Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
Good morning. Thank you all for coming here for what I hope will be the first in a series of meetings that will advance respect for religious freedom and religious tolerance around the world. I am Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and I am honored to be your host for the next three days.
Before we begin, I would like to salute the many people, governments, and organizations here today who worked so hard to pass Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, “Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization Of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence, and Violence Against Persons Based on Religion or Belief.” That historic resolution was adopted by consensus in Geneva in March. As Secretary Clinton said in Istanbul in July, by passing it, “We have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression.”
The international community reinforced the spirit of Resolution 16/18 at the UN General Assembly, where the UNGA Third Committee adopted a similar resolution by consensus. I want to thank all of those who made that breakthrough possible, especially the Ambassadors from Geneva and New York who are with us here today.
Resolution 16/18 secured an international consensus around an action-oriented approach to combat religious intolerance in line with respect for universal human rights—including religious freedom and freedom of expression.
The resolution calls on states to take specific measures to combat religious intolerance. The focus of this implementation meeting is identifying best practices on prohibiting discrimination against individuals based on religion or belief, training government officials to avoid discrimination in their official duties, putting enforcement mechanisms in place and engaging with members of religious communities.
It is important that experts like you, practitioners of human rights protection, law enforcement, and community relations, share your views and exchange information on how to protect religious minorities.
You represent over 30 countries and a wide range of international organizations, including the European Union, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With this kind of expertise, we can make progress on implementing this resolution. History will judge us not by the resolutions we pass – but by whether we put these resolutions into practice. As the famous American abolitionist Wendell Phillips once remarked, “Governments exist for the purpose of protecting the rights of minorities.” Those rights include the right to believe and the right practice a religion not sanctioned by the state -- or no religion at all.
Though we come from a wide range of backgrounds, this resolution, representing the consensus of the international community, unites us in a common purpose. This purpose is to advance religious freedom, promote religious tolerance, and combat discrimination on the basis of religion or belief—consistent with universal human rights principles. This means a commitment to protect religious minorities and protect freedom of expression. Fighting discrimination and improving respect for religious freedom also creates a climate of tolerance that promotes stability, social harmony, and security.
We know that some people distort various religious doctrines to justify intolerance, foment violence, or create strife that serves their narrow political purposes. We must denounce offensive speech whenever we encounter it – but our commitment to universal principles makes clear that faith must never be a crime and religion must never be used as an excuse to stifle freedom of expression.
Secretary Clinton put it this way in a February speech on Internet freedom: “Some take the view that, to encourage tolerance, some hateful ideas must be silenced by governments. We believe that efforts to curb the content of speech rarely succeed and often become an excuse to violate freedom of expression. Instead, as it has historically been proven time and time again, the better answer to offensive speech is more speech. People can and should speak out against intolerance and hatred. By exposing ideas to debate, those with merit tend to be strengthened, while weak and false ideas tend to fade away; perhaps not instantly, but eventually.”
In this country, religious freedom is guaranteed in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. We continue to work at improving respect for our religious diversity and protecting freedom of expression. Yet we continue to see individuals involved in acts of intolerance, and attempts to discriminate against other religious groups. They usually get wide coverage in our free press, and yet, we have freedom of expression and use effective measures to deal with these issues that are consistent with the steps recommended in Resolution 16/18. Complacency is not an option.
Over the next three days, we seek frank discussions that will help our governments promote tolerance, combat discrimination and violence, and help us learn from each others’ experiences. Resolution 16/18 is a roadmap. Our agenda for the next three days is to explore how to use that map to implement the resolution in ways that will improve conditions for all of our citizens.
Today, we will hold plenary sessions where you will meet your counterparts from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. They will share with you how our approaches to these problems are evolving, what we have adopted from other countries, and how we adapted based on experience. On Tuesday and Wednesday, our meetings will be divided into two tracks. The first track will explore effective government strategies to engage religious minorities. This discussion will include methods for training government officials on religious and cultural awareness. The second track will explore ways to better enforce laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. We urge members of your delegation to participate in both tracks to ensure that we capture the full range of opinions and ideas you all represent.
Following this conference, we will compile a set of best practices that will be submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to be shared with States and the general public.
This is a historic opportunity for all of our countries to make concrete advances in promoting tolerance and combating the discrimination and violence that blights so many lives. I welcome you to Washington as together we find ways to promote mutual respect between governments and citizens of all religions, creeds, and beliefs. Thank you.