by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.
July 27, 2017
Yesterday, President Trump nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback to the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department. This is a great pick for an important job, and the administration is to be commended for this selection.
The Ambassador-at-Large post was created by legislation back in 1998 with the purpose of addressing religious freedom problems around the world, but it has seen limited success in being able to shape foreign policy in a comprehensive manner. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law just last December, made changes which will result in the job reporting directly to the Secretary of State. This change and others required by the law should make whoever is in the role more effective. When it is someone of Governor Brownback’s stature, we will have a real opportunity to see religious freedom significantly shape foreign policy.
Religious freedom is a fundamental, inherent, and international human right. It is not merely an American right—though religious freedom was foundational to the very existence of the United States. United States foreign policy should prioritize this fundamental international human right and give it the attention it deserves. Once Governor Brownback is in his new role, here are six ways the Trump administration can make this happen:
1. Integrate and prioritize religious freedom protections in foreign policy. All U.S. agencies engaged abroad should integrate and prioritize the promotion of religious freedom in their work. They should also conduct international religious freedom training for their employees (including how to gather information about mass atrocities against religious groups such as genocide).
2. Fully implement the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act throughout the U.S. government.
3. Protect refugees and asylum seekers with proper attention given to persecution on the basis of religion. The United States has not properly addressed the religious dynamics of the refugee situation arising from Iraq and Syria. Where certain religious groups are being persecuted on account of their religion, their religion can be used as a factor in assessing their asylum claims and refugee status. The Departments of State and Homeland Security should enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers of all religions have equal access to protection and assistance, particularly in countries of first asylum. In addition, the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security should ensure appropriate training is in place so that relevant Federal Government personnel and key partners can effectively address the protection of refugees and asylum seekers who need such protection because of their religion, including by providing to them adequate assistance and ensuring that the Federal Government has the ability to identify and expedite resettlement of highly vulnerable persons with urgent protection needs.
4. Provide foreign assistance to protect the human right of religious freedom. Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development should enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human right of religious freedom.
5. Ensure swift and meaningful U.S. responses to the suppression of religious freedom abroad. The Department of State should lead a standing group, with appropriate interagency representation, to help ensure the Federal Government’s swift and meaningful response to serious incidents that threaten the status of religious freedom abroad. The Department of State should be particularly attentive to responding to complaints of religious persecution, whether in the granting of visas or in other areas. Those representing the United States abroad in an official capacity should not work with, or aid and abet, any foreign actors discriminating against persons based on their religion.
6. Engage international organizations in defending religious freedom. Multilateral fora and international organizations are key vehicles to promote respect for the human right of religious freedom and to bring global attention to this issue. Along with the Department of State, agencies engaged abroad should strengthen the work they have begun and initiate additional efforts in these multilateral fora and organizations to (1) broaden the number of countries willing to support and defend religious freedom, (2) strengthen the role of civil society advocates on behalf of religious freedom within and through multilateral fora, and (3) strengthen the policies and programming of multilateral institutions on religious freedom.
If it takes these steps, the Trump administration can follow up on Governor Brownback’s appointment and distinguish itself by vigorously protecting human rights and religious freedom.
Against this backdrop, we must not neglect our efforts to protect Christians, Yezidis, and others from the horrific violence in the Middle East. The U.S. government has already recognized that a genocide is taking place there, and now amid recent reports that State Department lawyers are removing that term from official descriptions of the situation, it is necessary to give even more attention to the situation—such as what was outlined in Congressman Chris Smith’s bill, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017—to ensure the victims of genocide get the protection they need and deserve.
Religious freedom is not to be segmented off in compartments in our lives, and it is not confined to the four walls of our places of worship. The United States used to hold to this robust vision of religious freedom, both at home and abroad. This vision used to be a part of how the United States led from a position of strength in promoting human rights globally. With Governor Brownback’s appointment, the Trump administration has an opportunity to once again start doing just that.