Published 8 July 2021
- Preface by the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab
- Foreword by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon
- Chapter 1: Human rights and democracy priority themes
- Chapter 2: Human rights and the multilateral system
- Chapter 3: Consular assistance
- Chapter 4: Human rights priority countries
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- presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Affairs by Command of Her Majesty
- laid in Parliament on 8 July 2021
- Crown copyright 2020
- ISBN: 978-1-5286-2732-0
Preface by the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab
2020 was a very challenging year. In addition to its grave health impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a number of negative trends, including the erosion of human rights and democracy in different parts of the world. It has provided an opportunity for unscrupulous and opportunistic governments to increase repression and flout international law.
Against this backdrop, the UK played a critical role as a champion of open, democratic societies, human rights and the rule of law, including through our G7 Presidency and as co-chair of the global Media Freedom Coalition.
In September, we merged FCO and DFID – bringing diplomacy and development together to maximise our impact, placing our world-class aid programme at the beating heart of our foreign policy decision-making. Defending open societies, including human rights, is one of the seven strategic priorities for our development work. The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is now working to tackle the world’s greatest challenges in a modern and innovative way.
We set out our vision for the new department and for the UK’s role in the world in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, titled ‘Global Britain in a competitive world’. It is the most comprehensive and far-reaching foreign and security policy strategy published by a British Government in decades.
We want to see a world that is safe for open and free societies to thrive, and we are confident and ambitious about our role as a protector of human rights and a beacon of democratic sovereignty. That’s why we are leading campaigns on the freedom of religion or belief, media freedom, Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, LGBT+ rights, and girls’ education. We have also joined with Canada and over 50 other partners in working to end the practice of arbitrary arrests, detentions or sentencing.
We are ready to stand up for our values in the face of human rights violations, fraudulent elections and attacks on democracy – for example in countries including Russia, China, Myanmar and Belarus.
We have continued to stand up for the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. We have called out China’s egregious actions, alongside our international partners. We launched a new immigration route for British Nationals (Overseas) providing many of those that feel they need to leave with another option for doing so. We also took a number of further steps in 2020, including suspending indefinitely our Extradition Treaty with Hong Kong and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong.
We have challenged and exposed human rights violations together with our like-minded partners and through multilateral bodies, such as the Human Rights Council. Underlining our commitment to upholding international laws and norms, the UK has been re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council, and at the International Criminal Court we have seen the elections of Joanna Korner as Judge and Karim Khan as Chief Prosecutor.
With the UK’s Global Human Rights sanctions regime, we have imposed sanctions on the perpetrators. In 2020 the UK imposed sanctions on individuals and entities in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, DPRK, Belarus, Chechnya, Venezuela, The Gambia and Pakistan. Our Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regime launched in 2021 completes the UK’s Magnitsky sanctions framework. This will prevent corrupt actors from using the UK as a haven for dirty money, while combatting corruption around the world.
In these challenging times, we will continue to bring to bear all of the diplomatic and development levers available to us to defend the international rule of law and the rights and freedoms of the most oppressed and most vulnerable around the world. This is the mission of Global Britain as a force for good.
Foreword by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon
The Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy – our vision for Global Britain – places a major focus on championing human rights, democratic values, good governance, the rule of law, and open societies. This is central to our role as a force for good in the world.
This FCDO Annual Human Rights & Democracy Report looks at the human rights situation around the world in 2020. It demonstrates how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many human rights issues, and disproportionately impacted marginalised and vulnerable groups. It highlights some of the actions we have taken, as a government and with our partners, bilaterally and in multilateral fora, in support of human rights and those who defend them.
This is the first report published by the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It therefore reflects the importance and strength of diplomacy and development working side-by-side to defend human rights and democracy around the world.
The 2020 report covers 31 Human Rights Priority Countries. The list is reviewed periodically, taking into account the human rights situation, the trajectory of change, and the UK’s ability to make a positive difference in each country. This year, Burundi and Republic of Maldives have been removed from the list, while Belarus, Mali and Nicaragua have been added.
