As Americans, we draw strength from the fact that freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly are among first rights protected in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And we are not alone in cherishing these rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that every person, in every corner of the globe, has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes the freedom of every person to change his or her religion or beliefs, and — either alone or in community with others, publicly or privately — to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Yet far too many people, in far too many places around the world, still live without the protection of these fundamental freedoms. Yesterday, the Department of State released its annual report on the state of international religious freedom around the world, which documents that in nearly half of the world’s countries, governments either abuse religious minorities or fail to intervene in societal abuse. The report describes how, in many countries, individuals live under oppressive laws restricting their religious practice or attire, or in fear that they will be targeted by blasphemy, apostasy, and dissent laws. Repressive governments use these laws to curb their citizens’ religious freedom, and imprison them for their beliefs. This abuse concerns us not just because of what it means on a personal level for millions of individuals around the world, but also because religious freedom is a key feature of stable, secure and peaceful societies.
As Secretary Clinton noted in her remarks yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, right now many countries with diverse faith communities are in the process of navigating transitions toward democracy. The United States will continue to urge transitioning countries – like Egypt – to recognize faith diversity as a source of strength, and to embrace the promotion and protection of religious freedom as part of the foundation for building a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future. History bears us out in demonstrating that a lack of religious freedom weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their government, fomenting internal unrest, breeding extremism, and inhibiting national unity and progress.
More generally, the United States will continue to make the promotion of international religious freedom a key national security and foreign policy priority for the United States, to advocate forcefully for these issues publically and privately, in both multilateral and bilateral settings. An example of our success comes from the United Nations Human Rights Council, where we worked closely with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to pass Resolution 16/18 on “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion or Belief” which focuses on concrete, positive steps that states can take to combat religious intolerance rather than relying on “anti-blasphemy measures” that are inconsistent with freedom of expression. After it passed, we then hosted subject matter representatives from 26 governments and four international organizations in Washington to begin discussion on implementation. As for our bilateral efforts, these are focused both on the countries designated by the Secretary of State as Country of Particular Concern for particularly severe violations of religious freedom – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan – and on other countries struggling with this issue as well.
While these discussions are sometimes difficult, they are necessary. As the President’s 2012 Proclamation on Religious Freedom Day stated, this Administration will continue to stand with all who are denied the ability to choose, express, or live their faith freely, and we remain dedicated to protecting this universal human right and the vital role it plays in ensuring peace and stability for all nations.
Denis McDonough is the Deputy National Security Advisor.