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U.S. Holds Historic Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Wednesday, August 22, 2018

By Nathaniel Hurd,
Senior Policy Advisor

From July 24-26, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and former Helsinki Commission Chairman Sam Brownback coordinated the event, which brought together governments, religious leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector to “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

The United States invited 81 governmental delegations from “countries that have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or that recently have taken meaningful steps to begin to do so.” Participating countries included four from North America; seven from South America; nine from Africa; 36 from Europe; nine from the Middle East; 14 from Asia; one from Oceana; and Australia. Foreign ministers led 13 delegations. Forty of the countries represented are participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, European Union, and United Nations also took part, along with more than 400 leaders from religious groups and non-governmental organizations.

Uzbekistan was the only governmental participant that had been designated by the United States as a Country of Particular Concern because of particularly severe religious freedom violations like torture, prolonged detention without charges, or clandestine detention. In remarks on the final day of the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo stated, “We applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society. We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.”

Ministerial Activities

During the event, survivors of religious persecution or their representatives—including Jacqueline Brunson Furnari, daughter of imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson—spoke to the full assembly. Furnari testified at a November 2017 Helsinki Commission hearing, “Prisoners of the Purge: The Victims of Turkey's Failing Rule of Law,” where she pleaded for her father’s release. When Ambassador Brownback reported that Turkish authorities had transferred Pastor Brunson—who had been jailed since October 2016 on false charges of terrorism, espionage, and attempting to overthrow the state—from prison to house arrest, attendees applauded.

Other speakers included representatives from Burma, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, and Sudan.   

Plenary sessions focused on religious persecution around the world and opportunities to work together to advance religious freedom. The ministerial also featured panel discussions on private sector engagement, religious freedom grant opportunities at the State Department, effective advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, preventing genocide and mass atrocities, the relationship between religious freedom and economic prosperity; religious freedom in the context of countering violent extremism; legal limitations on religious freedom; religious freedom and women’s rights; the needs of displaced minorities during humanitarian emergencies; and cultural heritage.

During the ministerial, the United States also presented “Statements of Concern” to the delegations regarding repression in Burma, China, and Iran; “Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression;” and “Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups.” Twenty-four participating governments joined the United States as signatories on at least one statement of concern. The governments of Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, and United Kingdom signed all three thematic statements of concern. The governments of Canada and Kosovo signed all three country-specific statements of concern.

Speaking at the event, former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, author of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, said, “Religious freedom is deeply imbedded in our own legal tradition reaching all the way back to the Magna Carta, but is also understood as a necessity for human dignity by the international community ... I stand before you today with a grave and growing sense of urgency regarding the erosion of religious freedom around the globe. All over this world, people are denied the fundamental and inalienable human right to confess and express their beliefs according to the dictates of their conscience.”

Senior U.S. government officials who addressed non-governmental representatives over the ministerial included Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback; Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney; Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Mark Green; Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce; Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs Michelle Giuda; Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff Brian Hook; Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Pam Pryor; and Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia Knox Thames.

There were more than 15 side events during the ministerial, organized by members of Congress, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Religious Freedom Roundtable and its members. Topics included Christians in the Middle East, parliamentarian engagement on religious freedom, Southeast Asia, India, politicization of religious freedom and human rights, Baha’is in Iran and Yemen, China, securing U.S. government grants, Russia, parental rights, technology, security and religious freedom, violent conflict, and fragile states.

Follow-Up Actions

During the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo unveiled the Boldline Religious Freedom plan, the State Department’s “partnership accelerator aimed to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships…to promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” In October 2018, the first Boldline workshop will convene civil society organizations, public institutions, corporations, innovation companies, entrepreneurship support organizations, and financial institutions.

On the final day of the ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence announced two new initiatives. The International Religious Freedom Fund is designed to help governments and entities that already promote freedom of religion and belief extend financial support to initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief, or provide assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program will facilitate partnerships with local faith and community leaders to rapidly deliver aid to persecuted communities, beginning with Iraq.

Following the ministerial, the United States also issued the Potomac Declaration, which reaffirmed the U.S commitment to freedom of religion or belief, and proposed the Potomac Plan of Action to defend the freedom of religion or belief, confront legal limitations, advocate for equal rights and protections for all (including members of religious minorities), respond to genocide and other mass atrocities, and preserve cultural heritage.

