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  • Knox Thames

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ending violence on account of religion or belief will take more work, not less. It will require greater resources, not fewer. And it will necessitate a diverse coalition focused on protecting individuals from harm. But working together, we can make progress.

Months before his murder, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote what would be his last book entitled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”. Written 55 years ago, Rev. King examined the progress toward civil rights and the many miles remaining to end racism in America. While noting their movement’s successes, it was a frank dissection of the remaining challenges, including emerging fractures within the civil rights movement and deep seeded inequalities still blocking Black advancement.


Similarly, we have reached a comparable moment in the effort to defeat violent persecution on account of religion or belief and to promote religious freedom worldwide. Global have been summits held. Alliances launched. Oppression denounced. Yet despite our best efforts, persecution on account of religion or belief continues like a plague. And so today, August 22nd, the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, provides a helpful inflection point to ask, “Where do we go from here?”

Pandemic of Persecution

Efforts to combat religious persecution have obtained global recognition in ways inconceivable ten years ago. The fact that this day exists is a testament to what the movement has achieved. Poland played a key leadership role by introducing the General Assembly resolution for this day in May 2019, and Ewelina Ochab developed the idea. During the first religious freedom ministerial in Washington in 2018, the Polish delegation told me of their plans to announce this idea, which we welcomed as a concrete deliverable. After the resolution passed, Poland continued to lead, using their UN Security Council membership to convene an Arria Formula meeting in August 2019, followed by Poland hosting a virtual ministerial in 2020.


Yet, despite these and other good efforts, persecution continues as a global phenomenon, not respecting of international borders or boundaries. Every religious community is a minority somewhere, and every faith faces persecution from governments or extremists, or both. A daily look at the headlines proves the gravity of the situation: Afghanistan, Burma, China, India, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and Syria. A bombing on Wednesday at a mosque in Kabul during evening prayers killed at least ten people, and the Hazaras report over 200 murdered in the last year in Afghanistan. Even in the United States, we saw the horrific attack on Salman Rushdie.


The pandemic of hate knows no boundaries. But unlike with COVID-19, there is no miracle cure-all drug, no silver bullet, or drive-by solution to ending persecution. Consequently, this global challenge requires a coordinated international response by like-minded governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders. It will take more work, not less. It will require greater resources, not fewer. And it will necessitate a diverse coalition focused on protecting individuals from harm, regardless of their beliefs, not one focused on single issues or groups.


We must explore new approaches to widen the community of countries creating space for diversity of beliefs and pluralism. It will take finding ways to work across political and religious differences to protect the vulnerable.

Multi-Faceted Approach

So how to respond? As laid out in the London Blueprint for Progress before the July ministerial, words must translate into deeds. Expressing concern, while necessary, is often not enough to stay the hand of repression and rescue victims. But we need not look far for good ideas, as there are many in the resolution creating this day emphasizing state responsibility to protect, collaboration, and providing aid to victims.


Here are some key excerpts:

  • Recalling that States have the primary responsibility to promote and protect human rights, including the human rights of persons belonging to religious minorities, including their right to exercise their religion or belief freely,

  • Emphasizing also that States, regional organizations, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, religious bodies, the media, and civil society as a whole have an important role to play in promoting tolerance and respect for religious and cultural diversity,

  • Underlining the importance of a comprehensive and inclusive community-based preventive approach, involving a wide set of actors, including civil society and religious communities,

  • Recognizing that working together to enhance the implementation of existing legal regimes that protect individuals against discrimination and hate crimes, increasing interreligious, interfaith and intercultural efforts and expanding human rights education are important first steps in combating incidents of intolerance, discrimination and violence against individuals on the basis of religion or belief,

  • Recognizing also the importance of providing victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief and members of their families with appropriate support and assistance in accordance with applicable law,

Words into Deeds

As a former American diplomat, I know how denouncing violations is often interpreted as addressing a problem. However, to make a lasting difference, efforts to advance freedom of religion or belief must result in meaningful action. Consequential diplomacy is required that extracts a cost for abuses and creates deterrence. Otherwise, the promises of international human rights law will ring hollow, nothing more than arid euphemisms.


