Restructuring America's approach to international religious freedom

With this office now in transition, it is important to move quickly on the appointment of a new ambassador-at-large. A swift appointment conveys the crucial message that religious freedom, both independently and in the wider context of human right standards, is of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy. 

Keeping in mind that Ambassador Johnson Cook’s appointment and confirmation process took over two years to complete, it is essential that the administration move swiftly in appointing a replacement. Moving forward, the current administration can streamline the process while ensuring the strength and stature of the office. In particular, an appointment from within from within the ranks of the State Department that is not “double hatted” with multiple posts would most certainly be an advisable approach.

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Many Members of Congress concerned about the issue of international religious freedom have often criticized the State Department for not institutionalizing the issue or the office. The appointment of a career ambassador -- ideally one with ambassadorial experience in countries of particular regional or issue interest -- would guarantee that the Office of International Religious Freedom would be integrated fully and functionally into the overall operations of the State Department, and the issue would rise to the paramount position in policy making envisioned by the authors of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created the position.

Moreover, appointing a career ambassador who has been stationed in a country with histories of religious oppression or campaigns to prevent such occurrences would be hitting the proverbial nail on the head. Their knowledge would be invaluable in supporting the mandates of the International Religious Freedom Act and evincing U.S. foreign policy concerning religious oppression.

A choice from within the State Department would also ensure the appointee’s background checks and security clearances were already in place guaranteeing an expeditious appointment and confirmation, allowing for very little lag time between ambassadors.

The greatest learning curve for any appointee to a State Department position is not related to the substance of the issue or learning the players in the respective fields, but it is the bureaucratic functionality of the State Department itself. The appointment of a career diplomat will eliminate that learning curve, helping to ensure that an ambassador can be in place before the end of the Obama Administration.

In the coming weeks, Congress should turn its attention from recent House legislation H.R.301 that calls for a Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia and proposed Senate legislation of the same S.653 and instead push heavily for the appointment of a new ambassador-at-large. Focusing on this appointment will reaffirm the importance of the International Religious Freedom Office and the need for all supporting religious freedom posts to come under the structure of the already established office.

Regardless of who is chosen for the position, Congress should focus to the overarching topic at hand during the confirmation instead of political stances that detract from the cause of international religious freedom. Protecting fundamental human rights such as religious freedom should be taken as an opportunity to disengage from political polarization and to work towards creating viable policy that could be effective in saving millions of lives from repression and physical harm while at the same time countering extremism and fundamentalism.

While Ambassador Johnson Cook’s departure has left the international religious freedom post with an uncertain future for the time being, the administration and Congress have been given the chance to solidify the position of the U.S. as an ardent and proactive supporter of religious freedom through the prompt nomination and confirmation of a knowledgeable successor. A lull on the scale of what occurred previously would only serve to further call into doubt the resolve of the administration to take action on an issue that first and foremost deals with the fundamental right to human dignity but also contains significant aspects of national security and international stability as well. If there was ever a moment to show the American people and the world that partisan politics can and will be set aside to further protect and advance the most basic rights of the faithful worldwide, that moment is now.

Grieboski is president and CEO of Just Consulting, an international, strategic communications and government relations consulting firm with a specialty in human rights, governance, social justice, and corporate social responsibility. Grieboski is also the Founder and Chairman of the Board of THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy, a Nobel Peace Prize nominated international religious freedom organization.