Today marks the 19 anniversary of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which upholds religious freedom as a core American value and a universal human right. The law calls for the U.S. government to stand “for liberty and with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus…to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”
Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump Administration, and as Vice President Mike Pence has said, we “will fight every day for this fundamental right at home and abroad.” At the State Department, we are using the full spectrum of diplomatic tools to promote the President’s vision that no one should be persecuted for what they believe or to whom they pray.
Nearly two decades after the law’s passage, freedom of religion or belief is unfortunately an unrealized ideal in too many parts of the world. As Secretary Tillerson stated this past August during the release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Annual Report, “almost eighty percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion.” We also know that countries that do not protect religious freedom are at greater risk of instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism.
That is why earlier this week, I joined the Department’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia Knox Thames to participate in a meeting of the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG). Launched in June 2015, the ICG is co-chaired by the Governments of Canada and the United States. The ICG includes twenty-five countries and several multilateral organizations committed to promoting the individual right of freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the meeting, ICG governments strategized about employing joint diplomatic engagement to address particularly egregious and abusive practices around the world, including undermining the rights and safety of members of religious minorities as well as restrictive laws that limit the right to manifest one’s religion in practice. The ICG government representatives also discussed effective advocacy and programmatic strategies with civil society leaders and received a presentation from an academic researcher studying the economic benefit of promoting religious freedom.
I also had the honor of representing the United States during the United Nations Third Committee Interactive Dialogue with Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. In addition to thanking the Special Rapporteur for his recent report highlighting the negative global trends in respect for religious freedom, I expressed the U.S. government’s concern about the troubling gap between States’ words and actions: some governments commit to protecting religious freedom but their actions fall far short. I also raised particular concern about protections for members of religious minorities, and I urged the Special Rapporteur to develop measures that Member States can adopt to enhance protections for members of religious minorities through implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18.
On this anniversary, the U.S. government recognizes the scale of the global threat to freedom of religion or belief, and we reaffirm our commitment to advocating for the protection of this universal human right.
About the Author: Pam Pryor serves as the Senior Advisor on Global Justice Issues at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry is also appears on the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.