Commonwealth Day 2017

CIFoRB's Director, Baroness Berridge contends that religion must play a role in this year's theme of Peace Building:

As a UK parliamentarian and a member of the Commonwealth family, I get a thrill from seeing the billowing array of Commonwealth country flags that adorn Parliament Square on Commonwealth Day.

These 52 flags remind me of the special bond Commonwealth nations share by way of values, law, and democratic traditions, and the need, especially given today’s global uncertainty, to reaffirm this bond.  This Monday, 13 March, is Commonwealth Day, a day that affords us the opportunity to celebrate our commonalities and recognise our differences, framed around a thematic priority.  As a parliamentarian, this allows me a unique platform to unite with colleagues in collective and global work on a range issues, cementing and enabling the importance of the Commonwealth’s considerable soft power network.

The theme of peace building this year is of particular importance to me as Director of the Commonwealth Initiative on the Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB). We focus on providing effective strategies as to how best support and empower parliamentarians in the Commonwealth to engage with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights positively and to promote freedom of religion or belief—or FoRB, as we call it—around the Commonwealth.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Promoting freedom of religion or belief is critical for this year’s theme of peace-building and social cohesion. In recent years, scholarly research into conflict situations around the world has borne out that the greater respect for freedom of religion or belief correlates in significant ways with a reduction of conflict.

To be sure, ambivalence reigns where religion is concerned. There is no doubt that religion can be a source of conflict, though it is also often pulled into circumstances of pre-existing ethnic, social, economic, and political tension. When conflicts take on a religious tone, they tend to be more intractable and deadly to innocents. Religion is often petrol thrown on an existing political and social fire.

Although religion may become involved in conflict, it can also be a source of peace and reconciliation. Religions and religious leaders can often marshal significant social, spiritual, and educational resources toward conflict reduction and resolution. Religious leaders are often at the forefront of democratization and peace-building efforts.  Commonwealth parliamentarians in Pakistan, for instance, have pointed to CIFoRB success in working toward federal and provincial regulations of madrassas, whose programmes of education have been hitherto unregistered and unregulated. These government guidelines and oversight carry the promise of making real educational reforms that can train young Pakistanis in the ways of peace, rather than stoking the fires of conflict.

Religion is not only a tool of conflict reduction and peacebuilding, but also an asset in achieving broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) around the Commonwealth. As the Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Scotland, stated herself at the UN last month (28 February), freedom of religion or belief is a cornerstone of democratic societies. In the absence of the UK Government reiterating its commitment to FoRB during the same session (despite its manifest pledges), it is even more vital that we, as parliamentarians, united across the Commonwealth, ensure that FoRB rights are upheld and respected.

The Commonwealth allows us a platform as parliamentarians to engage safely across nations and with other commonwealth organisations, such as civil society, local governments, and business and culture to open up a dialogue about the role of religion, belief, thought and conscience in promoting respect for each other as individuals and members of a community. Engagement with this fundamental right will, as recognised by Baroness Scotland, ultimately lead to building peaceful societies.