Lord Alton of Liverpool is an Independent Cross-bench Peer. Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton, a member of the International Development Select Committee and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
“You only get real long-term development through aid if there is also a golden thread of stable government, lack of corruption, human rights, the rule of law, transparent information.” – David Cameron
While the argument about whether our development aid programme funding should be ring-fenced divides parliamentary and public opinion, a common ground for all is that if we are going to invest in this way then we should get good value for money.
It is sometimes said that putting expectations of behaviour on aid to foreign governments would further fuel extremism, and make life more difficult for Christians and other minorities in those countries, who might be blamed for the reduction. Certainly care should be taken not to make matters worse – the ‘do no harm’ principle – and there may be truth in the idea that Christians in some countries could suffer further if aid was withdrawn. An alternative to simply withdrawing aid would be to channel more aid through non-governmental organisations and civil society.
Concern for minorities, pluralism and tolerance – a rich harvest
But it is not unreasonable to expect, where aid is being distributed, certain behaviour in terms of treatment of minorities, as well as the need for pluralism, tolerance and diversity. Such an approach can yield both a pragmatic harvest as well as chiming with the very best of “British values”. Where these values flourish, extremism can be confounded; where these values wilt, we see the catastrophic driving out of millions of people from their homes.
Around the world, ideological hatred of difference is driving a systematic campaign of deportation and exodus, degrading treatment, including sexual violence, enslavement, barbaric executions, and attempts to destroy all history, culture and beliefs that are not their own.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that: “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”. Gross violations of this human right conflict with some of the key values our country stands for. However, UK Aid is sadly going to some countries in which violations of Article 18 occur. It is important to understand and challenge this where appropriate, for the very reasons expressed above. Where freedom of thought, belief, or speech are restricted, other human rights violations can follow in their wake – discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and even genocide.
No one left behind
David Cameron has been key in the drafting of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set a bold vision for a fairer, better future for tomorrow’s world. In a marked departure from the Millennium Development Goals which preceded them, the much broader aspirations of the SDGs include, as Goal 10, to: ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries,’ and, as Goal 16, to: ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all.’
Reflecting on these SDGs, Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for International Development, says that taxpayers’ money should be spent to promote peace, jobs and justice: “leaving no one behind.” Committing to the SDGs, as the UK and 192 other countries did this autumn at the United Nations, means a radical review of how we ‘do aid’. This is therefore a timely opportunity for a fresh consideration of the application of Article 18 in terms of aid provision.
So how do we measure the success of such an approach in places like Pakistan? What would we regard as success or failure? How can it be ensured, for example, that funding for education is not being spent on promoting a curriculum that fuels intolerance, or to extremist madrassas that preach hatred?
This year, our aid programme to Pakistan is £405 million – £1.17 billion since 2011. This is a country where a mob of 1,200 people recently forced two children to watch as their Christian parents were burned alive. Pakistan has imposed a death penalty on a mother of five, Asia Bibi, for so-called blasphemy; it has still to bring to justice the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s Minister for Minorities; and it is a country where churchgoers have been murdered in their pews. This week, as we took evidence from the minorities who have suffered in Pakistan, we heard the story of that country’s one remaining self-professing Jew – from a community which was once numbered in its thousands. Minorities groups —Shias, Ahmadis and Christians—have experienced discrimination and outright persecution. While Pakistan has been receiving vast sums of money, the response from Pakistan, to these concerning issues and incidents, has been indifference, at best, .
Britain is a significant contributor to the European Union aid package of $300 million handed over to the Eritrean regime, led by Isaias Afwerki. In June a United Nations Commission of Inquiry accused it of “gross human rights violations.” Recently, at a hearing in Parliament, witnesses described to us deaths, torture, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, indefinite military conscription, forced labour and persecution of religious believers. The country’s population is haemorrhaging as those who are able to do so try to escape.
Every month up to 5,000 people leave Eritrea. In total 10 per cent of the population (350,000 people) have fled. Many of those individuals who try to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing are fleeing Eritrea. Persecution dogs their steps at every turn, and Christians who flee into Libya face the risk of beheading by the local mutation of ISIS.
