As religious persecution continues across the globe, a rights-based approach rather than needs-based assistance may do more to alleviate oppression and promote tolerance in the worst of circumstances.
This week, an all-party parliamentary group in the United Kingdom met to discuss how religious persecution is a driver for forced migration and a risk factor for sexual violence. A panel discussion, held at the Palace of Westminster, brought together refugees, scholars and members of a host of faith communities. Included in the mix were Elder Jeffery R. Holland and Sister Sharon Eubank of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper.
The contributions of all panelists highlighted the imperative for rights-based, not simply needs-based, humanitarian assistance in conflict.
Protecting civilians caught in turmoil is a global political commitment enshrined in the United Nations’ “Responsibility to Protect” mandate, which states the international community has a responsibility to end genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In practice, however, assistance in the face of stark human rights abuses too often takes the form of needs-based help — providing shelter and food while leaving people in a state of protracted unrest.
As Elder Holland told the audience, “In the past, charitable institutions have provided financial support, medical treatment, and other physical needs for refugee victims, all of which are still needed. But we now understand that we must look to emotional and spiritual needs as well.”
To explore this idea more concretely, the discussion focused on the plight of the Yazidi people, a Christian minority living under the enslavement and oppression of the Islamic State. Rosa Qaidi, a Yazidi who survived the Islamic State onslaught, advocated on the panel for the emancipation of the thousands of Yazidi women and girls still trapped in sexual slavery. Building on Qaidi’s comments, Sister Eubank argued that increased religious literacy among the Iraqi people would create the conditions for increased tolerance and potential liberation.
Through this conversation, the parliamentary group emphasized the imperative for rights-based assistance alongside the provision of basic needs. To successfully reintegrate into society, people must be able to meaningfully exercise their right to freedom of religion, expression and privacy. Otherwise, they are left marginalized and vulnerable to further chaos.
The structural conditions for increased tolerance come from increasing legal protections, building peaceful relationships with other identity groups within a society and enforcing the positive right to engage in a market and find work. These build the foundation for an environment in which human rights can be protected. Therefore, humanitarian assistance in conflict must take a more holistic, rights-based approach, protecting the autonomy, dignity and self-determination of all people.
The panel concluded with a call to all people — a call which we both echo and support — to protect and advocate for conflict-affected populations. This also applies to the United Nations, which must do more to support its mandate. Investing in education would be a good start, as Pew Research Center data suggest more education leads to a warmer reception of religious differences. Appropriate funds should be funneled into such programs.
By creating societies comfortable with and tolerant of differences in religious and cultural identity, nations can mitigate the religious oppression and suffering felt by so many women and children across the globe.