The July ministerial conference in London demonstrated the progress and the challenges. The British played to their strengths, leveraging the prestige and pomp of London. Many countries attended and spoke in support of FoRB, including those whose domestic records are more aspirational. Yet despite the looming specter of persecution, few governments addressed specific country persecution, with most statements general in nature.


In reviewing the 45+ statements made by delegates at the London conference, most governments used the time to highlight their domestic records. It is not an unusual approach but one that misses an opportunity. When representatives raised specifics, China and Russia were mentioned most often, and the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada gave very detailed callouts. But they were the exception, not the norm.


Themes did arise. Several spoke of the need to address cultural heritage and the destruction of religious sites, particularly Christian ones. Others expressed concern about religious minorities in different contexts or regions, such as Christians in the Middle East, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the West, and challenges facing the LGBTQ community. And afterwards, there was an unfortunate disagreement over the statement regarding FoRB and gender.


Moving forward, Brazil announced its intent to host the next ministerial in 2023, ensuring the international process continues. Brazil would be the first country from the southern hemisphere to host, bringing regional diversity. Notably, polls for the October presidential election indicate a possible change from Bolsonaro to Lula, bringing a very different president of a socialist party into power. Brazilian diplomats were emphatic that a potential change in leadership would not impact their commitment. (As we saw in London, a successful conference can transpire while a major political transition ensues.)


Irrespective of the election’s outcome, countries supporting freedom of religion or belief – from the political right and left, and geographically north and south – should extend a hand and encourage Brazil to host a meaningful event. However, if Lula does win, Brazil hosting a religious freedom ministerial would become even more noteworthy, as it would bring political diversity, as only conservative governments have hosted up to now. It also argues for a country like Norway, with a center-left governing coalition and a strong commitment to FoRB, also stepping forward to host in the future.


Regarding potential ministerial concrete topics garnering broad support, next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed in Paris on December 9, 1948. With 21st century genocides targeting religious communities, the 2023 Brazil ministerial should focus on atrocity prevention. Every country and organization would support—right, left and center—as well as religion and belief communities. The confluence provides a platform to build international support to tangibly assist beleaguered communities facing mass atrocities in Afghanistan, Burma, and China, as well as genocide survivors in Iraq and elsewhere.


In the meantime, Brazil could use its UN Security Council seat to convene an Arria Formula meeting, as a prelude to their ministerial. Brazil, Poland, and IRFBA members could together press for a UN mandated search for genocide survivors in the Al-Hol camp in Syria, or discuss how persecution on account of religion or belief leads to mass migration, or how to combat war crimes and atrocities against belief communities.

Lasting Commitment

We cannot stand still in the face of violence based on religion or belief. Consequential diplomacy must follow statements, such as sanctioning government officials implicated in crimes. Coordinating with like-minded countries can create deterrence through a web of reinforcing penalties to ensure lasting impact and secondary effects on businesses and family members. And more must be done to rescue those in harm’s way, to provide safe and dignified routes for refugees to find safety from persecution.


Forerunners fighting against discrimination in America and for human rights have shown how to respond. Rev. King said, “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.” He added, “Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting. If history teaches anything, it is that evil is recalcitrant and determined. Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.”


And in his last book, he gave a what would be a final word of encouragement from his hard-learned experience. “The line of progress is never straight. For a period, a movement may follow a straight line and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends. It is like curving around a mountain when you are approaching a city. Often it feels as though you were moving backward, and you lose sight of your goal; but in fact you are moving ahead, and soon you will see the city again, closer by.”


People are victimized daily because of their religion or belief. In contrast, the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief recognizes the fundamental humanity in us all. It protects the inner dimension of the human person from which all ideas and actions spring. Religious freedom is the soul of the human rights system.


The need for action is clear. We must never accept the unacceptable – violence based on religion or belief. We must ensure consequences for violations and deter future attacks. We must assist victims and find ways to provide shelter and protection. We must outlast our adversaries. We have work to do. But working together, we can make progress.


* Amended from remarks presented to the Permanent Mission of Poland to the United Nations virtual discussion on the International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion and Belief.


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.

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