The London Blueprint for Progress
As a pandemic of persecution sweeps the world, an unprecedented coalition of governments and civil society organizations are organizing a response. On July 5, the United Kingdom will convene the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, assembling governments, civil society, and religious or belief communities in an effort to meet the challenge. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will participate, and Foreign Minister Liz Truss will give a keynote speech.
The fourth ministerial-level meeting since the United States launched the effort in 2018, and the first in-person gathering in three years, these events have elevated international religious freedom to unprecedented levels. And since 2019, countries have strengthened their coordination through the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), which now includes 40 nations. The issue, it seems, is finally receiving the attention it deserves.
Yet, despite these advances, we must strive to ensure the conference matters in the face of unrelenting global persecution. As someone deeply involved with the two State Department ministerial meetings and has advised on the British event, we should consider how best to steward the movement to ensure positive and sustainable progress on the ground.
Moving forward, a London blueprint must include consistency, coalitions, call-outs, and consequences.
Encouraging full respect for freedom of religion or belief with friend and foe is the true hallmark of consistency. The European Union speaks of "internal/external cohesion," where members strive to respect human rights at home while advocating for them abroad. In the same way, countries advocating for international religious freedom must also protect the right domestically. While most countries attending London have decent domestic records, every nation can do better. For instance, in the United States, issues of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia require continued attention. But why does internal/external cohesion matter? Because steadfastly defending the right at home provides credibility and demonstrates genuine commitment, two crucial steps toward effective international advocacy.
In addition, the movement would benefit from a consistent schedule of future events. When serving at the State Department, we purposefully exported the meeting after the 2019 Washington ministerial and encouraged other countries to host. Poland convened a virtual conference in 2020 due to COVID, and now the British will bring the world together in London. These events are massive undertakings, and we should thank the U.K. government for hosting. Because such meetings are a heavy lift, shifting to biannual events would preserve the limited number of nations with the interest and resources. Off-years would allow for smaller regional events, NGO gatherings, and convening IRFBA Alliance members.
Coalition work is also crucial. The immensity of religious persecution is too complex for any one nation or organization to confront alone. Like-minded countries committed to defending freedom of conscience and minority rights must band together against those who persecute individuals based on their religion or belief. Governments working across political, geographic, and regional lines can move the needle in ways bilateral advocacy cannot. The same is true for diverse civil society alliances spanning the secular and the sacred. Diplomats, parliamentarians, civil society, and religious leaders working together can realize powerful synergies that change laws, policies, and societal attitudes.
The IRFBA coalition is an important development for the field, building off the joint Canadian/U.S. International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Growing civil society networks are also positive, like the International Religious Freedom Roundtable and IRF NGO Summit in the United States and the U.K. FoRB Forum. These networks focus on the right for all, not just a single community. Inclusive advocacy is the best approach and a positive development for the broader movement; when everyone enjoys religious freedom in society, all groups fair better.
But this work cannot be limited to representatives of victims. Coalitions must stretch left and right. Worrisomely, partisan polarization in North America and Europe, two critical regions of support for international religious freedom, threaten to prevent broad coalitions. In the United States, I am increasingly concerned that America’s stormy political landscape will taint what should be nonpartisan IRF work. We must look beyond differences at home to unite in advocacy for those facing violent persecution abroad. If not, many will suffer.
One approach is to build "coalitions of the vulnerable," as my colleague Peter Mandeville and I wrote for the U.S. Institute of Peace. "[T]hose persecuted for their religious beliefs, marginalized ethnic minorities, women and victims of discrimination against LGBTQ communities often find themselves experiencing a similar plight and shared threats to their basic human dignity." Fostering bridge building could bring "greater impact through mutual support where gains for one group can help other victimized communities."
In this, finding other ways to describe the work can help. Growing networks of governments and NGOs now share a common commitment to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially the right to change faith or hold no faith. However, "religious freedom" often carries baggage in some cultures and political contexts, while elsewhere believers only enjoy worship rights. To engage more partners and avoid hang-ups on terminology, shifting to concepts of human dignity or covenantal pluralism provide alternative pathways to the same end goal without undermining international standards. All cultures recognize the inherent dignity of the individual, and examples are increasing of multi-faith advocacy for others. Pragmatically using what works is smart engagement and can initiate progress.
