Last week, the unremarkable State Department tenure of Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook came to a sudden end with her resignation from the post of U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom. A post designed to elevate the status of religious freedom in American foreign policy and to move around intractable State Department bureaucracy by directly advising the Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom in recent years has functioned instead as a sidelined figure in diplomatic efforts.
That is, when the post has been filled. It took President Obama over a year and a half to even nominate Dr. Cook. Once confirmed in the summer of 2011, Dr. Cook’s inexperience as a diplomat and unfamiliarity with global religious freedom issues became obvious as she failed to establish clear office priorities or to respond to countries designated as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) under the International Religious Freedom Act. In contrast to her two predecessors who worked within the admittedly hostile environment of the State Department to establish a critical mass of staff and to weave religious freedom priorities into a broader human rights agenda, Dr. Cook remained largely silent.
In an all-too-familiar pattern, the State Department has indicated it has no prospects on the horizon to fill the now-empty position. This marked lack of interest or concern in a human rights issue that is bi-partisan, fundamental to the message of individual liberty, and central to the story of the United States comes as an explosion of violence in the Middle East and Southeast Asia targets religious minorities.
Just this weekend, Egypt’s long-persecuted Coptic community faced another attack that killed four at a wedding celebration at a Cairo church. A month ago, Christians from All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan faced one of the deadliest attacks on record in their country. Yet, these Christians and other Pakistani religious minorities have little hope of their interests being represented in the diplomatic meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that are scheduled to take place this week.
Despite the failure of Dr. Cook to leverage her position for religious minorities, to comment verbally on their plight in countries such as Syria, or even just to show up at Congressional hearings, her departure provides a pivotal opportunity for President Obama to nominate a more qualified and pro-active replacement. Georgetown Professor and former diplomat Thomas Farr outlines the necessary steps President Obama should take to “[Let] the US diplomatic corps and the world know that President Obama and Secretary Kerry are giving this ambassador their personal backing to move this issue to the front burner of American diplomacy.” We can only hope that President Obama moves more quickly to nominate a qualified successor than he did to nominate Dr. Cook in the first place.