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August 21, 2017

Aligning American Foreign Policy to Protect Religious Freedom

On Tuesday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a speech to mark the release of the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report. Human Rights First’s Rob Berschinski spoke to NPR’s All Things Considered about Tillerson’s remarks.   

The report, which documents developments in religious freedom in every nation around the world, is an important human rights monitoring tool, and is used throughout the U.S. government to inform policy, conduct diplomacy, and allocate aid. Secretary Tillerson’s remarks affirmed its value as both a resource for decision makers and as a platform “to all those worldwide seeking to live their lives peacefully in accordance with their conscience.”

That Tillerson took time to make remarks on the report is a good step after his conspicuous absence at the release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights conditions around the world. He noted that U.S support for religious freedom is both a moral imperative and part of a strategy to make the world “more stable, economically vibrant, and peaceful.”

Unfortunately, Tillerson did not highlight several areas covered in the report: growing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and extremism in Europe. With the release of the report in the immediate aftermath of this week’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jews were targeted by neo-Nazis and the KKK, the omission of antisemitism was all the more striking.

Also missing from his remarks was any mention of refugee protection—a lifeline for persecuted religious minorities. While the Secretary rightly assailed ISIS for its multiple crimes against minority religious communities—including genocide of Yazidis, Christians and Shi’ite Muslims—and criticized Bahrain, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia for violating the rights of religious minorities these statements lack credibility in light of the Trump administration’s policies regarding U.S. resettlement of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

“Where religious freedom is not protected,” Tillerson said, “we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.”  Those fine words should be coupled with a commitment to help those fleeing religious persecution. As the report points out, the United States has historically been a leader on refugee resettlement. Today, a strong effort to help refugees would not only relieve suffering; it would serve U.S. foreign policy interests by securing the stability of frontline states hosting the overwhelming majority of the world’s 22.5 million refugees.

Six-months after President Trump’s January 27 travel ban executive order, U.S. refugee resettlement has declined by over 50 percent, with the resettlement of Syrian refugees declining by 80 percent and Muslim refugees by 76 percent. To proclaim the importance of protecting religious minorities while denying them the ability to seek asylum is a glaring contradiction and a failure of American leadership.

Human Rights First recommends the following steps to align American foreign policy with the responsibility to protect religious freedom and to prioritize areas of urgent concern:

  • Refugee Policy: President Trump’s executive orders relating to refugees are incompatible with respect for religious freedom, and American ideals more broadly. He should rescind them and put in place a resettlement effort worthy of this country’s tradition of leadership.
  • ISIS Accountability for Crimes:  U.S. government should do to back up its rhetoric with actions to ensure that ISIS is held accountable for its crimes.  In December 2016, the United Nations General Assembly established an independent investigatory mechanism (IIIM) to gather evidence and assist with the prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes in Syria, including ISIS.  The U.N. established a voluntary fund to support the work of the mechanism, but the United States has yet to make a contribution.  The administration should actively support the work of the mechanism as a way of holding ISIS accountable for its crimes in Syria, and should, at a minimum, match the contributions already made by countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland.
  • Fighting Antisemitism as a human rights priority: In light of the Secretary’s failure to note concern over dangerous trends in antisemitism and anti-Muslim attacks, we urge him to immediately appoint a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and a Special Representative to Muslim Communities and to fund support staff for these offices. The administration should also appoint an Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to protect religious freedom as a human right.