There is no doubt that 2020 was a difficult year. The pandemic has strengthened the arm of authoritarian rulers and we’ve tragically witnessed a scaling up of egregious abuse of human rights. For those courageous and brave souls who call out such abuses, including human rights defenders, it has made their crucial role both more important and more difficult, as they seek to defend and promote the rights of minority groups or indeed document violations or champion reform. The FCDO continued to support human rights defenders in 2020, including by monitoring cases, observing trials, and raising issues with host governments, for example in Iran, Colombia, Turkey and Thailand.
The report covers many of the issues on which we are most active. A free and fearless objective media is vital for accountability in all parts of our lives. Supporting press freedom and journalists has continued to be a major priority for this government.
Several new countries joined our Media Freedom Coalition in 2020, swelling the alliance to 42 states, including all G7 countries. Our High Level Panel of Legal Experts industriously worked on ways to improve legal protections for journalists and independent media. We continued to be the lead contributor to the UNESCO Global Media Defence Fund. Moreover, our programme to strengthen media standards and protections continued to deliver results, for example in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.
Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) has been another priority throughout the year. The report details how we have built new like-minded alliances and strengthened existing ones. In December, the Prime Minister appointed Fiona Bruce as his new envoy on FoRB.
Violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have also been in sharp focus. In June, the UK delivered a ground-breaking joint statement at the Human Rights Council on behalf of 28 countries, urging China to allow access for independent observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We continue to call for this access as a matter of great urgency.
Studies show that the pandemic has brought disproportionately heavy consequences for women and girls. To counter the surge in violence against women during 2020, we funded programmes in Kenya, Nepal and across the Western Balkans to make sure victims of violence could access help and refuge during the pandemic. We also kick-started a global follow-up programme to our highly successful ‘What Works to Prevent Violence’ initiative.
In July, seven years of UK support to the Sudanese-led movement bore fruit, when the Sudanese Government outlawed female genital mutilation. In October, to rally international support for girls’ education, we developed two new targets for low and middle income countries to meet by 2025: to get 40 million more girls into primary and secondary school; and to get a third more girls reading by the age of ten. All G7 countries have now signed up to these targets.
We have continued to make good progress on our Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. In June, I was part of the launch of the UK-backed Murad Code for global consultations. It will strengthen work with survivors to investigate, document and record crimes. In November, I launched the ‘Declaration of Humanity’ and, through it, successfully encouraged faith, belief and community leaders to speak out on the issue and denounce the stigma faced by survivors of sexual violence.
Earlier and most notably in July, the Foreign Secretary introduced our new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – a powerful new tool of deterrence and accountability – and immediately imposed sanctions against 49 individuals or entities involved in a range of human rights violations and abuses around the world.
Human rights issues connect to many other areas of policy. For example, when making decisions on trading relations, our international obligations and commitments, including on human rights, are always of paramount importance. We believe that political freedom and the rule of law are vital underpinnings for both long term prosperity and stability.
I am proud of our record on human rights, but this area of our work will always need to be sustained as a priority as there remains so much more to be done. With the UK successfully re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council for the 2021-23 term, we are well positioned to keep pursuing this work and strengthening alliances to stand up for the persecuted and oppressed. We are committed to continue supporting vital programmes, and working with our partners to defend and promote human rights around the world. Simply put it’s the right thing to do.
Chapter 1: Human rights and democracy priority themes
Democracy and democratic freedoms
Promoting democracy and defending democratic freedoms are fundamental to the UK’s foreign policy. We believe that strong democratic institutions and accountable governments, which uphold universal rights and the rule of law, are key building blocks for secure and prosperous states.
We witnessed a number of challenges to democracy in the world in 2020 exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There was further evidence of the retreat of democracy and a rise in authoritarianism. In 2020, the NGO Freedom House recorded a decline in global freedom for the 15th consecutive year.[footnote 1] COVID-19 brought the interdependence of democracy and human rights into even sharper focus, with governments using the crisis to restrict civil liberties further and to entrench repressive measures.
