What meaningful action can the UK take to address religious freedom violations?

Most of Martine's family were executed by militants after a Sunday service.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Brendan O'Hara, Open Doors supporter and Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), speaks to Christian Today about the government's two-day FoRB ministerial in London this week and how the UK can take meaningful action to stamp out human rights abuses and FoRB violations. 

CT: What message will you be bringing to the ministerial?

Brendan: It's incredibly important that we remind everybody that although this is a conference on freedom of religion or belief, it's primarily a human rights conference, because FoRB is a human right and looking at how a country views its responsibilities around FoRB is a very accurate indicator of how it views the human rights of its citizens more generally. As Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FoRB, we are part of a wider community of human rights defenders and sadly there is a need - probably more than there has been for many, many years - for a group such as ours to shine a light where some would rather a light not be shone.

CT: Are you encouraged by the fact that the government is holding this conference?

Brendan: I am but my concern would be about what comes after the ministerial, because lots will be said and there will be lots of guarantees and promises made, but it's up to people like myself and the wider human rights and faith-based communities to ensure that these promises are carried through and implemented, and that's where the real work will begin. So my worry isn't about the ministerial but what will come after.

CT: Do you have a specific call to the UK government in terms of what it can do to improve FoRB around the world?

Brendan: This is a fantastic opportunity for the UK to use the powers that it has and to bring the international community together to highlight and call out these abuses of FoRB. We must do that without fear or favour and we have to do that even when it's our friends and allies and people we don't want to upset, because not to do it would be a complete betrayal of everything this conference stands for. The ministerial is a great opportunity and a unique opportunity, and I hope that what comes out of it goes beyond the promises that ministers make over the next two days.

Brendan O'Hara(Photo: UK Parliament)

CT: Are there any particular countries you want to see action agreed on?

Brendan: In Pakistan, Hindu and Christian girls are abducted and forced to convert and marry much older men. The Rohingya Muslims are fleeing genocide in Myanmar. The Christian community in Nigeria is being attacked, and there are still 3,000 members of Iraq's Yazidi community missing. No matter where you look in the world, FoRB and human rights abuses are being committed, and we can't just pretend that this is separate from what the UK does in terms of its trade and bilateral relationships.

Earlier this year, I introduced a Bill into Parliament about trade with China that put the onus on importers to prove that goods coming into the UK were not made by forced labour in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Post-Brexit, there are so many trade deals to be made and we should make sure that FoRB and human rights are an integral part of those negotiations.

CT: A lot of the people who come to the UK as refugees and asylum seekers are people fleeing persecution, and the government wants to send failed asylum seekers to Rwanda. Do you think that policy will come up during the ministerial?

Brendan: I sincerely hope it does. The Rwanda policy is morally reprehensible and goes against the grain of everything that the UK should stand for in terms of FoRB and being a place of refuge and rescue. So, I think this policy has to come up during the conference, but I will be interested to see how this arm of the government defends what the other arm of the government is doing because they are poles apart and the idea of deporting already beleaguered and persecuted people to Rwanda beggars belief and, as I said, is morally reprehensible.