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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

The importance of continuity in the UK’s freedom of religion or belief policy

What will Keir Starmer do for religious freedom?

The United Kingdom is a key player in promoting freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) globally, both as an expression of British values and a reflection of British interests. Through the special envoy position and the work of the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) diplomats, the UK has occupied an important leadership role alongside the United States, its European neighbours, and other nations supporting freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Ensuring the continuity of FoRB efforts under Prime Minister Starmer would expand UK influence and provide relief to those suffering for their beliefs.

Considering the new Prime Minister’s background as a human rights lawyer, it is certain his government will prioritise defence of fundamental freedoms. And before the election, he said specifically about FoRB, “Labour will be a champion of religious freedom at home and abroad.” In addition, David Lammy, the new Foreign Secretary, is a former social and racial justice campaigner and a person of faith. He has spoken about “progressive realism” that focuses on “countering climate change, defending democracy, promoting the international rule of law and accelerating towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Since freedom of religion or belief defends people of all faiths and none from discrimination and violence, a robust FoRB policy would support their priorities.

Yet, after any election, there is a risk the new government will deprioritise FoRB in an attempt to chart its own course. Elections matter, and Prime Minister Starmer’s government will certainly have new priorities. From my 20 years of work on these issues in Washington, DC, I know there is a tendency for new administrations to walk away from efforts closely aligned with a previous administration.

FoRB could suffer such a fate. But it doesn’t have to.

In the United States, for example, while the Trump administration elevated international religious freedom, the Biden administration has continued to emphasise its importance. I saw this recently when attending the State Department’s release of the annual report on international religious freedom. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks described the importance of FoRB. He spoke of a “future where everyone is able to choose and practice their beliefs, including the right not to believe or ascribe to a faith,” noting how “respecting religious freedom reinforces other rights, like the right to speak freely, to assemble peacefully, the ability to participate in politics.” He said it well, that “protecting this universal right empowers people to express themselves, to live up to their full potential, to contribute fully to their communities.”

While domestic religious liberty is deemed a conservative issue in the U.S., this does not hold as true regarding international religious freedom. Human rights and religious freedom advocacy is supported by the American public, as combatting persecution abroad based on religion or belief aligns with American values regardless of political party. In addition, we have avoided significant swings between administrations due to a bipartisan law which Congress passed in 1998, mandating the US Department of State prioritise FoRB. A report I co-authoured for the US Institute of Peace highlighted the bipartisan nature of international religious freedom promotion.

Cross-party support can also be found in Britain. The All Party Parliamentary Group on FoRB has consistently enjoyed political engagement from all the major parties in parliament. Similarly, the UK FoRB Forum involves representatives from across the religion and belief spectrum, informing and giving evidence to the government about FoRB violations globally.

Consequently, a robust FoRB agenda can advance Prime Minister Starmer’s goals by defending the rights of believers and non-believers. In the coming days, as the Starmer government comes into place, many will be watching if he fills the special envoy post. It will be an important early signal, or at least interpreted as one. While the past Conservative governments created the FoRB position, the Labour Party platform in 2015 first raised the importance of naming a special envoy, so the Labour Party has a claim on this idea.

There is a practical reason for naming an envoy as well, as many countries have ambassadorial level FoRB envoys. The United States, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and the European Union all have envoy-level diplomats focused on FoRB, while France, Spain, Sweden, and Finland have religion-focused ambassadors. Filling the role secures the UK a seat at the table while extending their influence.

For instance, the previous UK envoys were crucial players in establishing the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), which I know from my first-hand experience when setting up the alliance while at the State Department. The United Kingdom has chaired the IRFBA and was a founding member, and helped establish the International Contact Group on FoRB and the International Panel of Parliamentarians on FoRB. In addition, the previous and current UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion or Belief are both university professors in Britain, and the point person on FoRB issues at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is a Brit. And the UK hosted the 2022 ministerial on advancing freedom of religion or belief. In short, the UK is a leader.

Several anniversaries in quick succession will provide Prime Minister Starmer and Foreign Secretary Lammy with opportunities to demonstrate British leadership while explaining their priorities. The fifth anniversary of the Bishop of Truro’s report on persecuted Christians comes later in July. Not all the recommendations were implemented, and an esteemed panel of experts conducted an independent review two years ago. Committing to implement these recommendations would ensure the “FoRB for all” approach remains an ongoing thematic priority within the human rights work of the FCDO.

In addition, two dates in August provide an opportunity for the new government to highlight its approach to combatting persecution on account of religion or belief. August 3rd marks the 10th anniversary of the Yazidi genocide attempted by ISIS, which also impacted Christians, Shia Muslims, and others. Following, the UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief is on August 22nd. These dates provide important inflection points for policy announcements.

International meetings are on the horizon as well. Germany will host the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Berlin on October 11th. The host is Social Democratic Party (SpD) politician Frank Schwabe, a German parliamentarian who chairs the SpD human rights committee and serves as the Federal Government Commissioner for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The IRFBA Annual Meeting will be held the following day. Not having a FoRB envoy for those meetings would leave influence to others and it would prevent deepening partnerships with centre-left governments focused on FoRB, such as host nation Germany, but also Brazil, Canada, Norway, and others in attendance.

FoRB is an issue that matters left, right, and centre because religious persecution impacts people of all faiths and none. FoRB advances many goods. It is a transatlantic value. A forward leaning FoRB policy reflects the interests of multicultural Britain by promoting a more stable world and lessening the push factors leading to mass migration. Continuity on FoRB will maintain British influence and expand relationships. I hope the new government will keep it a priority. Billions of people suffering do as well.

Knox Thames served in a special envoy role during the Obama and Trump administrations, focused on religious minorities in the Middle East and South Asia. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Pepperdine University. His book “ENDING PERSECUTION” will be released on September 1st.

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