Remarks on the Release of the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
November 17, 2010
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you, Madam Secretary, for your remarks and for your commitment to religious freedom and human rights generally.
As Secretary Clinton has said, religious minorities in many societies today face serious restrictions on their ability to practice their faith, to congregate with others, to worship freely. In too many places, people are targeted because of their religious beliefs, and they face discrimination, intimidation, and even violent attacks.
This year’s report tells their stories. It relies on a universal standard, that contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are human rights issues. It provides a baseline for understanding the global status of religious freedom around the world. It details both improvements we’ve seen over the past year as well as government failings.
Let me give a few examples. In Iran, government respect for religious freedom continues to deteriorate, especially for groups like the Baha’i. In Burma, the government continues its tight control of the activities of Buddhist clergy and discriminates against minority religious communities. The release last Sunday of Aung San Suu Kyi is a positive step. However, there are more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, including many monks and other religious figures.
In Pakistan, against the backdrop of continued extremist violence against civilian targets, the number and severity of reported cases against religious minorities increased. For example, in May, extremist attacks on two Ahmadi congregations in Lahore killed at least 86 people. In Uzbekistan, government respect for religious freedom declined in the last year in several areas. The government raided Christian and Baha’i services, and many members of minority religious groups face fines or other restrictions.
The Government of Eritria continues to harass, arrest, and detain members of unapproved religious groups. Several hundred religious minority members are today in jail, in very harsh conditions.
And in China, as the Secretary noted, we continue to see restrictions on the Uighur population in Xinjiang on the Tibetan Buddhist community, and other restrictions on religious freedom, including on the unauthorized house churches, Christian churches.
There are some positive steps. President Obama, in his trip to Indonesia, noted that religious tolerance in that country is a defining and inspiring characteristic. The government has set up a national interfaith council. We participated earlier this year in a bilateral religious dialogue.
In Syria and Turkey, the Grand Muftis have spoken out publically, urging tolerance towards Christians and Jews. In Spain, the government has appointed special prosecutors to focus on hate crimes. And in Brazil, an NGO commission on religious – commission against religious intolerance published a guide to combat racism and religious intolerance. And earlier this year, government in Rio created an office to combat religious intolerance.
This morning Dr. Sujay Johnson Cook appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a step on her way to becoming, we hope, and are encouraging, the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. I hope the confirmation process will go quickly, and she’ll be able to join us to pursue this important agenda.
I’m happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: For this year, is there a CPC list?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: No. The report is a separate exercise from that, but we will be designating countries of particular concern in the next couple of months.
QUESTION: Yeah. If I could follow up on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.
QUESTION: Vietnam has been – well, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged for more than a year now, I think, that Vietnam be put back on that list. And I think the list wasn’t finalized this year – was it – since the last report. And I’m wondering, why is Vietnam kind of being kept off?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, the commission, as you know, is an independent body. It has its own designations. This – we will make a judgment, as I say, in the next several months of the countries to be designated as countries of particular concern. We discuss Vietnam in the report. We have concerns about a range of things. In fact, I’ll be going to Vietnam in December to renew a bilateral of human rights dialogue that we did last October, and these issues will certainly be prominent on the agenda.
QUESTION: But do these reports make any differences? Because year after year, you bring these reports out, and we see many countries never change. And you keep telling them each year at the United Nations and our bilateral here and there, including China and other places. So where do you go from here, after producing these reports, on a yearly basis? Unless you force them, and you – even sanctions doesn’t work. So what’s the next step?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, as I said in my opening comment, these reports are a baseline, a factual baseline that is – that gives us information we need to then make policy. It is – the reports by themselves will never solve the problem. The reports, though, provide information, both for our diplomats but also for other governments, for the United Nations and others, to address these issues. We do raise these issues. I raise them in all of my travels and other senior U.S. officials do. And it’s the combination of diplomatic pressure, public attention, and what happens within societies that makes a difference.
One thing that’s very striking to me about all of these reports is the extent to which those activists, religious leaders, in this case, appreciate the fact that their situation is being publicly identified. So there’s a recognition on the part of those most affected that these issues – these reports give them strength, give them a sense of solidarity and support.
QUESTION: But one thing is there, as far as Middle East or the Muslim countries are concerned, how vigorously you raise these questions. Because ask those women who are under attack or suffering, and they have to be in burqa and all kind of those things and they have no freedom as far as religious because they think in the Middle East or in Muslim countries that women is just producing children and nothing else.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We raise these issues everywhere and including in the countries you describe. As you know, for the Secretary, for me, for this Administration, the treatment of women and girls is an extremely important human rights issue. We raise it constantly, and this is part of that effort to be publicly identifying our support for their inclusion in every aspect of their societies.