The UK continued to defend democracy through support to electoral processes. In 2020, the UK funded observers to election observation missions run by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In Georgia, we funded three long-term observers to parliamentary elections in November; in Moldova we funded two long-term observers to presidential elections in November; and eight to Ukraine to observe the local elections in October. Through our Embassies and High Commissions, the UK continued to support democratic political institutions and promote good governance. In Nigeria, the UK funded and supported Nigerian civil society groups to observe voting during elections in Edo and Ondo states. The UK played a leading role, working with partners in the international community, to help ensure credible elections in Guyana in March.
Westminster Foundation for Democracy
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) is an executive Non-Departmental Public Body focused on supporting democracy overseas. It is an important and distinctive part of the UK’s diplomatic and soft power efforts. We continued to work closely with WFD during 2020, and funded their work to bolster and strengthen human rights by making countries’ political systems fairer, more inclusive, and more accountable.
Working closely with partners, WFD helped parliaments operate effectively during lockdowns, scrutinised government responses, and ensured oversight of emergency spending. Ensuring that COVID-related laws and policies were gender-sensitive was a key goal in WFD programmes, for example in Morocco and Malaysia.
WFD helped young people get involved in politics in Nigeria[footnote 2], Uganda[footnote 3], North Macedonia[footnote 4] and Bosnia and Herzegovina[footnote 5]. They worked with the parliament in Sierra Leone[footnote 6] to submit its first report on implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the parliament of North Macedonia to adopt the Declaration for Active Political Participation of Persons with Disabilities. In The Gambia, WFD facilitated assessments[footnote 7] of the effect which the COVID-19 response had had on women and disabled people.
WFD launched a programme in Bangsamoro[footnote 8] (in the Philippines) to help local government transition through a peace process, while working towards gender equality and good governance. In the Western Balkans, WFD worked with the human rights and gender network of MPs[footnote 9], supporting parliaments in promoting human rights and gender equality. Through its environmental democracy initiative[footnote 10], WFD provided technical assistance to parliaments in Pakistan and Indonesia to advance the environmental protection agenda.
WFD led the FCDO-sponsored programme, the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy, which helped 18 Commonwealth countries improve the representation of women, young people, people with disabilities, and the LGBT+ community. Successes included training 3,000 student leaders in Ghana and supporting three disability rights bills in Kenya. In October, WFD launched a new FCDO-funded programme with Kaleidoscope Trust, to tackle discrimination against women, girls, and LGBT+ people in 13 Commonwealth countries.
WFD also recruited international election observers for the UK, sending observers to participate in missions in a range of countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Moldova.
We continued to work with the Community of Democracies (COD) – alongside 30[footnote 11] other states that support adherence to common democratic values and standards as outlined in the 2000 Warsaw Declaration. The COD celebrated its 20th anniversary on 26 June, and signatories to the Warsaw Convention, including the UK, on 27 June pledged to continue to uphold core democratic values. This included the right of every person to equal access to public service and to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Signatories also agreed to strengthen the institutions and processes of democracy.
Transparency and open government
The COVID-19 response and recovery demonstrated that transparency, openness and freedom of the press are crucial to preventing corruption and supporting an effective COVID-19 recovery. The UK supported and promoted transparency, accountability and participation, which are fundamental to open and inclusive societies. We continued to work through multilateral engagement and innovative global projects to deliver this.
In 2020, the FCDO continued to support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) globally through a £12 million programme to drive open government reforms in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Sri Lanka. The OGP supported countries to integrate open government approaches into their COVID-19 responses and recovery. In Nigeria, the OGP worked with civil society organisations to establish citizen monitoring of economic stimulus and social protection packages. Speaking at the OGP’s Virtual Leaders’ Summit at the UN General Assembly in September, Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon highlighted that the work of the OGP was now more important than ever.[footnote 12]
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is essential to functioning democracies, and enables a full range of other human rights. People need to be able to challenge and hold their governments to account through open discussion and debate. This allows innovation to thrive, ideas to develop, and leads to more secure and prosperous societies.