Yet while being savvy with terminology, we must be steadfast in calling-out abuses. Naming and shaming is a tried and true approach, which sends a clear message of reprobation from the family of nations. For instance, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's recent speech that singled out religious freedom violations in Burma, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, and Nigeria. Such critiques should be a regular part of international discourse, as violators hate having their misdeeds highlighted to the world.
Regrettably, there is often a hesitancy to issue specific condemnations. Governments would rather not raise difficult issues with key countries, or the tyranny of the urgent outweighs actual tyranny, forcing policymakers away from commenting. But the result is silence that ignores persecution and green lights further repression.
Likewise, generic statements are of questionable value, asking for a minimal political commitment from governments and rarely remembered. While identifying and building support for specific topics or themes has utility, in my experience they do little to improve conditions on the ground. For instance, general statements against blasphemy will not change Pakistan's harsh laws and policies. Unless governments tie thematic statements with new funding streams, they are of minimal value. Specific problems require specific statements.
After call-outs should follow consequences. If the world believes religious freedom matters, then it should matter in how we conduct international relations. When nations proclaim the importance of human rights, relationships with persecuting countries cannot remain the same.
So, while Secretary Blinken’s highlighting of Nigeria was important, his decision last year to delist Nigeria from CPC undercuts the point. Unfortunately, ducking hard choices is a bipartisan tradition. For instance, the Trump administration rightly labeled Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern for religious persecution, the first administration do so. But the decision was undermined by the immediate issuance of a waiver by Secretary Pompeo. The Pakistanis were mad, but knew there would be no consequence for the continued violations.
Concrete action is needed to change the incentive structures. Consequences can alter the calculation of abusers if international penalties outweigh the domestic returns. It has been astounding to watch the rapidity of new sanctions against Russia when political will exists. However, too often, religious persecution ranks low on the priority list, and perpetrators have little fear of being held accountable. In addition, they are part of a repressive regime and protected from repercussions, accommodated or appeased by political bosses. or their societies condone their violent actions.
Expanding Magnitsky-like laws is a start, as they have shown what is possible through pinpointed sanctions. And while not deterring every malign actor, others will notice the cost escalation and may hesitate to strike. In the same way with countries, the State Department should end its overuse of waivers for Country of Particular Concern designations, which would make it a powerful tool that hits governments for their abuses.
Positive programs can create momentum for reform too. Carrots and sticks work well together. Governments and private foundations should surge resources to empower efforts in the field. New funding can foster progress in needed areas, such as education initiatives around interfaith understanding, promoting rights through social media, leveraging cultural heritage to encourage tolerance, or other ideas. Training and supporting good people in bad places must be part of any successful strategy.
As someone deeply involved with the two U.S. ministerial meetings, I appreciate the hard work of Lord Ahmed, Fiona Bruce, Merv Thomas, and the many others working to put it all together. Our British friends have organized an impressive event. Now, it is incumbent upon all of us arriving in London, government officials and activists, to seize this moment to bring about lasting change.
New approaches are needed that penalize the perpetrators of persecution, which can create deterrence and hopefully forestall violent oppression. Progress can come when innovative policies are backed up by sanctions and a positive engagements, multiplied through coordinated responses by allies. Otherwise, naming a problem and taking no action diminishes credibility, erodes deterrence, and abandons victims.
Consequently, we would be wise to view the London meeting as an inflection point, mindful that the ministerial is a waystation and not a destination. Participants must do more than discuss persecution from afar, wishing something could be done. Pressing authoritarian governments and democratic nations to reform will take new ideas and commitment. Assisting believers victimized by extremists and terrorists will take resources and courage. Hopefully, the London ministerial will generate the blueprint for next steps in joint advocacy.
Knox Thames is a former State Department official, serving in the Obama and Trump administrations as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities. He is writing a book on ending persecution. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames.