Obama Steps Up on Protecting Religious Freedom

Obama Steps Up on Protecting Religious Freedom

On multiple occasions I have criticized the Obama administration for its deficient international religious freedom policy. So in fairness, I want to offer some praise for the administration when it takes positive measures. This week brings two such steps, modest but still meaningful.

First, the State Department just issued its annual International Religious Freedom (IRF) report and its designations of "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) for particularly severe violations of religious liberty. For several years now the CPC list has been a stagnant gallery of religious persecutors: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. This week the administration added Turkmenistan to the CPC list, a warranted designation given Ashgabat’s long-standing antipathy to religious freedom. Of particular note for the internal designation process is that this decision was made while the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom position has been vacant. The absence of an IRF ambassador to advocate internally for the designation of Turkmenistan likely indicates cooperation and support from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Given the general cultural reluctance of State’s regional bureaus to sanction countries, this step is significant.

Of more consequence, President Obama at last announced his new nominee for the long-vacant position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Rabbi David Saperstein is the pick, and he is a strong choice. Saperstein has a long and distinguished background on the issue, including being an influential supporter of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and then serving as the first chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. (I should add that I disagree with Saperstein on some important domestic religious freedom issues, but those are outside of his remit at the State Department.) As important for his new role, Saperstein is wise in the ways of Washington, has a good relationship with Secretary Kerry, and will likely be an effective policy operator within the halls of Foggy Bottom and across the interagency. The IRF Office needs to be captained by such an advocate, as it is in perpetual risk of bureaucratic marginalization.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy record thus far on human rights, democracy, and religious freedom is undistinguished, to say the least. Fortunately, as it approaches its final two years in office, it now has arguably its most capable diplomatic team yet on these issues in Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski and Ambassador-designate Saperstein. I hope the Senate acts quickly to confirm Saperstein, and hope he and Malinowski can forge an effective tandem in advancing human liberty during a very turbulent time in the international system.