The right to freedom of expression exists online as well as offline. The UK is committed to a free, open, peaceful and secure internet. In 2020, the NGO Access Now documented[footnote 13] at least 155 internet shutdowns in 29 countries, including during elections, so disrupting democratic processes. We continued to support Access Now and its #KeepItOn campaign, which brought together a coalition of 243 organisations from 105 countries to counter internet shutdowns. The UK also worked to defend a free, open and secure internet though our membership of the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC), a partnership of 32 countries, working to advance internet freedom. In May, the FOC issued a statement[footnote 14] on COVID-19 and internet freedom, expressing concern about the human rights implications of some measures introduced by governments in response to the pandemic. In November, the UK and Finland led a statement by the FOC calling on governments to refrain from conducting and sponsoring disinformation campaigns, and to take active steps to respect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
In Tanzania, there were increasing restrictions on freedom of expression around national elections: the UK was deeply troubled by reports of violence and heavy-handed policing; arrest of opposition leaders; and a social media and internet slowdown. The Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, and officials at the British High Commission in Tanzania raised our concerns directly with the Tanzanian Government. In Rwanda, critical voices continued to face heavy restrictions. The UK raised concerns about specific cases with the Government of Rwanda, underlining the need to allow opposing voices to hold the government to account. This included the case of Kizito Mihigo, a prominent musician and reconciliation activist, who died in police custody in February. In Algeria, freedom of expression continued to be subject to restrictions, with reports of arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists. The UK monitored cases closely, and underlined the importance of freedom of expression regularly with the Algerian government, including with the Interior Minister, Tayeb Belaiz, in November 2020.
Human rights defenders
Support for human rights defenders (HRDs) is an important part of the UK government’s human rights work. Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon reaffirmed this support in his message on International Human Rights Defenders Day on 9 December, when he thanked HRDs around the world for their courage and unwavering determination in fighting for human rights. HRDs play a crucial role, often at great risk to themselves, in defending the full range of human rights. They are crucial to promoting the rights of their fellow citizens and to contributing to the long-term reform and development of their countries, by documenting human rights violations and acting as agents of change.
In 2020, HRDs played an important leadership role in protecting democracy and civic space where governments used COVID-19 to justify the restriction of human rights and the rule of law. According to the NGO Frontline Defenders[footnote 15], at least 331 HRDs were killed in 2020 across the world. Other HRDs were threatened, arbitrarily detained, placed under surveillance or disappeared.
Our diplomatic network provided support to HRDs, including by monitoring cases, observing trials, and raising issues with host governments. We continued to use the document ‘UK support for Human Rights Defenders’ (published in July 2019[footnote 16]), which sets out our approach to engaging with HRDs, and how we work with them to further human rights globally. We will continue to work closely with partners to consider what more can be done to support HRDs.
In Iran, HRDs continued to be targeted and imprisoned for helping the most vulnerable. On 22 September, the FCDO summoned the Iranian Ambassador and handed over a joint letter from the UK, French and German Foreign Ministers, expressing our concern about the grave human rights violations inside Iran. We drew particular attention to the imprisonment of renowned human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh, and urged Iran to improve her treatment.
In Colombia, the situation continued to be serious for HRDs. The UN confirmed that at least 120 HRDs had been killed in 2020, an increase on 2019, and called these killings one of the greatest threats to the implementation of Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement. There were indications that the situation had worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as illegal armed groups took advantage of it to increase their control over some areas. In addition to the support provided to at-risk HRDs through UK-funded programmes, a virtual visit by Lord Tariq Ahmad in October allowed us to raise our concerns with the Colombian government.
In Turkey, HRDs in particular were targeted for their work, often under harsh counter-terrorism legislation. We attended trials of high profile HRDs, and lobbied the Turkish government at ministerial level on individual cases.
In Thailand, we continued to be concerned about the protection of HRDs in light of disappearances and a resumption of the use of the lèse majesté law[footnote 17] and other charges to limit freedom of expression. The UK raised the issue with the Thai Government. We actively supported civil society through project funding, direct engagement with activists and HRDs, and activities in partnership with like-minded Embassies. UK-funded programmes supported training to equip HRDs with digital skills, and legislative reform to tackle strategic litigation against public participation.
