Christ religion

Government ministerial meeting on freedom of religion or belief must be more than a forum for discussion

The International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), to be held in London on July 5-6, will bring together government officials and members of civil society from around the world to discuss pressing global threats to the FoRB, and most importantly, how the international community can respond.

This last point is crucial; the Ministerial is a unique and precious opportunity that we must seize. The fact that it is taking place is proof of the strong awareness of FoRB issues at the political level in the world today, but it is not enough for us to spend the next two days talking. We must turn this awareness into concrete action that makes a difference in the lives of those around the world who suffer injustice because of their religion or beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be.

One of our hopes for the ministerial meeting is for more countries to join the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA). This Alliance, which currently has 35 members, four “friends” and two observers, brings together government representatives from around the world at regular intervals throughout the year to discuss and respond to FoRB crises.

At a time when recalcitrant countries like China and Russia wield such significant economic and geopolitical influence, there is strength in numbers. Joining the IRFBA is a means by which members of the international community can coordinate their actions on FoRB issues, rather than isolated countries feeling isolated as they stand up to often more dominant global powers.

We would like to see more countries appoint specific people to champion the right to FoRB in government policy. Often called special envoys, we have one here in the UK, as do several other European countries, including the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany and Italy. These roles are a great way to ensure that the right to the FoRB remains on a government’s agenda, even among many other competing interests such as trade and development.

Their positions should become permanent fixtures in any government, and they should be given adequate support, staffing and resources to carry out their vital work. We also hope that the Ministerial Conference will reiterate the importance of working together and encourage these special envoys to work closely with their international counterparts.

Finally, while we believe awareness of FoRB issues is at an all-time high at the political level, there’s no reason it can’t go further. We believe it is essential that all diplomats, both here in the UK and in the countries whose representatives are attending the Ministerial, receive training on the FoRB as part of their diplomatic training. This should include an understanding of what the FoRB is, and also what it is not; how it can be violated and how it so often intersects with other basic human rights.

These are the steps we must take towards realizing a world in which everyone is free to believe. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

Mervyn Thomas is founding president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.