17 March 2022
James Cleverly responds to a debate on gender specific religious persecution

James Cleverly, Minister for Europe and North America, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on gender specific religious persecution and assures MPs that freedom of religion or belief and gender rights will remain at the forefront of the Government’s international efforts.

The Minister for Europe and North America (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing this debate. He speaks on the topic with great passion, compassion and knowledge, particularly as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) fulfils a dual role. I have no doubt that if she were not acting as party spokesperson in this debate, she would speak with similar passion and conviction. I thank her for the custodianship of the FCDO office in Scotland.

I think that this is the first time I have responded to a debate with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), in attendance, so I welcome her to her post. It would be remiss of me not to commend also the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I will mention her later in my remarks. I congratulate her on her role as the Prime Minister’s envoy in this important area.

Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right but, as has been highlighted by all speakers today, it is denied to millions of people around the world. Attacks on this freedom go hand in hand with other human rights violations and abuses. Religious persecution is of course not limited to women, but the simple truth is that, as in so many other areas, the plight of women is often worse. As we have heard, it is not just religious persecution but the use of sexual violence that makes the situation even more horrific, painful and pernicious. A number of speakers have highlighted specific examples of where women have been recipients of the most appalling sexual violence and abuse. As the hon. Member for Luton North says, it is done in the name of religion, but it has nothing to do with religion. We have to recognise that.

The recent report from Aid to the Church in Need shone a light on how women and girls are particularly vulnerable to being targeted with sexual violence, using religious belief as an excuse. Some have been forced to convert, often under pain of death. In the face of such grave attacks on human rights, it is up to the world’s democracies, including the United Kingdom, to champion freedom for all. That is why we continue to work in close co-ordination with our international partners on a range of measures, from our work through the UN to call out violations of human rights and support those affected, to aid projects working at the grassroots with communities and religious leaders to protect the rights of minorities. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is leading those efforts as the Minister for Human Rights and the Prime Minister’s special representative for preventing sexual violence in conflict.

In November 2020, Lord Ahmad launched the declaration of humanity, which united leaders from many faiths and beliefs in a common front, and called for the prevention of sexual violence in conflict and denounced the stigma faced by survivors—a point that the hon. Member for Strangford made. In some cases, the stigma prevents women and girls seeking refuge in the families they grew up in. The declaration attracted strong support, and more than 50 leaders from countries including Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka have thus far signed it. I know that Lord Ahmad works closely with the Prime Minister’s special envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, on that issue—I am going to embarrass her now, so I hope she is prepared for this.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is a powerful advocate, and I admire her hugely for that. She is strongly engaged with advocacy groups, including Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need, which recently hosted an International Women’s Day event. As she said at that event, we must continue to call out countries that fail to take action, while continuing to work at the grassroots level to effect change. We know that communities are stronger when everyone is included, so I will highlight some projects that are already making a difference around the world.

The hon. Member for Strangford and others mentioned Pakistan, where we are funding programmes to protect women and girls, including in religious or belief minority communities, from forced marriage and gender-based violence. We are working with community leaders at village level to try to change social behaviours. On changing the position of the Government, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned the stalling of legislation. We will continue to encourage Pakistan to pursue the right legislation, but legislation and governmental action alone are not enough, which is why we seek to influence at grassroots level as well as through the official development assistance funding that we provide for Pakistan. We have supported the Government of Pakistan to set up eight courts to provide child-sensitive justice to victims of child abuse, child trafficking and child marriage.

The plight of Afghanistan was raised. We backed the UN Human Rights Council resolution to establish the mandate for a special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation. That includes the challenges faced by women and girls from religious, or indeed non-religious, communities. We are directly supporting the United Nations population fund activities to prevent gender-based violence, and we launched, with the International Rescue Committee, programming specifically designed for the protection of women and girls. The hon. Member for Luton North asked about the resettlement scheme. We are providing 20,000 women and girls and others at risk with a safe route to resettlement in the UK, and we are on track to resettle an estimated 5,000 this year.

The situation in Syria remains grave, but we are working to support women and girls affected by human rights violations and abuses, including the right of freedom of religion or belief, through our national action plan on women, peace and security. We have allocated £22 million to the United Nations Population Fund in Syria to support this work.

The awful situation in Iraq was raised by several hon. Members, particularly the persecution perpetrated by Daesh. We have seen horrific crimes perpetrated by that group. Many women are still living in difficult conditions because they have children born of sexual violence and they face significant barriers to rejoining their communities due to that stigma. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton took a leading role in pushing for the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance statement calling for minority communities displaced by Daesh to be allowed to return home in a safe, voluntary and sustainable way.

The situation in China was raised with great passion by the hon. Member for Luton North. We must keep the situation in Xinjiang in the public eye. The evidence of the scale and severity of the human rights violations being perpetrated against the Uyghur Muslims is far-reaching and paints a truly harrowing picture. As the hon. Member said, there have been reports of forced sterilisation and testimonies of rape, torture and the forced separation of families. Such terrible violations of human rights must be called out and highlighted on the international stage. That is why the Foreign Secretary challenged those violations in an address to the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month.

The hon. Member for Strangford and others asked about the situation in north-east Nigeria. There are ongoing attacks by terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa, which cause immense suffering to Muslim and Christian communities, as the terrorist groups seek to undermine community cohesion and split communities apart. It is something that the UK Government take a close interest in, and we continue to work with the Nigerian Government on the matter.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow spoke about those girls who were taken by Boko Haram, many of whom have still not been returned and their whereabouts is still unknown. We condemn unreservedly the abduction of those girls. We continue to call for and work towards their release, and we will continue to work with the Nigerian Government on those cases, as well as on other well-known cases.

Looking ahead, the United Kingdom will host a freedom of religion or belief conference in July, as has been mentioned. It will be a critical moment for us to drive collective action and promote respect between different religious, and indeed non-religious, communities around the world. Planning is under way, and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton will play a key role in helping deliver that. We know that she pushes us hard in the Department. She works with great passion and alacrity, and I am sure that my officials and ministerial colleagues will not thank me for saying this, but she plays an incredibly important role in ensuring that we work with the same speed and passion as she does, and she holds our feet to the fire. My hon. Friend is perhaps not exactly what the Prime Minister envisaged for the envoy role. Nevertheless, she plays an important part, as does the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Luton North, and members of all-party parliamentary groups. This has to remain a collective endeavour.

Dr Cameron 

Could the Minister update us on whether, as members of the all-party parliamentary group, we could visit the Department to hear directly about the work being done?

James Cleverly 

I shot a quick look across to my officials, who will have heard that request. To be completely honest, at the moment the situation in Ukraine means that we are still in response mode, so the normal generosity of spirit demonstrated by my Department is being stretched somewhat. However, we recognise that this is an important issue, and we will seek to find a time to liaise as soon as possible.

Fiona Bruce 


James Cleverly 

I suspect that the cavalry is about to ride to my rescue.

Fiona Bruce 

I would be delighted to facilitate such a meeting in the Department.

James Cleverly 

Told you.

This is a shocking and painful issue, especially when we hear specific cases such as those brought up in the Chamber today—they are harrowing beyond belief. People who already have the least power and the most suppressed voices in their communities and societies once again find themselves the target of misogynistic persecution, attack and sexual violence in the name of religion, although it is not honestly driven by that religion.

We will continue to champion freedom and democracy around the world. Freedom of religion or belief and gender rights will remain at the forefront of our international efforts as a Government.