Restrictions of civil society space
2020 was a difficult and challenging year for civil society amid the fallout from COVID-19, with high levels of polarisation, discontent and democratic backsliding. The CIVICUS Monitor[footnote 18] attested that 87% of the world’s population now live in countries rated as “closed”, “repressed”, or “obstructed”—an increase of over 4% from 2019. Restrictions on civic freedoms affected some groups more than others, particularly women, youth, the LGBT+ community, and those working on labour and environmental issues.
We were concerned about the decline in civic space conditions in the Philippines due to the targeting of HRDs and journalists and called out specifically the continued actions against Maria Ressa. In Iraq, 2020 saw a number of killings of civil society, political and human rights activists, and increased threats against journalists. The Egyptian government restricted civil society space further in response to COVID-19 with regard to association, assembly and protest. The government amended or extended several laws on the closure of civic space targeting journalists, media and healthcare officials. In September, Amnesty International India suspended operations after its bank accounts were frozen for allegedly breaching the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act. In Turkey, civil society continued to be restricted, with many organisations facing government investigation into their activities. The UK continued to promote and fund a variety of civil society organisations, as well as hosting them at the Embassy in panel discussions on issues such as media freedom and legislation governing internet management. In Indonesia, the UK continued to monitor closely the situation in the Papua region and continued to lobby at ministerial level for access by international journalists. The UK fully respects Indonesia’s territorial integrity, including the provinces of Papua and West Papua. We continued to lobby at ministerial level for access for international journalists to the region.
The UK supported civil society activists, including through funding for civil society organisations and women’s groups, and others pursuing justice and accountability. Through UK Aid Connect, the FCDO supported local civil society in the Middle East and North Africa in navigating the increasingly repressive media environment in the context of the pandemic. The UK funded the PROTECT[footnote 19] consortium to combat closing civic space and tackle threats to media freedom in Kenya, Malawi and Myanmar.
Case study: #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria
In October 2020, there were protests in cities across Nigeria calling for an end to police brutality, prompted by a viral video which appeared to show Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officers shooting and killing a young man in southern Nigeria. The SARS police unit had already been at the centre of a number of allegations of police brutality. Protesters pushed for the unit to be disbanded, and called for wider police reforms and accountability. As the protests grew in number, there were some clashes between protesters and the Nigerian security services, including the police and army. Protesters and civil society groups alleged that the Nigerian Army shot and killed a number of civilians during protests on 20 October in Lekki, Lagos State.
In response to the events in Lekki, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, issued a statement calling for an end to the violence and for the Nigerian Government urgently to investigate reports of brutality by its security services and hold those responsible to account. Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, made clear the Government’s support for the right to peaceful protest. He spoke to Nigerian Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, to express his deep concern at the violence and ask the Nigerian Government for an account of events. British High Commissioner in Abuja, Catriona Laing, also raised the protests, and the need for those responsible for events at Lekki to be held accountable, with representatives of the Nigerian Government, including the President’s Chief of Staff, Ibrahim Gambari.
We welcomed the Nigerian authorities’ subsequent decision to disband SARS. We also welcomed their establishment of judicial panels of inquiry in many Nigerian states, including Lagos, to investigate alleged incidents of brutality by the security services, both historic incidents and those that occurred during the protests. In November, the Minister for Africa also spoke to the President’s Chief of Staff, to emphasise the importance of the panels, and to the Governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to stress the importance of the police and military’s cooperation with the panels.
The UK Government remains concerned by reports that the Nigerian authorities threatened protesters, panel members and members of civil society groups, including through freezing some bank accounts and banning individuals from international travel. It is essential for accountability that an environment is created where individuals feel free to raise concerns, including through the panels.
The UK government is a long-term supporter of police reform in Nigeria. Between 2016 and 2020, we provided training to the Nigerian police on human rights and community policing; strengthened accountability and oversight bodies, for example through organising meetings which brought together civil society groups, the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission and the police to resolve complaints; supported police-community engagement through community safety partnerships; and supported the development of annual policing plans. This work was focused in Lagos, Borno, Enugu and Kano states, and the Federal Capital Territory. As a result, relationships between communities and the police started to improve in these states, with communities and the police working together to resolve safety and security issues.
