Brexit – and our nation’s sovereignty – is at the heart of this election, so we are told. But there is more to it than that. This election and everything to do with Brexit is also about our nation’s soul. We are not only renegotiating our relationship with the EU, we are renegotiating our relationship with the world. This is a chance to say afresh who we are as a nation and what we stand for.
It is therefore vital that human rights take centre stage.
The UK is a proud nation and a long-term champion of human rights and democracy. This is the nation that established the Magna Carta; the nation that led the world in saying ‘no’ to slavery under Wilberforce; the nation that said prisoners – the pariahs of society – deserved better under Elizabeth Fry; the nation which stood up against the Holocaust, which hosted the first meeting of the United Nations and which took a central role in proposing and drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and a breadth of subsequent international human rights law).
Human rights are not something we have grudgingly accepted. Saying loudly that the individual matters – that the weakest and often least popular elements of society deserve to be treated with dignity and respect – is an intrinsic part of our country’s history. Let’s make sure it’s an intrinsic part of our future too. Not only in our own country, but around the world.
One particular right needs our urgent attention – Article 18 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. This right is often misinterpreted, maligned and weakened around the world, but protects the very essence of what it is to be human – the freedom to think what you want to think; to believe what you want to believe; and the freedom to choose and change that belief without fear of reprisal.
This may not seem like a big deal for those of us living in the United Kingdom in 2017 – although active oppression of this right has been a reality in our nation’s recent history – but it can mean life or death (or living a half-life) in an alarming number of countries around the world today.
Let me take three examples from my work at Open Doors – a charity which supports Christians facing persecution for their faith around the world. Every year we produce the World Watch List which ranks the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
In India, ranked #15 on the 2017 World Watch List, the right to freedom of religion or belief is a big deal for sisters Meena* and Sunita* who were beaten and left to die by fellow villagers for converting from Hinduism to Christianity. This right is a big deal for the son of Pastor Aminu*, from Northern Nigeria (#12), whose place at law school was revoked when they discovered that he was a Christian. This right is also a big deal for Iraqi Christians who long to return home but dare not do so for fear that their neighbours might turn against them again as many did when ISIS overran their town (we are calling on our government and the UN to ensure equal rights in Iraq (#7) – sign the petition online).
This is not just a Christian problem. The right to freedom of religion or belief is denied to followers of all faiths and none around the world – to the Baha’i who have faced constant persecution since they were founded in Iran; to the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma who are hounded by the state and disowned by all around them; to atheists in Bangladesh, many of whom have been brutally murdered by Islamist extremists; to Jehovah’s Witnesses, recently denounced as extremists by a Russian court and forbidden to gather in that country. The list goes on…
As part of a globalised world, it is vital that the UK clearly demonstrates – through word and deed – its concern for these people and its commitment to this right (i) in this election, (ii) during Brexit negotiations and (iii) when forming trade deals with countries who actively persecute – or allow the persecution of – their citizens because of their religion or belief.
*Names changed for security reasons