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  • Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB) event held in the margins of the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference - Report by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge for The Parliamentarian (2017: Issue One).

It is always a huge privilege to be among one of the largest gatherings of Commonwealth Parliamentarians and the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference held in London, UK in December 2016 was no exception.

Baroness Berridge speaking to Commonwealth parliamentarians - Image: CPA Secretariat

two people in discussion

This was my first annual CPA international conference, and it seems, I am getting involved at a time of new beginnings. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Akbar Khan is new in his post, and together with the new Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland, charged the room with a sense of excitement and confidence in the role that Parliamentarians play in ensuring good governance and prosperity for their people. After attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta, it is progress that freedom of religion or belief is beginning to be mentioned by platform speakers.

Given the world we live in, where so many are experiencing conflict and persecution and are targeted due to their religious beliefs, it was heartening to feel that my Commonwealth colleagues - all of us rich in diversity of beliefs, political affiliations, race and nationality - could come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities for effecting change in our 52 nations.

This was my desire in leading a side event meeting at the conference sponsored by the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief (CIFoRB). CIFoRB drew in Parliamentarians from around the Commonwealth to discuss FoRB — freedom of religion or belief - and what it represents to them as elected representatives and to their countries at ministerial, regional and community level.

As you will all be aware CHOGM is due to take place in 2018 in the UK, with the British Prime Minister taking over the Chair. It will be the 25th meeting of heads of government of the Commonwealth of Nations and it is imperative that FoRB becomes a familiar term to all Parliamentarians and Government Ministers.

In many ways the special side event to the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference was the starting point. The purpose of this event was to have a focused discussion among Commonwealth Parliamentarians on the importance of FoRB protections, as expressed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in their countries.

Article 18 affords wide-ranging protections to ‘freedom of thought, conscience, and religion’. It thus protects not only religion, but a range of other beliefs, as well as the right not to subscribe to religious beliefs at all. It is not only a right of individuals, but also a collective right of religious communities and religious groups. It includes not only private belief, but also the public expression of belief in civil society and the public sphere. It is not merely a right to believe and to worship, but also inextricably linked to rights of speech, expression, assembly, association and education, alongside the rights to religious practice and observance. These concerns and others were manifest at the Commonwealth gathering, as Parliamentarians discussed frankly both the problems of recognising and speaking out on behalf of FoRB in their societies, but also the urgent need to do so to prevent conflict and promote security and development in their home countries and around the Commonwealth.

Parliamentarians noted the ways in which religion can seem to be excluded from debate, even within the parliamentary halls themselves. One spoke of attempting to organise a prayer breakfast that was opposed by other Parliamentarians offended by such overt expressions of religion. Determination of when religious expression may be perceived negatively as an offence to the beliefs and feelings of others can be especially difficult in Commonwealth nations that have seen growing numbers of religiously unaffiliated people and non-believers, as well as those with robust secular, humanist and ethical traditions. What emerged from the Parliamentarians’ accounts was a sense of the necessity to find ways to discuss FoRB issues in all their complexity to avoid misconceptions.

When construed as ‘religious freedom’ or ‘freedom of religion’, FoRB can give the impression of being about ‘religious rights’ or ‘rights for the religious’. Article 18 has been broadly conceived as including a range of religious and non-religious beliefs. It is, indeed, the case in religiously pluralistic societies that differing beliefs can lead to conflict, discrimination and even outright religious persecution by and among religious groups. But the world’s religions are not only powerful sources of human rights in and of themselves, they also bring resources for transforming conflict and securing peace and social development.

CIFoRB team member, Sajidah Ali (on left) with Commonwealth parliamentarian - Image: CPA Secretariat

two women smiling

Different societies at times may be at different places when it comes to freedom of religion or belief. Nowadays, international human rights doctrine affords what is known as a ‘margin of appreciation’ when it comes to recognising the efforts that nations make toward human rights realisation. This can vary from society to society. Thus, the discussion among the Commonwealth Parliamentarians became more nuanced when it turned to how FoRB issues are understood and addressed in their own national contexts.

Some Parliamentarians spoke of the dominant religions in their societies having great political and social power that becomes problematic when used to deny FoRB rights to religious minorities. Recent legislative efforts to grant rights to religious minorities — for example, recognising Hindu marriages and passing laws against forced conversion in Pakistan or revision of citizenship registration rules to allow Pakistani Hindus and other religious minorities to register as citizens in India — attest to new levels of concern about the plight of religious minorities in these Commonwealth nations.

Also raised was the issue of national constitutional guarantees of FoRB rights, along with protections for freedom of expression in ways that are sometimes in tension. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression often goes hand in hand, since many religions deem speech and other forms of expression essential to practicing and propagating their beliefs. Indeed, the intersection between FoRB and freedom of expression has become a key issue in international discussions around topics of blasphemy, defamation of religions, offence to religious feelings, hate speech and even incitement of violence in recent years.

However, neither freedom is absolute, and in some countries, freedoms of speech and expression may be restricted if they offend the religious sensibilities of others or rise to the level of hate speech or incitement of violence.

Parliamentarians who attended the FoRB gathering at the conference emphasised the need for dialogue, so that Parliamentarians can find ways to talk about FoRB issues. They also pointed to the need to create spaces for Parliamentarians to work together on common goals related to FoRB in their parliamentary bodies, their nations and home communities and around the Commonwealth.

What the gathering on FoRB at the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference showed was the need to find spaces for solidarity and support among Commonwealth Parliamentarians in speaking out on FoRB matters. The day after the CIFoRB event, I was speaking at a workshop at the main conference as a discussion leader on Freedom of Religion or Belief attended by over 40 parliamentary colleagues. It is imperative this issue is recognised and that FoRB is on the agenda at CHOGM 2018. I am acutely aware of the overwhelming and pressing challenges Ministers face at such meetings, but FoRB shouldn’t be seen as another issue, rather as a solution. The 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference proved that FoRB is clearly an issue of the moment.

Parliamentarians are quite literally the ‘speakers’ for the communities and nations they represent — but there are not always ‘safe spaces’ for speaking on freedom of religion or belief across the Commonwealth expanse. The CIFoRB project I lead aims to empower my fellow Commonwealth Parliamentarians to find spaces, terms and strategies for speaking out in support of FoRB in ways that serve the needs of their constituents and the advancement of their nations. The CIFoRB team looks forward to providing Parliamentarians with the knowledge and tools that they need to achieve these FoRB goals. The need to address FoRB is clearly there - and we at CIFoRB look forward to helping.

Although the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference had not taken place in Bangladesh in 2016, visiting the country is one of my personal resolutions for 2017 and so we look forward to the hosting of the 63rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Bangladesh later this year.