Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 – Debate in The House of Lords, March 22nd 2018. References to Free Speech; Persecution of Minorities; Human Rights Violations; Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 Next 22 March 2018

Motion to Take Note


11.58 am


Moved by


Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon


That this House takes note of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018.




Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)


My Lords, last night, here in your Lordships’ House, I hosted a discussion on behalf of the Commonwealth Journalists Association. Its president, Rita Payne, said that in the past five years 57 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries. In my brief remarks today, I want to address ways in which the Commonwealth might raise its game in protecting such basic freedoms and in championing minorities, many of whom suffer grievously on grounds of religion, orientation or ethnicity.


But first I should thank those who have initiated this timely debate. It is a signal honour for the United Kingdom to be welcoming the heads of over 50 countries to the 25th iteration of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. As the Minister said, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, more than ever we need to focus on the common values that we share across these nations—striving together to advance humanity in the face of so many challenges that risk tearing down the global human rights framework on which the Commonwealth is founded.


In the run-up to Easter, our minds turn naturally to one of the values that unites Commonwealth nations—that of faith. From a population of nearly 2.4 billion people—roughly one-third of the world’s population, spanning all six continents—95% of people in the Commonwealth profess a religious belief, representing a huge variety of faiths and traditions. Yet, according to the Pew Research Centre, around 70% of the Commonwealth population live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief. The Commonwealth charter highlights faith or creed as a key uniting force, outlining the indivisibility of all rights and the opposition to any form of discrimination based on religion or any other affiliation. Specifically, the charter refers to,


“the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies, and recall that respect for the dignity of all human beings is critical to promoting peace and prosperity”.


The need to promote religious freedom, respect for the “other”, and to defend the rights of all communities was also articulated by Her Majesty the Queen on this year’s Commonwealth Day, when she said:


“The cornerstones on which peace is founded are, quite simply, respect and understanding for one another. Working together, we build peace by defending the dignity of every individual and community”.


With its origins in the horrors of the Holocaust, the political idea of the right to freedom of religion or belief is intended to respect the dignity of every individual and community. As the BBC’s courageous chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, reminds us, this has day-to-day application:


“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world”.


Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists on our right to believe, not to believe or to change our belief. It is one of very few non-derogable rights in the human rights arsenal. The drafters of the human rights framework knew its importance. It is not something that we can simply sweep aside, either because some believe it is irrelevant or because others are nervous of the potential for conflict.


No, it is a right that must be upheld and promoted for the positive change it brings to the world. Freedom of religion or belief goes to the very essence of our humanity—the right to hold our deep-seated beliefs, think our own thoughts and follow our consciences. Without this right, CHOGM will be unable to answer its own points of focus: achieving a future that is more sustainable, fairer, more prosperous and more secure.


A study by Brian J Grim in 2014 examined economic growth in 173 countries and considered 24 different factors that could impact economic growth. He found that,


“religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes and that advances in religious freedom”,


contribute to,


“successful and sustainable enterprises that benefit societies and individuals.”


High levels of religious conflict create unstable environments that drive away young entrepreneurs, disrupt economic sectors and deter investment. That makes the promotion of religious freedom a contributing factor to a society that is not only more stable but more prosperous, so it should be a high priority.


If we are serious about tackling issues like climate change, which is the route to greater sustainability, it must surely be done in partnership with all elements of society, including religious minorities, who are often ostracised and ignored by those in power and by contemptuous elites. Further, the Commonwealth’s own stated ambition to promote human rights to achieve a fairer future must include religious freedom as a central component. Wilfully keeping the right to religious freedom out of the debates at CHOGM would serve only to hamper the progress that might otherwise be made on the four prioritised issues.


CHOGM is a critical forum for tackling this right up front, not only acknowledging the rights abuses in member states but paving the way forwards, sharing best practice. It goes without saying that the United Kingdom has not always got it right.


Coming from a religious minority myself, I am well aware of prejudice, discrimination and persecution—but I am also conscious of the great progress we have made in respecting the dignity of difference and in learning to live together.


Elsewhere the challenge remains—for instance, the assassination of Pakistan’s brave Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibbi, the use of section 295(A) of India’s penal code to attack minorities, and the hunting down of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. It is obvious that there is still a long way to go, and that change must come the world over.


I therefore hope that the Minister will say something when he replies about how we intend to share best practice and commit to change. I urge him to ensure that religious freedom is prioritised at CHOGM and reflected not only in his reply today but in the joint communiqué and the Prime Minister’s opening remarks at CHOGM.


12.38 pm