This week in Parliament, Fiona spoke in a debate on The UK's Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative and the G7.
Fiona's speech highlighted two concerns; firstly, the grave situation in Tigray, and secondly, the importance of promoting freedom of religion or belief to help prevent atrocities occurring in the first instance. Fiona's full speech can be read below and viewed here.
"I want to touch on two concerns. The first is the reports of widespread sexual violence as a weapon of war by armed groups in Tigray, as referred to by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) in her excellent speech, which I am pleased to follow.
The second is the separate but by no means disconnected issue of the importance of promoting the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief, or FORB. Preventing the abuse of FORB helps, in turn, to prevent atrocities such as sexual abuse from happening in the first place—atrocities sadly occurring, as we have heard, in many parts of the world today.
Societies that respect FORB are more likely to be stable, secure places in which to live and flourish, but sadly, this respect is sometimes absent. A lack of respect for the right of another person to hold their faith or core beliefs, and disrespect for their culture or ethnicity, are all too often the root causes of conflict, and are even at times used to justify atrocities such as sexual violence in conflict.
Reports of the experiences of women in Tigray bear this out. One Tigrayan woman was told by her rapists, “Our problem is with your womb. Your womb gives birth to Woyane”, a derogatory term, and “A Tigrayan womb should never give birth.” Hundreds of women have reported horrific accounts of rape and gang rape since the start of the conflict in Tigray nearly six months ago. Medics have reported removing nails, rocks and pieces of plastic from inside the bodies of rape victims. Individuals are allegedly forced to rape members of their own family. We hear of sexual violence against women and girls in refugee camps, and even of child soldiers forcibly conscripted and then being subjected to sexual abuse.
The UN Security Council heard evidence of an internally displaced woman who, when conflict began in her town, fled and hid in the forest for six days with her family. She gave birth while in hiding, but her baby sadly died a few days later. At the same time, her husband was also killed. When she resumed her journey, she met four soldiers, who raped her in front of the rest of her children throughout the night and into the following day.
Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, has concluded that
“there is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.”
I therefore welcome the statement from the Minister for Africa that the UK is working to prevent sexual violence in Tigray, to provide support for survivors and their children, and to promote justice for them. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Eritrea, I want to ask the Minister a number of questions before turning more specifically to the issue of FORB. What steps is the UK taking to press for UN investigators to have full access to the region to conduct its assessment of such atrocities? How is the UK supporting the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that its joint investigations into atrocities with the Ethiopian high commission are independent, transparent and impartial? Will that assessment look specifically at the situation of ethnic and religious groups?
What update can the Minister give following plans to deploy the UK Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict team to the region? What action has been taken following the mission by UK representatives to Shire in Tigray to assess humanitarian access, emergency services provided in camps and the support gaps that need to be filled, in particular for survivors of sexual violence and their children? Finally, what steps will the UK take to ensure that those responsible for such crimes are held to account and that a timely mechanism is implemented to collect and preserve evidence of sexual violence, to ensure the best possible opportunity to bring perpetrators to account and allow victims to see justice?
Let me turn to the separate but by no means disconnected topic of freedom of religion or belief. As the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, I welcome the G7 Foreign Minister’s communiqué, in particular paragraph 55—which I hope Hansard will perhaps print in full—which states that, as representatives of
“nations...engaged in creating a safer, more stable...world,”
the G7 Ministers
“are committed to promoting freedom of religion or belief for all”
“to co-ordinated action...to defend freedom of religion or belief for all”.
I also welcome last week’s G7 Open Societies leaders’ statement, which similarly committed countries to working together and with partners to promote freedom of religion or belief, and the joint statement by our Prime Minister and the US President in the new Atlantic charter, which again specifically referred to the UK and the US working together to support democracy across the globe, including by
“protecting freedom of religion or belief”.
The coming year is a vital one for the UK to demonstrate our global leadership in championing FORB and putting those words into action. I am doing so as the PM’s special envoy by actively working to oversee the full implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s independent review by its three-year review deadline of July 2022. Recommendation 21.b makes reference to matters relevant to today’s debate, and looks forward to the UK hosting the FORB ministerial international gathering, also in July 2022, when we can bring senior Ministers and others concerned about FORB from across the world to discuss what actions have been taken and need to be taken in this respect.
Another key platform for action on FORB is the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance, of which the UK is a leading member, where over 33 countries meet regularly through representatives, such as myself, mandated to take forward FORB internationally, including by challenging specific abuses and violations.
I look forward to continuing to work with Ministers, partners in likeminded countries, faith leaders and non-governmental organisations, as we seek to put the G7’s words on FORB into action, not only to help those suffering abuses of the kind that we have heard about today but, equally importantly, to help to prevent them from happening in the first place.