Bishop of Rochester calls for targeted sanctions to defend freedom of religion or belief, and protection for Uighurs in China

On 29th July the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon “Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020”. The Right Revd James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester, spoke in the debate.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I, too, welcome this new regime of sanctions, but we must of course ensure that targeted sanctions do not become empty gestures. As other noble Lords have indicated, these sanctions will be most effective when they are consistent with other foreign policy priorities and done through co-ordinated, collective action. Without the support of a wider coalition, we risk being isolated diplomatically.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, noted elsewhere, we face the uncomfortable truth that, in future, we risk being more isolated and so more susceptible to economic retaliation, which will necessarily impact on government decisions about sanctions. Sanctions against Russia and Burma are one thing but—as has just been referred to—sanctions against China are quite another. There are ethical as well as strategic calculations here.

For example, as has been mentioned, we imposed sanctions against 20 named individuals for their role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi yet resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia shortly after. While clearly signalling our disapproval of the brutal murder, did our wider economic interests risk blunting the message in a regrettable and potentially counterproductive way?

I noted the Minister’s reference to freedom of religion or belief. Sanctions should indeed be applied to those who commit severe violations in this field but, given that freedom of religion or belief is a foreign policy priority, I find it slightly surprising that this right is not explicitly included in the scope of the regulations in relation to sanctions. I wonder whether the Minister can offer an explanation or commentary on that, and perhaps give an assurance that it might be considered in any future revision of the regulations.​

Like others, I am particularly concerned about gross human rights abuses in China, especially against Uighurs. As one of my episcopal colleagues noted last week in a letter to the Foreign Secretary,

“the images that we have seen in recent days and the reports emanating from the region are harrowing and require a clear and unequivocal response.”

While the issues here are wider, religion clearly is an element. Given what we know about the situation, and our awareness that other countries have applied Magnitsky-style sanctions against those responsible, will the Government look again at this matter?

The aspiration that Britain be global is a fine one, but it needs substance. How we respond to the hard cases will demonstrate that substance. The new sanctions regime is a useful foreign policy tool and, while it needs to be used judiciously, we should not be afraid to use it when the need arises.

Both Baroness Northover (Liberal Democrats) and Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour) addressed comments made by Bishop James during the debate.

Baroness Northover: The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester is right about the risks of our isolation and that the rest of our foreign policy must be consistent with what we are saying here.

Lord Collins of Highbury:  There must be consistency in the Government’s approach, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester highlighted.

The Minister, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, also addressed comments made by Bishop James in his concluding speech.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: Several noble Lords asked about the scope of the sanctions, including the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lords, Lord Loomba, Lord Collins and Lord Wood. The point was made that the sanctions, as currently announced, have a narrow focus. I assure noble Lords that all rights are equally important, but we want to ensure the success of the sanctions regime by keeping the scope targeted in the first instance. Furthermore, the sanctions regime will support other human rights issues, including imposing sanctions for unlawful killings perpetrated against journalists and media workers. In answer to the right reverend Prelate’s direct question, I can say that they extend to those who abuse freedom of religion or belief. Both these issues—media freedom and freedom of religion or belief—remain government priorities. I hope that the right reverend Prelate is reassured by that.


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