This past Sunday, the United States commemorated International Religious Freedom Day, marking the 15th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).
IRFA created an international religious freedom office in the U.S. State Department, headed by an ambassador-at-large, and the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which I chair. Since its inception, USCIRF has monitored religious freedom worldwide and made policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress in response to governments that violate this fundamental right.
How can the United States use the UN as a platform to support this bedrock liberty?
One way is through its participation in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process through which the human rights performance of every UN member state is assessed. USCIRF urges the United States to hold members accountable to internationally-recognized religious freedom standards. Such a stance is particularly important regarding nations that USCIRF has recommended under IRFA as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, marking them as the world’s worst religious freedom abusers. The U.S. government also should seek to highlight religious freedom concerns through country-specific resolutions in both the HRC and the General Assembly.
The United States should continue its firm, unequivocal support for the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Special Rapporteur—currently Professor Heiner Bielefeldt of Germany—monitors freedom of religion or belief worldwide, communicates with governments about alleged violations, conducts country visits, and brings religious freedom concerns to the UN and public attention through reports and statements. Further, the United States should seek the appointment or continuation of country-specific Special Rapporteurs for religious freedom violators, particularly CPC nations.
Finally, the United States should continue its vigorous opposition to efforts at the UN to restrict speech deemed religiously offensive or controversial. For more than a decade, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with its annual resolutions focusing on “combating defamation of religions,” had made the HRC and General Assembly centers of activity to establish a global blasphemy law violating freedom of religion and expression. Along with members of Congress, the State Department, and key nongovernmental organizations, USCIRF helped bring about a marked decrease between 2008 and 2010 in support for these flawed resolutions. As a result, in 2011 and 2012 both UN bodies adopted consensus resolutions which rightly focus on protecting individuals from discrimination or violence rather than shielding religions from criticism; protect the adherents of all religions or beliefs, instead of favoring one over others; and call for positive measures like education and outreach instead of legal restrictions on peaceful expression. The new resolutions support criminalization only in the case of incitement to imminent violence.
USCIRF welcomes this new approach but remains concerned that OIC members have not abandoned their global anti-blasphemy efforts. OIC member states continue to enforce repressive domestic blasphemy laws, and their leaders still refer publicly to the defamation-of-religions concept and call for laws against defamation.
The United States and other UN member states must remain vigilant against any efforts to erode the language of the new resolutions or to use other means to move toward global anti-blasphemy laws.
In enacting IRFA fifteen years ago, Congress and the President recognized that religious freedom matters. It is an integral part of our history and identity as a free nation, a key human right recognized by international law and treaty, a core component of our commitment to defend democracy globally, and a necessary element of our national security and our determination to ensure a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable world. In the aftermath of International Religious Freedom Day, let us rededicate our efforts, at the UN and elsewhere, on behalf of this pivotal liberty.
George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).