QUESTION: It’s been pointed out that a lot of the countries here are sort of familiar suspects and come up again and again. But the Secretary just mentioned that you’re also taking note of European countries who are putting harsh restrictions on religion. I’m wondering if you can go into some more detail. Are you concerned about things like the burqa bans and the vote on the minarets and so on? Is Western Europe, in particular, an area of concern where it wasn’t before when it comes to religious freedom?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I can’t speak about before. I can say that I’m discussing these issues constantly with our European allies. Let’s take the minaret vote in Switzerland. The government didn’t support that initiative. It was a public initiative. Fifty-some percent, I think 59 percent of the population voted to ban minarets. The Government of Switzerland, and I’ve talked to their representatives repeatedly, is now doing what it can to overturn that and to create a legal and a public process that will basically restore the ability of the Muslim community to build minarets.
The same thing with the burqa ban. We raised that issue. Our own position, and again, President Obama spoke about this in the Cairo speech, we have gone to court in the United States to enforce the right of Muslim women and girls to wear a burqa on the streets, in schools, et cetera. That’s our position. It’s a position we articulate when we talk to our European friends.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, but is it your views broadly that religious intolerance is a growing problem in Europe?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: There is certainly a growing sensitivity and tension in Europe. And I think what we are urging, again, our European friends to do is to take every measure to try to alleviate that tension. These are – often in Europe and elsewhere, these are tensions between communities, and it’s for the governments to be as proactive as it can in each of these situations to reduce the level of tension.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Since 2003, the Christian and (inaudible) communities in Iraq have been the target of a great deal of violence. There’s a great deal of panic among the communities. A town like (inaudible), where the (inaudible) live was blown to smithereens. How do you deal with that panic? How do you deal with people that want to emigrate as a result of this fear and – or how do you (inaudible) and assure them that religious freedom will be protected?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We are – and have expressed great concern about the situation of the Christian community in Iraq. The bombing last month of the – Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church, where more than 50 people were killed, was an example of the abhorrent violence that you describe. We’ve condemned that violence in the strongest terms. We have repeatedly spoken to government leaders in Iraq. And President Maliki has – I think now announced increased security for the Christian community, a rebuilding of that church. But we will continue to be vigilant, and this is an ongoing problem and challenge for all of the people of Iraq.
QUESTION: If I may follow up?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.
QUESTION: What about the Assyrian community? I mean, they – I know that the whole town of Sindrah was blown up, and they still are waiting for some sort of aid from the UN or from elsewhere since 2007. Is there anything in particular that is directed towards this community?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t have anything to add on that community in particular. I think we’re looking at the whole picture. And obviously, as Iraq creates a government, we’re hoping that there can be a restoration of a better relationship and a more stable situation. A huge number of the Christian population have left the country, and so we are very mindful of the continuing tensions. And obviously, one aspect of that is to try to restore people who’ve lost homes and whose lives have been disturbed.
QUESTION: Has anybody from the Administration reached out to France, especially the French President Sarkozy, about the headgear ban on Muslims and sheikhs on their turbans?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I can’t speak to the question of whether anybody’s talked to President Sarkozy. I can say that I’ve talked to my counterparts in the French Government repeatedly about this. We have a difference of view. But I think our view is that for all of our allies, we’re encouraging government actions to reduce, alleviate tensions, and to allow people to express their religious faith, including by the wearing of the burqa.
QUESTION: Yes. You mentioned that you are concerned about the increased violence and discrimination against Coptic and Christian people in Egypt. And you have stated several times about this criticism or worrying about their situation. But the Egyptian Government has ignored several times your statement about religious freedom, about freedom of human rights. What tools do you have to encourage the Egyptian Government in – taking into consideration the upcoming parliament election and increase of this violence against Coptic? And we have witnessed two days ago another violent accident in (inaudible). Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’ve been to Egypt twice in the last year, most recently last month in October. I’ve raised these issues with senior government officials. I was in Egypt first in January several weeks after the Nag Hammadi killings. We urged, and the government did initiate an investigation. There are now three people on trial. That’s a step in the right direction.