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    WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, released the following statement in response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program: “The United States has a solemn obligation to protect human rights both abroad and at home, as we honor our Constitution and international commitments.  Shortly after taking office, President Obama thankfully ended the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs.  The exhaustive report from the Senate Intelligence Committee documents that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective and violated international commitments and the core principles of the United States. It also resulted in fabricated information and did not lead to the collection of imminent threat intelligence. Years may have passed by since these egregious activities occurred, but the United States must confront the mistakes that were made as we responded to the devastating 9/11 attacks.  We must put in place mechanisms to ensure that these types of abuses never happen again.  America’s reputation and moral leadership in the world are at stake.  We can and must strive to prevent and disrupt future terrorist attacks while continuing to safeguard the core values and human rights we as a Nation hold dear.”

  • Bipartisan U.S. Delegation Defends Ukraine, Raises Concerns about Russia at OSCE Parliamentary Session

    From June 27 to July 3, 2014, a bicameral, bipartisan delegation of eight Members of Congress represented the United States at the annual session of the OSCE’s 57-nation Parliamentary Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan. The delegation, which was organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, also made side visits to Georgia and Moldova. The congressional delegation was led by the Commission Chairman, Senator Ben Cardin (MD), while the Co-Chairman, Representative Chris Smith (NJ-04) was head of delegation at the Assembly session. The Commission’s Ranking Senator, Roger Wicker (MS) and House Commissioners Robert Aderholt (AL-04) and Phil Gingrey (GA-11) also participated, along with Senator Tom Harkin (IA) and Representatives David Schweikert (AZ-06) and Adam Schiff (CA-28). A central concern at the Assembly meeting, as well as during bilateral interaction with the authorities and people of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, was Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea and its incursions into eastern Ukraine. The congressional delegation was highly critical of Moscow’s attempt to reassert its domination over the affairs of its neighbors more than two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and it reassured friends and allies of the deep and continuing commitment of the United States to security and cooperation in Europe and throughout the OSCE region.

  • The Tyranny You Haven't Heard Of

    You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes. The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly. At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime. It has been known to boil its prisoners alive. But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world. Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world. Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide. And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners. How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000. But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits. Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations. Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.” Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.” It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.” Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper. “There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.” There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov. These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.

  • Statement from Helsinki Commission Chair on the Grand Jury Decision in the Michael Brown Shooting Case

    BALTIMORE–U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) released the following statement in response to the Ferguson grand jury decision in the Michael Brown shooting case. “Ferguson, Missouri, will forever be marked by the needless death of Michael Brown. Let’s turn this incident into the spark that launches a change in attitudes and actions rather than a point where violence begets more violence. I join with the Brown family in calling for peaceful protests in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. State and local law enforcement must respect the First Amendment rights of citizens to peaceably assemble, and the rights of the press to report this story.  I call upon all Americans – even those who disagree with the grand jury decision – to respect the role of our jury system and the independence of the courts in deciding legal questions. “I encourage the Justice Department to continue its civil rights investigation into this case and its broader probe of the Ferguson Police Department. I urge Attorney General Holder to take immediate action to revise the Justice Department’s guidance so that once and for all racial profiling is prohibited at all levels of law enforcement.  For a more permanent fix, Congress should take up and pass my legislation, the End Racial Profiling Act.”

  • Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance

    Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine in 2014 was a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing drew attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Hearing on Combating Corruption

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: “Combating Corruption in the OSCE Region: The Link between Security and Good Governance” Wednesday, November 19, 2014 10:00AM U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Room SVC 203-202 Combating corruption is increasingly recognized as the critical factor in ensuring long-term security, because corruption creates fertile ground for social upheaval and instability. The change in government in Ukraine earlier this year is a prime example of how corruption can fuel legitimate popular discontent. Although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has created new tools to address corruption, tackling the problem requires more than raising awareness and sharing best practices. In many OSCE participating States, systemic issues including lack of media freedom, lack of political will, and lack of an independent judiciary contribute substantially to persistent high-level and low-level corruption. The hearing will draw attention to the work of the OSCE in combating corruption in all 57 participating States, with a particular emphasis on the need to build effective institutions and the important role played by civil society in combatting corruption. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden, Coordinator for Economic and Environmental Affairs, OSCE Khadija Ismayilova, Host of "Isden Sonra" ("After Work"), RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Shaazka Beyerle, Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Senior Advisor with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics

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