As a new administration takes form, human rights advocates have showed concern over a possible de-emphasis on human rights and religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.
“Freedom of religion is the foundational freedom upon which our nation was founded. Because this is a core American value, the U.S. cannot simply ignore the cries of oppressed sufferers abroad," Dr. Randel Everett, president and founder of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, stated May 23.
“Our foreign policy must reflect this essential component of global security," he continued.
In a May 3 speech to State Department employees by new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he said that U.S. foreign policy cannot always be contingent on “values" like religious freedom and human rights.
“Now, I think it’s important to also remember that guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated," Tillerson said.
“Those are our values. Those are not our policies; they’re values," he continued, explaining that “policies can change," while “our values never change. They’re constant throughout all of this."
Yet Tillerson went on to say that “in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests."
The U.S. took a long time to fundamentally adopt these “values," he added, and cannot expect other countries to adopt them overnight.
“If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests," he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) responded with a May 8 op-ed in the New York Times, insisting that “we are a country with a conscience. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it."
“To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize," he continued. “Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in."
Tillerson’s speech was not the only signal from the State Department that concerned human rights advocates.
Back in March, the agency held a somewhat muted release of its annual reports on human rights in foreign countries. Tillerson was not present at a public release of the report, something that reporters pointed out was a break with long-standing precedent.
Instead, the report was discussed in an on-background conference call with reporters by a “senior administration official."
Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted this in his April statement on the administration’s record in promoting human rights.
“I am concerned at the muted attention the administration has given so far on human rights," he said, noting “the downplayed release of the State Department’s human rights report."
“Promoting trade and economic and military cooperation are all essential to America’s future – but these mean little if we ignore the people in countries around the world who are suffering at the hands of their own governments and their rights are being abused," he continued, in a statement made weeks before Tillerson’s May 4 speech.
The concerns come at a time when some are trying to ratchet up international attention on human rights abuses. The bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for instance, launched its Prisoners of Conscience Project earlier this spring, drawing attention to the plight of those detained, tortured, or killed by foreign governments because of their religious beliefs.
The commission hopes that the project will attract the attention of the public, but also of lawmakers who can ask to visit these prisoners when they travel abroad. “Public inattention can often lead to more persecution," the commission’s chair, Fr. Thomas Reese, stated at the launch of the project.
Yet religious freedom advocates are also worried about the direction of the State Department. Everett issued a response to Tillerson’s speech on May 23, explaining how important the promotion of international religious freedom is to U.S. national security interests.
“When we disregard the brutality of religious persecution, the world becomes more dangerous for all," he said.
As an example of this, he pointed out that “fifteen of the nineteen terrorists on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. All were Islamist extremists who believed violence is an acceptable tool to achieve their goals of global adherence to their strict religious laws."
“Is it a coincidence that these men came from a nation where there is no religious freedom?" he asked.
Not all State Department actions have received criticism from human rights advocates. On April 4, the administration announced it would stop supporting the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because of its support for China’s coercive two-child policy, which was for years a one-child policy until 2015.
China’s forced family-planning policy has resulted in massive human rights abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations of women. The UNFPA “gave China’s brutally enforced population control policies the international stamp of approval," Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House panel on global human rights, stated.
Smith applauded the administration’s decision to stop funding the UNFPA.
“I am heartened by the Trump Administration’s early action to apply Kemp-Kasten and end U.S. support for this most egregious human rights violation," Smith said of the action. The Kemp-Kasten Amendment allows the President to decide not to fund entities that engage in forced abortions or sterilizations.
Others are trying to inform and push the administration to recognize the importance of religious freedom to U.S. diplomacy. The Religious Freedom Institute released a March report with recommendations for the U.S. government.
“The President should state clearly and often that U.S. IRF policy will be a national security and minority rights priority for his administration," the report stated.
It also asked the President to nominate an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom soon, and for Congress to support the new ambassador by making sure he or she has the proper resources and staff within the State Department.
By Matt Hadro