We supported civil society efforts to secure the successful passage of the new Police Act, which came into force in September 2020. The Act clearly set out the responsibilities for the police and provided for greater citizen protections. Implemented effectively, the Act will be an important step towards a more transparent and accountable police force.
In 2021, we will continue to urge the Nigerian security services to uphold human rights and the rule of law in all operations, investigate any incidents of brutality, and hold those responsible to account. We will follow the response to the panel’s findings closely. We will work with our partners in support of more transparent and accountable security services in Nigeria.
The UK continued its commitment to supporting media freedom in 2020, working with media organisations and civil society around the world to deliver projects to protect and support journalists, including through the FCDO’s Magna Carta Fund for Democracy and Human Rights and the cross-Whitehall Conflict, Security and Stability Fund. The UK’s work on media freedom focused on several initiatives, including:
Media Freedom Coalition: Afghanistan, Cyprus, Japan, Botswana, Belize, Australia, Spain and Italy joined the Media Freedom Coalition in 2020, bringing the total membership to 42, including all G7 countries. Coalition members commit to raise media freedom at home and abroad, share best practice, and lobby on cases. The first meeting of Coalition members, where terms of reference and priorities were unanimously agreed, took place in January, and the Coalition thereafter issued a number of statements on cases of concern around the world, including on the situation in Belarus[footnote 20].
High Level Panel of Legal Experts: an independent advisory panel of 15 distinguished lawyers, focused on improving legal protections for journalists and for a free and independent media. The Panel’s first report[footnote 21]—on the use of sanctions as a tool to protect media freedom—was launched in February. The UK’s global human rights sanctions regime, subsequently launched in July, adopted a number of the Panel’s recommendations on how to use sanctions to protect journalists. In November, the Panel published three further reports, on strengthening consular services to journalists at risk, providing safe refuge for journalists, and advice for promoting more effective investigations into violations and abuses against journalists[footnote 22].
Global Media Defence Fund: the UK leads and supports the UNESCO-administered Fund, aimed at ensuring effective legal assistance and support to civil society and journalists, including training and media development. The UK has committed £3 million over five years to the Fund. The first tranche of projects supported by the Fund launched in October, consisting of 110 proposals from all regions of the world and targeting over 50 countries. These projects covered an array of issues, including help to provide legal advice and safety training for journalists. The Fund also supports the work of the High Level Legal Panel, and offers support to countries in developing National Action Plans for media freedom.
Protecting Independent Media for Effective Development (PRIMED) programme: This four-year programme, launched in 2019 and implemented by a consortium led by BBC Media Action, continued to work in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone to support media organisations to protect and increase their delivery of high-quality public interest content. The programme mentored media organisations to help them develop better business models, identify new funding streams, and strengthen engagement with their audiences. It also worked with a wide coalition of defenders of freedom of expression, to advocate change in the media environment, and better defend media freedom in these three countries.
The UK participated in a number of media freedom events during 2020. As co-chair of the Coalition, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab presented the inaugural Canada-UK Media Freedom Award to the Belarusian Association of Journalists in recognition of their continued commitment to journalistic ethics and principles in the face a sustained and brutal crackdown on independent media in Belarus. In December, he spoke at the ministerial meeting of the World Press Freedom Day Conference, where he reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to using its G7 presidency to champion media freedom.
The UK was concerned by the attempts of some states to use the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict press freedom and debate, abuse journalists and spread disinformation. The UK remained concerned about the deteriorating situations in a number of countries where journalists continue to be under threat. In Egypt, for example, foreign journalists continued to face difficulty obtaining press permits and, in March, the British correspondent for The Guardian was expelled after claiming that COVID-19 cases were being underreported. In November, Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad, expressed the UK’s concern at the situation faced by journalists in Egypt and, as co-chair of the Media Freedom Coalition, the UK released a statement[footnote 23] expressing concern at the arrest and intimidation of individuals associated with the independent news website Darb.
In Indonesia, we supported a project to analyse the impact of the pandemic on media. Additionally, we initiated and supported a series of webinars in conjunction with BBC Media Action and Indonesia’s Press Council that delve into various aspects of the COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia.
