The U.S. Must Remain a Leader for Worldwide Religious Freedom

Recent Supreme Court decisions should remind all Americans of the importance of freedom of religion and of redress mechanisms embedded in the U.S. system to protect this right when threatened or undermined. Many in other countries are not as fortunate. Countless innocents worldwide are persecuted for the peaceful practice of their faith. Some are subjected to torture, beatings, forced marriage, rape, imprisonment, enslavement, and forced resettlement. Others, such as MeriamYahia Ibrahim Ishag, a Sudanese woman who converted to Christianity, are sentenced to death for their beliefs. Faced with this grim reality, Congress was compelled to act and the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) became law in 1998.

The IRFA defined U.S. policy as standing “for liberty and… with the persecuted.” It called for “appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus” to be focused on the promotion and protection of religious freedom by all governments.The two-prong approach articulated in the Act would punish totalitarian regimes and gross violators of religious freedom,while strengthening the capacity of other foreign governments to uphold this universal right.

Instrumental to achieving the goals outlined in the Act is the newly created Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State, led by an Ambassador-at-Large. The ambassador would serve as a principal adviser to the president; report directly to the Secretary of State on “matters affecting religious freedom abroad”; and, working in tandem with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, would provide recommendations for an effective U.S. response, ensuring both the letter and spirit of the Act were fulfilled.

IRFA implementation has varied throughout the years but U.S. commitment to the global defense and protection of religious freedom was not in question. The current view, however, is that President Obama is increasingly uninterested and disengaged.

An oft-cited example of this disturbing trend is the president’s failure to put forth a nominee to fill the post of Ambassador-at-Large. When Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October 2013, religious freedom groups, scholars, and activists called on the president to quickly nominate a successor of significant standing in the global religious freedom community.  Delays in filling this statutorily mandated position, they correctly warned, would only confirm this issue is not a foreign policy priority for the United States.

Nine months have passed. For nine months, there has been no U.S. representative with the rank of ambassador focused on denouncing violations of this fundamental right with foreign governments, international organizations, or in multilateral conferences and meetings relevant to religious freedom abroad.

There has been no ambassador to receive, analyze, and translate into action the recommendations set forth in the most recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Commission called for Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam to be added to the list of  “countries of particular concern”. CPCs are nations “where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated.”  For this reason, the Commission further proposed that Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan be redesignated as CPCs.

Some of these gross violators of religious freedom, however,continue their heinous actions with virtual impunity. Billions in U.S. aid continue to flow to, or U.S. arms sales approved for governments who explicitly or implicitly violate freedom of religion, belief, and conscience. Sanctions are easily waived against certain Countries of Particular Concern.

Congressional Notifications, where pertinent committees in the House and Senate are made aware of specific transactions regarding U.S. weapons or defense equipment to foreign recipients, will usually state that these transfers are consistent with the range of U.S. foreign policy priorities and national interests, including advancing respect for human rights. However, if the Congress were to press for details from the administration, it would become abundantly clear that certain Executive Branch agencies are being disingenuous about their claims. Religious freedom is rarely, if ever, taken into consideration. Some will argue that arming certain oppressive regimes is necessary to counter immediate security concerns and human rights issues must be “set aside.”That justification does not pass muster when specific sales are carefully scrutinized -- taking into account delivery schedules, the nature of the threat as compared to the response and other variables.

Some nations guilty of particularly severe IRFA violations are rewarded in other significant ways. Take Vietnam. The commission, upon release of its annual report in April, made a compelling case that this Communist nation be designated a CPC. Just a few days later, however, the Obama Administration signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Hanoi regime and, on May 8th, submitted it to Congress for review and the perfunctory approval.

It would be a significantly different policy environment if there were an Ambassador-at-Large highlighting the deplorable state of religious freedom throughout the world and engaging, in a sustained manner, U.S. policymakers, as well as foreign government and non-governmental leaders.

The president should begin to repair the damage by immediately nominating an individual for this important post who enjoys the respect of religious freedom advocates and those persecuted for their beliefs. It must be someone who has expert knowledge of U.S. statutory requirements, as well as international human rights standards and mechanisms. And it should be a leader who can be confirmed in time for the upcoming 69thsession of the United Nations General Assembly in September. There is a retiring Member of Congress, as well as some current and former members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom,who fit the bill.

The appointment of Ambassador-at-Large would telegraph a renewed American commitment to protecting and defending fundamental rights worldwide but only if the message is reinforced by the president, including during his official address at the upcoming UN General Assembly which coincides with the U.S. term as rotating president of the Security Council.

The rich American heritage of religious freedom should suffice as a basis for robust sustained engagement. If not, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underscores: “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 and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Whatever the justification, those who suffer for their faith need U.S. leadership and action now. Their lives depend on it.

Yleem D.S. Poblete, PhD is a former Chief of Staff of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs and a Fellow at The Catholic University of America.

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