The challenge for DFID is how to ensure that the substantial monies flowing into Eritrea are used to create better conditions for its people and in ways which genuinely tackle the root causes of the exodus of refugees fleeing such regimes, without which we are never going to see an end to the refugee crisis or the sprawling camps which are now home to millions.
Genocide and oppression of minorities
In responding to those from Syria who have had to abandon everything and become refugees we should also measure their plight against Article 18 – because the most vulnerable groups are undoubtedly the minority communities. A former Yazidi (a religious community in Syria) MP told us that 3,000 Yazidi girls are still in ISIS hands, suffering rape and abuse. She said: “The Yazidi people are going through mass murder. The objective is their annihilation…500 young children have been captured, being trained as killing machines, to fight their own people. This is a genocide and the international community should say so”.
We should indeed name this genocide for what it is. Our failure to do so in Rwanda had fatal consequences for millions.
Using the rule of law, and making it clear to those who are responsible for these crimes that their “Nuremburg moment” will come one day, would be consistent with our own values. So should be the way we direct our aid programmes – not least in the Middle East where we talk with great pride of our significant financial contribution.
So addressing the level of persecution of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, vulnerable people who clearly fall within the UN’s criteria of “specific need”, should be one of our priorities.
Even places of refuge can be dangerous
Many minorities escaping Syria have either fled refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and the Kurdish Autonomous Region – or have never risked entering them. This is because they suffer attacks, inside the camps, by radical Islamists, and they are now instead living in informal tented settlements.
A British newspaper recently reported that ISIS is sending teams of men posing as refugees with the mission of either kidnapping or killing Christians, and sending gangsters to the camps to kidnap young refugee girls and sell them as sex slaves. The newspaper reported that aid workers dare not report such occurrences because of fears for their own lives.
That intolerance and persecution can even be exported from the region is already clear from Germany, where reports emerged last week of minorities being attacked within refugee shelters there by Islamists, with increasing frequency and ferocity.
The House of Commons International Development Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the Syrian Refugee Crisis. At an evidence session recently, a witness, speaking on behalf of an organisation which works in the region directly with refugees, gave testimony that “we are not aware of Christians being within UN registered camps” – the camps to which UK Aid makes a substantial funding contribution. The Committee was told that Christians avoid these camps – and therefore access to the support within them – because of fear: “if your culture is different, you stand out and are more of a target, which makes you nervous to go there.”
Another witness in written evidence to the inquiry states, “Christians are generally not able to go to camps for fear of intimidation and risk…Because many Christians and other minority groups do not enter the camps due to fear of religious persecution, this would result in them being doubly disadvantaged as they will not have equal access to the scheme.” This double disadvantage refers to effective exclusion from the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Scheme – after having already been driven away from their home towns or villages, often as a result of religious persecution – these refugees, surviving outside the UN camps, have no chance of being selected as some of the 20,000 refugees the UK has committed to welcome here. An Archbishop familiar with the region says that if they are outside the refugee camps “The UN don’t really help these families.”
One of the challenges for aid organisations is to ensure that there is adequate religious literacy amongst those working for them, in an increasingly complex environment. So, a challenge for DFID should be to ensure that where aid is provided or contracts are awarded, it is channelled to civil-society organisations and government programmes which demonstrate a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the challenges in that area to the enjoyment of the human right of freedom of religion or belief, and can show how their work will have a positive impact in this respect.
This means not only attending to the needs of those who suffer the consequences of a breach of Article 18 – whether homelessness, malnutrition or worse – but also having the expertise to promote understanding, mediation and reconciliation within and between communities, and so help prevent fragile situations and states developing in the first place. It also needs to be pro-active in promoting international debate and dialogue around the implications of Article 18, for any faith or none.
We all need to have a greater understand of the golden thread which links religious freedom to safe prosperous and stable societies, and that doing so would be one way to help prevent forced mass migration and movements of people.
For, as the Prime Minister also says, “No believer should have to live in fear…Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe”.