In the Philippines, the Embassy monitored and spoke out on the case of Maria Ressa, the shutdown of ABS-CBN network, and the harassment and detention of a number of journalists. We expressed concern about the message these developments sent about media freedom in the Philippines.
In Turkey, where a large number of journalists were prosecuted, we urged the government to implement social media legislation in a fair and transparent manner, and raised at ministerial level our concerns about the treatment of journalists.
In Vietnam, journalists, bloggers and those advocating open debate were silenced and subjected to lengthy terms of imprisonment. We raised concerns, including during the Foreign Secretary’s visit in September. Vietnam has committed to working with the UK on media exchanges.
In China, the authorities continued to curtail media freedom. There were believed to be at least 47 journalists[footnote 24] in detention in China in 2020. We continued to raise media freedom with the Chinese authorities, urging them to allow journalists to practise their profession without fear of arrest, harassment or reprisal, and to end extensive censorship and control over the media and wider means of expression.
In Ethiopia, several journalists and editors were arrested and detained without charge, or were intimidated. The UK raised its concerns with the Government of Ethiopia, and UK programmes continued to help the media sector operate in a professional and independent way.
In Zimbabwe, we welcomed the legislative processes to replace restrictive Mugabe-era laws. However, implementation remained a concern, with the continued arrests of media practitioners, opposition figures and citizen journalists for expressing their views. The Media Institute of Southern Africa reported 49 human rights violations against journalists in 2020.
In Venezuela, attacks against press freedom persisted through arbitrary detentions, the blocking of websites, and the shutting down of media outlets. Journalists and healthcare workers faced intimidation when criticising the regime’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK ran technically-focused projects to support capacity-building for journalists on topics such as personal protection.
While 2020 saw negative developments relating to media freedom in many countries, there were also some signs of progress. Sierra Leone voted to repeal its criminal libel law, and passed a new Independent Media Commission Act, helped by significant lobbying and support from the British High Commission. This was a major win for media freedom, which the UK supported through technical assistance to the Independent Media Commission to strengthen the media regulators following the repeal of the libel law.
Under Burundi’s new President, Évariste Ndayishimiye, there was some progress regarding respect for media freedom, notably a presidential pardon in December for four Iwacu newspaper journalists.
The UK remains committed to championing media freedom around the globe, both bilaterally and through the Media Freedom Coalition. In 2021, we will use our G7 Presidency to promote media freedom, including through greater support to the Media Freedom Coalition, the Global Media Defence Fund, and improved co-ordination in Official Development Assistance—all with the aim of making the world a safer place for journalists, and supporting resilient and financially sustainable models for independent journalism.
Freedom of religion or belief
Defending freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all, and promoting respect between different religious communities, are key priorities for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and for Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. Concerns about the denial of FoRB grew in 2020, with some religious minorities blamed for the spread of COVID-19, and being scapegoated or targeted as a result.
Work on this issue was led by the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion of Belief (FoRB)[footnote 25], and by the Minister for Human Rights, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon. On 20 December, the Prime Minister appointed Fiona Bruce MP as his Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Monitoring developments around the world and raising issues of concern continued to be central to our work on FoRB in 2020. In China, we remained concerned about systematic restrictions on the practice of Islam, especially in Xinjiang. Restrictions remained in place concerning other groups, including Christians, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, and other religious groups across the country. The UK delivered the first joint statement on the plight of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang at the Human Rights Council in June, and raised concerns about the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet alongside 38 other countries in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October.
In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims continued to flee constitutional discrimination and, Christians, Hazaras, Hindus, Shia Muslims and other minorities continued to suffer persecution and violence, including faith-based killings and attacks on places of worship. In Sri Lanka, the government announced a policy of mandating cremations for all COVID-19 deaths, despite WHO guidelines which permit burials. This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. Lord Tariq Ahmad led lobbying on this which saw this policy being overturned. Intercommunal religious violence took place in India, where over 50 people were reported to have been killed. The UK raised concerns with the Indian authorities about the impact of legislative and judicial measures on members of religious minorities.
