Baroness Berridge is a Trustee of British Future and a former Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

Screen shot 2013-06-29 at 21.52.39One of
the cornerstones of conservatism is the deeply rooted belief that every human
being should be free to live according to their convictions and fulfil their
potentials without any hindrance from the state. If, as Conservatives, we take
a high view of freedom, surely the most basic freedom – and therefore the most
fundamental – is the freedom of one’s thoughts and conscience.

that violate freedom of religion or belief, or allow non-state actors to
violate this freedom with impunity, are their own worst enemy. It is a fundamental
truth about human beings that without the freedom to form what we think,
believe or don’t believe, and express it, neither the individual nor the
society he or she belongs to can ever advance.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights therefore enshrines this freedom in the
Article 18:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience
and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and
freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to
manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The right
to freedom of thought, conscience and religion includes the right to not
believe in any religion or creed. It cannot be hindered under any circumstances,
although its external manifestations can in principle be limited temporarily
under extreme conditions. However, Article 18 is under immense attack across
the world. According to the Pew Research Foundation, 75 per cent of world’s population
live in countries where they face severe regulations and human rights abuses on
the basis of their beliefs.

abuses can take the form of denial of the right to worship in community with
others, preach or teach beliefs to congregations, or publish materials. They
can also be evidenced by discrimination in the form of denial of access to health,
jobs, education, housing or justice, simply because of one’s religion or
affiliation. Most worryingly, all studies show a sharp increase around the
world in violence against religious minorities, either directly by states or by
their indirect approval, by impunity granted to attackers.

Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious
Freedom, therefore, it was with a sense of urgency that I launched our first
report, which examines this subject: “Article 18: an orphaned right”. In it, a
group of leading experts outline the international standard expected of states
in terms of protecting this human right, and compare it with actual
circumstances on the ground. Perhaps their greatest contribution to the debate
on this long-ignored topic, however, is the solidity of the case they make for
placing freedom of religion at the heart of British foreign policy.

Take the
example of the Arab Spring. The best indicator of how democratically the new
governments forming across the region are being run has not been whether there
were fair and free elections, but whether they are committed to protect freedom
of religion and belief for all within their borders, and in particular for
precarious religious minorities. All of the constitutional debates, as well as
most worrying incidents of violence and exclusion, have been centred on the
issue of religion.

It is in Britain’s interests to help countries that see low levels of religious freedom and
high levels of religious violence to build stable and free societies. Only such
societies can engage healthily with the rest of the world. Only such societies
will be able to solve issues of militancy, radicalisation and religiously
motivated violence. Unaddressed abuses of Article 18 create serious
implications for security, as well as producing more vulnerable victims who
have no option but to seek asylum in countries where they can enjoy these basic
freedoms without fear of repercussions.

It is
thus not surprising to see how, increasingly, the topic of religious freedom arises
in debates and questions asked in both Houses of Parliament. Among our MPs and
peers there is a clear and growing concern about religious freedom, which
reflects the worries of constituents, faith groups and diaspora communities.

report commends much of the current work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
by Baroness Warsi – but makes several detailed recommendations of ways that the FCO
can further raise the profile and awareness of freedom of religion or belief as
a human right, including the creation of a dedicated freedom of religion and
belief post at ambassadorial level. However it also, crucially, directs two of
its recommendations towards the Department for International Development, urging
it to prioritise freedom of religion or belief in its work, and to ensure that
where aid is provided or contracts awarded overseas, it is channelled to
civil society organisations or government programmes that demonstrate a
sophisticated understanding of this human right. As spending on overseas aid continues to be protected, this remains a very practical way in which the
UK can promote freedom of religion and belief in difficult situations around
the world.

It is
important that Conservatives grasp this agenda and promote it in their
manifesto – which will enable MPs and PPCs to show that we are the Party that
understands the issues for many of Britain’s faith communities, who often host
the most well-attended hustings.  Also
Conservatives will be displaying that they understand that it is often the
relatives of British citizens who are being killed in Nigeria and Pakistan.  

Over the coming months, this new All Party Parliamentary
Group has set itself the task of fighting for recognition of freedom of
religion and belief as a full member of the human rights family, with all the
status that entails. In many ways I am not surprised that it is hitherto been
neglected. Even defining this right in a world, and indeed a nation, of
enormous religious diversity is beset with complexity. But this work cannot be
circumnavigated. It is impossible to imagine a world that is free, fair or safe
without the freedom of every individual to adopt, change or reject religion or
belief as their conscience dictates.