But I – my conversations – and I had a number of conversations with religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, last month – the level of violence may not be increasing, but there’s a great tension. There’s a great sense that this sectarian tension is actually increasing. We’ll continue to raise it. I raised it publicly there; I’ll continue to raise it. These are concerns of ours, and they’re certainly concerns to many, many people in Egypt.
QUESTION: This will not affect any U.S. aid to Egypt or any tools that you may use regarding to the ignorance of the Egyptian Government to these issues?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: One of the things that President Obama has talked about – a principled engagement. We have a strong bilateral relationship with the Government of Egypt, we have many, many security and other interests which are very important. They’ve been a partner in the Middle East peace process. But these human rights issues are also front and center, and so we will continue to raise these issues, we’ll continue to press them, and the sectarian tensions are an important piece of what we’re discussing with them.
MR. TONER: Yes, Michel.
QUESTION: A report that we got under the U.S. actions in countries of particular concern – you stated Burma, China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and other countries. What do you consider, these countries?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: What do we consider them?
QUESTION: Do you consider them as CPC or —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, right now, there are eight countries designated as countries of particular concern. Those eight countries are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. As I said earlier, we are now reviewing that process separate from this report. This report states the facts. Now, we’re going to have an internal process where we evaluate these, and in the next couple of months, we will designate countries going forward that are on this list.
QUESTION: So do you expect this to get – begin this year or —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I can’t speak to that. We haven’t had the discussions, so we’ll – as soon as we have the list, we’ll let you see them.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: This report, again, listed North Korea as the worst countries. And so have you discussed or you have any plans to discuss with the North Koreans their human right conditions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: As you know, our relations with North Korea are strained, to say the least, and the – we raise publicly and in whatever ways we can a whole range of human rights concerns. The human rights situation in North Korea is desperate, and so on every measure, it is a country that’s a consistent violator of human rights. We will continue to raise those issues publicly in whatever ways we can, try to encourage other governments to do the same.
QUESTION: Follow-up —
QUESTION: So you think the future Six-Party Talks should address North Korea’s human rights conditions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: The future Six-Party Talks on North Korea should address the human rights issue?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We have a special representative here in the State Department, Bob King, whose job is to pursue the human rights issues with respect to North Korea. And I think he’s probably the person you ought to be talking to because he leads that effort.
QUESTION: So what makes Saudi Arabia a CPC country? And concerning the special relationship that you have with the Saudis, how do you raise these issues?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we have had a range of concerns with Saudi Arabia in terms of restrictions on religious freedom. They’ve been on the list since 2004. The government bans any public religious observance outside of Islam. Even private religious observance is sometimes interfered with. We are concerned – continue to be concerned about educational materials. The government has made commitments to reform the textbooks and other educational materials. It has done some of that. But there still continue to be in the Saudi textbooks references – very negative, stereotypic references to Christians, Jews, and others, which we regard as offensive.
So we have – these are real concerns. We obviously have a range of other interests as well with the Saudis, but this is part of human rights policy. We will continue to raise these concerns in particular with the Saudis as – until these issues are addressed.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah, in Laos, it seems that most of the interference and persecution is going on in the countryside, according to your report. Is the central government just failing to regulate the behavior of officials out in the rural areas?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Now, I don’t think I have much to add to what’s in the report. I will say that we have with the Government of Laos signed an agreement which allows a U.S.-based NGO to provide training on religious freedom, both to government officials and religious leaders. It’s often the case – Laos perhaps and elsewhere – that what the central government is doing is not completely in harmony with what goes on at a local level.
So much, I guess, to the credit of the Government of Laos, they have been open to this kind of a training program and involvement by an NGO, and it’s certainly something we’re going to continue to work on.
MR. TONER: There’s time for a few more questions. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, you spoke just a minute ago of the principled engagement the Administration is after with Egypt. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about Indonesia, given the fact that the President was just there.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think – again, I highlighted it as a – kind of an interesting example of a large Muslim country, but a pluralistic country where traditionally, different religions, different religious faiths, have coexisted. We applaud the fact that the government has set up a national interfaith council. As I say, we also, in January, undertook a bilateral dialogue where religious leaders, students, others came together from our two countries.
So one of the things – again, I was in Indonesia earlier this year, and one of the things that’s quite encouraging – as the President said, this is not a clean bill of health. There are obviously still a range of issues still to be addressed there. But there is a sense with the Indonesian Government that they’re engaged in these issues from the president on down, and there is, I think, a potential for us – and we’re eager to do it – to work with them not only with respect to Indonesia but with respect to with the region more broadly.