In north-east Nigeria, terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa, sought to undermine the Nigerian constitutional right to FoRB by deliberately attacking both Christian and Muslim communities which did not subscribe to their extremist views. Intercommunal violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt continued to be of concern. While religious identity was an important factor, the overall causes were more complex, particularly competition over land and resources driven by population growth, climate change and criminality. The FCDO will continue to look at ways to address these factors, to reduce levels of violence and ease tensions.
In Myanmar, legislation continued to favour the Buddhist majority. We encouraged the Government of Myanmar to reform the 1982 citizenship law, used in the 2020 elections to prevent some Muslim candidates from standing. Following damage from violence in 2016 and 2017, many mosques in Myanmar found obtaining permission to undertake restorations challenging. The Rohingya, an ethnic group comprised mostly of Muslims, but also Hindus and a small number of Christians, continued to be denied citizenship. The UK Ambassador called on various ministers in Myanmar to remove religion as a category from state-issued documentation. The UK continued to raise the plight of the Rohingya through multilateral fora, including the UN Security Council.
Provisions on FoRB were maintained in the new constitution in Algeria that came into force in December 2020. We have raised with the Algerian government the importance of supporting legislation being implemented quickly. The UK Ambassador discussed at ministerial level, including with the Minister of Interior in November, our concern that some religious groups in Algeria, including Ahmadi minorities and Christians, had reported difficulties in practising their faith.
In July, Sudan abolished the death penalty for apostasy, a significant step in promoting FoRB. In Eritrea, a number of worshippers, including Pentecostal and Muslim, were released from detention during 2020. However, many remained in detention and arrests continued.
In Yemen, six Baha’is were released from Houthi detention in July, including one who had faced the death sentence. This came after significant lobbying from the international community, including the UK. The six were subsequently forced to leave the country. We continued to follow closely the Houthi persecution of the Baha’i, including through meeting Baha’i representatives in the UK. We also continued to follow the case of Levi Salem Musa Merhavi, a member of Yemen’s small Jewish community, detained since 2016 by the Houthis and subject to serious mistreatment.
In March[footnote 26] and July[footnote 27], the UK made statements at the OSCE which called on Russia to end the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to uphold its commitments on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief for all individuals.
In Egypt, the number of licences issued under the 2016 Church Building Law continued to increase, with 1,800 church buildings receiving licences by the end of 2020. However, the continued detention of Coptic rights activist Ramy Kamel remained concerning. Sporadic sectarian tensions and the threat of Islamic extremism also continued to present challenges.
Working with like-minded partners remained central to our work, including engaging with the UK FoRB Forum chaired by the Bishop of Truro, bringing together NGO representatives and parliamentarians. At the UN, we joined the new Group of Friends of Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief in July. In February, the UK became a founding member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a network of countries working together to highlight cases of concern and advocate the rights of individuals around the world being discriminated against or persecuted for their faith or belief. The Prime Minister’s then Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Rehman Chishti MP, attended the launch event in Washington, and was later appointed Vice-Chair. Highlighting the impact of COVID-19 was a priority for the Alliance, and, in August, the UK joined a statement which recognised the impact of COVID-19 on minority religious and belief communities and called for full respect for FoRB during the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, Lord Tariq Ahmad attended both the first Ministers’ Forum of the Alliance and the Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, hosted virtually by Poland.
With the creation of the FCDO, we continued to bring our policy and programme work together. Programmes delivered through the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Oxford were designed to empower religiously marginalised groups, counter hate speech, and address the legislative barriers to FoRB.
Delivering the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s review of, the then, FCO support for persecuted Christians remained a priority; ten of the 22 recommendations were fully delivered, and we made good progress on a further eight. We supported 15 FoRB research projects through the John Bunyan Fund, and marked the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief in August, and Red Wednesday in November, lighting our site in King Charles Street red. Delivering Religion for International Engagement training to FCDO staff is a priority for 2021.
We will continue to stand up for the right to freedom of religion or belief and promote respect between different religious communities. Our work with the Alliance will remain a priority for 2021, as well as delivery of the Truro Review recommendations to ensure that all 22 will be delivered by the time of the independent review of the report in 2022.