. For instance, the IRFBA has recently spoken on kidnapped Yazidis in Syria and minorities in Afghanistan. Truss hosting an in-person meeting with her colleagues could generate specific commitments and action.

The ministerial will likely conclude with a statement of some kind. For the Washington meetings, we issued both thematic and country-specific declarations. Thematic statements proved easy to gain wide acceptance but were quickly forgotten. To ensure relevance, a thematic statement on a particularly relevant and meaningful topic could be noteworthy. The importance of teaching tolerance to students, for example. Or with millions fleeing repression on account of religion or belief, how can the refugee resettlement system be improved? These are necessary conversations the London ministerial could address.

Also, for the meeting to 'boost global efforts to tackle persecution', specific country statements would ensure greater impact. The Washington meeting issued country statements on China, Iran, Burma and others. While they garnered less support from countries, they addressed specific situations of persecution and got the attention of the intended government audiences. It would move the ministerial from aspirational rhetoric to concrete statements.

In addition, inviting civil society to the ministerial is critical. Activists and members of religious communities have the best information and can energise efforts to advance religious freedom for all. During the Washington meetings, we devoted the first two days entirely to listening to civil society and equipping them to engage governments more effectively. Having the same openness would enhance and benefit the London ministerial.

The London summit provides an important opportunity for the UK to extend its leadership on a besieged human right that impacts every religious community around the world

A successful ministerial needs foreign ministers. To ensure a strong turnout at the ministerial level, Prime Minister Johnson should address the gathering. In addition, involving Windsor Castle would significantly raise the event’s profile. In my experience, senior officials want to attend popular events with their peers with great photo opportunities. Prince Charles, consistently outspoken on persecuted Christians and promoting interfaith understanding, hosting a closing reception would entice strong foreign minister participation. Announcing these commitments soon could start a positive snowball effect of foreign minister RSVPs that encourage more RSVPs.

A unique opportunity for the London meeting is to include an international parliamentary component. With the UK’s special envoy on FoRB being a sitting member of parliament, she is uniquely situated to engage other parliamentarians on advancing religious freedom for all. The Washington meetings had one panel with MPs. The London ministerial could go further and devote a full day. It would also deepen support for the work among elected officials across the political spectrum.

In thinking about building for the future, it is crucial to find a host for the 2023 ministerial after London. Encouraging Norway to step forward is an interesting option, as their centre-left government was one of the first European countries to support FoRB specifically and establish a special ambassador. Brussels or Strasbourg could host in EU or Council of Europe facilities. Bosnia is an intriguing option that brings religious diversity to the forefront but requires support.

The UK is stepping up to host the next ministerial at a critical time. The London summit provides an important opportunity for the UK to extend its leadership on a besieged human right that impacts every religious community around the world. To move the needle against persecution, UK leadership will need to ensure high level attendance by governments, robust civil society participation and an action-oriented agenda. It will be easy to come to London and critique a problem from afar and go home. The millions suffering for their beliefs are hoping and praying for meaningful action.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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