QUESTION: It’s about Pakistan. The report says the government took some steps, but not enough. And you said, I quote, “But serious problems remain.” Can you explain this a little bit?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: You’re talking about in Indonesia or —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On Pakistan. We – there is, as you know, a widespread pattern of violent attacks from extremist groups. I mentioned the one, the bombing in May, but there have been attacks against Christians, against the Ahmadis. There’s still discriminatory laws on the books, blasphemy laws, anti-Ahmadi laws.
We are raising these issues with the Government of Pakistan. The government is taking steps. It’s a very tense situation now and there are tensions within the society. So it’s a mixed picture, honestly. We give the government credit for steps it’s taken, but also recognize that more needs to be done and it’s part of our diplomacy with them.
QUESTION: Are you – did your reporting mention about this – and now again you’ve mentioned about the blaming the extremists. But what about what you say specific laws that discriminate against members of religious minorities in Pakistan? That is under governmental control.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Right. And as I said just a moment ago, we are mindful of those laws, we’re concerned about those laws, we raise our concerns directly with the Government of Pakistan. One of the things this report does is identify in Pakistan and elsewhere government actions where – that contribute to the problem. And where we see that, we’re going to raise it. Pakistan is not alone in that.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.
QUESTION: In earlier answers, you mentioned that (inaudible) you raised these issues. What exactly level it goes and is it just a meeting and then nothing happens, or you expect some results? And when can we hear about those results?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t think a meeting ever gets results. There has to be a consistent message delivered by different people and it has to be accompanied by follow-up. That’s what we’re trying to do in each of these situations. We talked about Egypt. I’ve been there twice. I’m going to go back there. There are other government officials raising our concerns. Same think in Pakistan, the same thing in other countries I’m describing.
In some places, we have more leverage than others. It’s, frankly, difficult for us to exactly be the ones to promote a human rights agenda in North Korea because our relationship is so strained. But we will continue to raise these issues publicly and privately, and we regard this – again, the notion of principled engagement is this is part of what we do as a government. We’re going to do it in a consistent way, in a sustained way. Multiple officials are going to raise it and we will keep pushing until we get the results that we’re aiming for. The goal here is to allow people to practice their religion freely. This is a human rights issue and we regard it as one of great importance.
QUESTION: Just a quick one. The Secretary said today that we want to see religious freedom around the world. She also said that she wants to see people of all faiths or with no faith can live together. And Pakistan is a – is your friend country. You’ve been giving billions pumping in. Why cannot you have a clause of human rights and religious freedom?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think what I’ve said – and it has come up in several different contexts, with Egypt, with Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan – we apply a universal standard to every country, friends and countries that we have difficult relationships with. That doesn’t mean we don’t have security interests or economic interests or other diplomatic interests. But we will raise these issues as we see them. We’ll call them as we see them. We’ll write these reports straight out based on a universal standard. And we will continue to press governments to promote and respect religious freedom, the right of people to practice their religion freely without constraint.
MODERATOR: Last two questions. We’ll go in the back and then (inaudible). Go ahead.
QUESTION: Recently, a U.K. congressional delegation visited North Korea and they published a report that they found a little bit of improvement in the religious situation of North Korea, including the new seminary in – Protestant seminary. How is – do you have any comment on that? And is there any reason or examples why you put North Korea in the CPC list, one of the eight countries?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. Again, I’m going to take that question about the report. I have not seen that report. The designation of North Korea was made two years ago. We’re reviewing it now. But from our perspective across the board, human rights are not respected, violated, in North Korea. And I’d be interested to see the report. I’m glad to give you a reaction. But we certainly see a very draconian government there that doesn’t respect religious rites or human rights generally.
MODERATOR: Last question.
QUESTION: Is there any way that these minorities all over the world that face discrimination can take a legal act against their government regarding that they are discriminated against, either an act, legal act in the UN or any other international bodies? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t know about a legal act. We certainly are trying to encourage a greater international attention to these issues at the UN and elsewhere. Our decision to join the Human Rights Council last year was predicated on a belief that we could, by being engaged, raise these and other issues. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to – we, in September, for example, took the lead in a resolution on freedom of association. Part of that relates to religious communities. It’s important that these religious communities, minority communities, don’t feel isolated. And part of what we’re also trying to do with this report and this effort is to make sure that religious groups that are feeling beleaguered and isolated understand that we’re paying attention and we’re helping them.
Thank you very much.