POMED Notes: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on International Religious Freedom
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to present the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom report. Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews introduced the secretary, commending her for her leadership during this “critical time,” and for her personal commitment to freedom and human rights over the years.
Secretary Clinton began by reminding the audience that the State Department’s religious freedom assessments are rooted in the U.S. Constitution but also in article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The secretary then described the global state of religious freedom as “sliding backwards,” with over a billion people living under governments that now use new technology to suppress freedom of faith. Clinton called on all leaders to focus more time and attention on this right because of its fundamental importance to human dignity, as well as its inherent link to the freedoms of association and expression. The ability to make moral choices for ourselves is our birthright, she said, regardless of our religion or lack of thereof, and governments have the responsibility to protect that right.
Clinton then presented and refuted what she saw as the two most common arguments made by leaders against religious freedom. First, there are those governments who believe their faith is the one true faith, and thus all others do not deserve protection under the law. Clinton argued that people have the right to believe in the supremacy of their faith above all others, but they do not have the right to impose that on those who hold other views. Governments, she said, must be held to different standards than individuals, and must act in favor of the rights of all, even if the will of the masses is the oppression of a minority. Leaders must uphold principals in these circumstances as guardrails against abusive power. Second, some say that freedom of religion is a luxury that they cannot afford due to instability. Secretary Clinton instead argued that the opposite is true, saying that religious freedom is a societal safety valve that can channel frustration into participation instead of violence.
In regards to transitioning countries grappling with religious rights, the secretary commended Libya for striking down blasphemy laws and for ignoring Gaddafi-era religious restrictions. Clinton then commented on her recent trip to Egypt, noting in particular her meetings with Christian groups greatly concerned over their prospects for inclusion in the new government. The secretary underscored the U.S.’s impartiality in Egyptian politics, and promised that the U.S. will work with whoever is elected to ensure universal principles are upheld. Referencing images from the revolution of inter-faith protection, Clinton spoke of the Egyptian capacity to respect religious differences in a spirit of unity as a future source of hope and healing.
In closing, Secretary Clinton affirmed that religious freedom is a “bedrock priority” of the Obama administration, and highlighted her efforts during her tenure at State to elevate its importance and visibility worldwide. Throughout our own history, she said, we have strived to uphold our own principles of religious freedom because it is fundamental to our human dignity. Freedom of religion, Clinton concluded, must be a top priority because in this interconnected world, instability and insecurity from repression affects us all.
When asked about steps to be taken in Egypt to ensure an inclusive transition, Secretary Clinton admitted that the transition will be long, as it was for the United States. Clinton expressed concern for increased sectarian violence in the country, and called the commitment by authorities to investigate these crimes and apply laws equally “inconsistent.” The secretary urged minority groups to organize themselves so they can elect people who represent them, remarking that moderates and liberals tend to find organizing more difficult in transitions compared to groups with more rigid beliefs.
Clinton then commented on increased violence against Christians in Iraq and Syria despite historically good relations between Christian and Muslim communities there. The secretary attributed the uptick to a number of reasons, including new Islamic political identities since the Arab Spring that are being tested out. Clinton again underscored the importance of leaders to protect diversity, arguing that she believes governments have a bigger role in protecting religious freedom than they currently exercise.