Secretary of State Antony Blinken aims to make his mark on international human-rights policy by downplaying the importance of religious freedom. He is bowing to trends in domestic partisan political fashions, not responding to realities in a world where the need to oppose religious persecution has become ever more urgent. Tragically, a shift away from religious freedom would come at the expense of massive numbers of brutalized Asian, African, and Middle Eastern religious believers.
On March 30, the secretary, speaking with the press, made a telling statement on the release of the State Department’s annual human-rights reports. Early on in it, he made a special point to “repudiate” the prior administration’s emphasis on religious freedom. Declaring that “there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others,” he took a line from the Clinton administration, which used it to argue against the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998. Blinken unfairly denounced a disbanded commission of the prior administration for its “unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy.”
The secretary was referring to the Commission on Inalienable Rights, chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law. Then–secretary of state Mike Pompeo established it to advise him at the level of principle, on re-grounding U.S. human-rights policy in American Founding principles. In fact, the commission’s report does not suggest creating a “hierarchy” of rights. In its historical discussion, the report states: “Prominent among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty” (emphasis added). Commentators who reported that this was the view of the commission were simply wrong. The commission report emphasizes the importance of abiding by all human-rights commitments assumed under international law and stated that even “tensions among rights can never be an excuse for failing” to do so.
The commission report does assert, however, that giving priority to specific rights at specific times in foreign policy is a pragmatic and legal necessity. It concludes that “U.S. foreign policy can and should, consistent with the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights], determine which rights most accord with national principles, priorities, and interests at any given time.” It points for an example to Congress’s having mandated special protections for religious freedom and for freedom from human trafficking, a form of slavery.
In conflating the concept of establishing a hierarchy with the need to set priorities in human-rights policy, Blinken put himself at odds with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That seminal human-rights document explicitly elevates religious freedom to the rank of those few rights that, in times of emergency, are “non-derogable,” that is, cannot be suspended. As the commission observed, international law accepts that some human rights are “absolute or nearly so, admitting of few or no exceptions, . . . while others are subject to many reasonable limitations or are contingent on available resources and on regulatory arrangements.”
Internationally, millions of persons suffer religious persecution, which has far-ranging effects on stability and development. Policy-makers ignore the problem at their peril. Blinken demonstrated as much in citing China’s atrocities against the Uyghur Muslims, making it the first example of violations in his March 30 statement. This is also the first example in his preface to the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. There, he stresses the religious character of China’s persecution and genocide against both Uyghur Muslims and “members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.”
Since the Holocaust, genocide has become a priority for American foreign policy, a concern so firmly established that even partisan politics hasn’t been able to dislodge it. The Uyghur Muslim genocide was officially recognized by Pompeo in January and was soon endorsed by the Biden administration, despite media commentators who dismissed the designation as an unserious, political parting shot at China by the Trump administration and not warranted anyhow. The U.S. government has recognized six situations of genocide in all, and half of them hinge on the religious (and ethnic) identity of the targeted victim group. The ISIS genocide in 2016, for example, targeted Middle Eastern religious communities of Yazidis and Christians. Momentum is now building for the recognition of three additional cases as genocide, all involving groups targeted for eradication in significant part because of their religion: the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar; Christians in parts of Nigeria; and Armenian, Greek, and Syriac Orthodox Christians in Turkey.
Moreover, religious freedom has a place of primacy in American history, law, political tradition, and culture. The First Amendment laid the foundation for the world’s first national experiment in which all religions in a pluralistic society are equal under law. The principle has become one of America’s signature contributions to international human-rights law, as the commission noted. Many Americans, from the Pilgrims to the present, have found here a haven here from religious persecution abroad. Blinken’s own family was among them. As he movingly stated at the outset of his confirmation hearing, various members of his Jewish family found refuge in the United States, after fleeing Russian pogroms, Soviet Communism, and the Holocaust.
Blinken announced his intent to correct the human-rights “unbalance” of the Trump administration, which expressly prioritized international religious freedom, and made clear that, in foreign policy, he would treat as “co-equal” the liberal causes of LGBTQI+ and abortion rights, along with select fundamental rights articulated in the UDHR. This demotion of religious freedom will be inevitably interpreted by his department to mean that religious freedom is to receive little attention in its agenda. Stating that the advisory report was not a “guiding document” for him and emphatically declaring that he was “repudiating” it “decisively today” reinforced this signal, or dog whistle (since Blinken never explicitly named religious freedom as his target for deprioritizing). This disregard for the religious-freedom issue is misguided.
The effects of Blinken’s repudiation are already apparent in USAID programming, which his department finances. While its $25 billion annual budget still supports other, innumerable policy goals, USAID canceled or froze a raft of projects approved by the prior administration for Uyghurs and for persecution victims in Nigeria and the Middle East.
In mid March, Blinken leveled Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against Chinese officials linked to the genocide. That action followed recommendations in the Executive Order for Advancing International Religious Freedom of June 2, 2020, which sought to “prioritize” religious freedom in foreign policy and foreign-assistance programs. Is that also one of the documents the secretary shredded on March 30?
The human-rights reports barely mention religious freedom, which is covered in its own separate annual report by the International Religious Freedom (IRF) office. IRF’s reports aid the secretary’s determination of the world’s worst persecutors, “countries of particular concern,” and of corresponding sanctions, as mandated by the IRF Act. With that law, Congress strengthened foreign policy on behalf of persecuted individuals precisely because religious freedom had been given short shrift by diplomats and policy-makers.
Hopefully, Blinken will come around to recognize the pivotal importance of religious freedom. He should do so quickly, before more desperately needed policies and programs are left to languish and persecutors feel further emboldened.