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Political Leaders Have a Moral and Political Obligation to Counter Religious Intolerance
June 14, 2011


Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay
Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

Remarks at Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Panel on ‘Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief’

June 14, 2011
Geneva, Switzerland


Good afternoon. First, let me express my sincere appreciation to the Office of the High Commissioner in arranging for this panel and for the privilege of addressing you on the topic of “Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” I welcome the opportunity to raise awareness and discuss actions that the international community can take to implement the action-oriented approach laid out in the consensus resolution that called for this panel.

I am here in my capacity as the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have honored me with this appointment and I will work assiduously within the Department of State, our Embassies and Missions abroad and our interagency community to devise and implement strategies that will constructively address systemic challenges to religious freedom and religious intolerance around the world. While serious problems exist, we also see areas of opportunity for a sustained campaign to implement worldwide the actions called for in the consensus approach to combat intolerance, discrimination, and violence.

President Obama has made clear that it is in the interest of security and stability worldwide to ensure fundamental freedoms for people of all backgrounds and all faiths to understand that religious freedom is a universal human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

States have tools at their disposal to combat religious intolerance; in many cases what is needed is the political will to use them. Governments need to develop robust legal protections to address acts of discrimination against individuals and bias-inspired violent crimes. Each country should determine if it has laws on the books that allow it to prosecute individuals who discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, access to public accommodation and other aspects of public life, or who commit violence on that basis. Each country should determine if it has a capable and dedicated band of investigators and prosecutors to enforce such laws. Even more importantly, leaders in government, politics, religion, business and the rest of society must stand ready to condemn hateful ideology; and to vigorously defend the rights of individuals to practice their religion freely and exercise their freedom of expression. Leaders who remain silent are contributing to the problem and should be held politically accountable. Let me give some examples drawn from practice in the United States.

Combating Discrimination through robust legal protections:

The U.S. Department of Justice is the primary institution responsible for enforcing federal statutes that prohibit discrimination or acts of violence and intimidation on the basis of race, national origin, and religion. Bias-inspired violent crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of federal law for especially severe punishment. Each state in the United States has similar legal protections and entities responsible for enforcing them.

After the September 11th attacks, the Justice Department implemented an initiative to combat “backlash” crimes involving violence and threats at individuals who are or who are perceived to be Arab, Muslim, Sikh, or South Asian. This initiative has investigated more than 700 bias motivated incidents since September 11, 2001. The Justice Department has obtained 34 federal convictions and assisted local law enforcement in bringing more than 160 such criminal prosecutions.

Personal religious belief is protected in almost all of the federal United States civil rights statutes enforced by the Department of Justice, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits religious discrimination against individuals in employment, public accommodations, and other sectors.

Condemn Hateful Ideology and Outreach to Affected Groups:

Legal safeguards are essential, but it is better to create a climate that seeks to prevent discrimination and violence before it happens, than to punish after the fact. This requires the commitment and courage of political and societal leaders. For example, in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, former President Bush and Congressional leaders from both parties visited mosques and engaged in other visible interactions with members of the Muslim community precisely to build solidarity with them and to counter efforts to blame all adherents of a Islam for the actions of a violent extremist group. When an extremist pastor in Florida threatened to, and then burned a Quran, President Obama and political leaders from both parties condemned his behavior and rallied religious and social leaders to do the same. His behavior is publicly reviled and rebuked by virtually the entire society. The result has been that you can count on your fingers the number of supporters Pastor Terry Jones has in our country.

It would be a productive exercise for political leaders around the world to review their own reaction to similar events in their countries and ask whether they have used their own leadership skills to make such behavior unattractive to all but the most anti-social individuals.

The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department engages in extensive outreach to address September 11th backlash-related civil rights issues, by providing speakers at national and regional conventions and other community events, and hosting a bi-monthly meeting that brings together community leaders with officials from a variety of federal agencies to comprehensively address civil rights issues.

The United States Department of Homeland Security also works to improve the cultural competency of its personnel and leads training for Federal, State, and local law enforcement on effective policing without ethnic or racial profiling; best practices related to community engagement; and misconceptions and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, for example.

President Obama has emphasized the importance of interfaith collaboration as a way to advance religious freedom. The United States has implemented and facilitated initiatives all over the world to bring together people of faiths. For example, the U.S.-Indonesia Interfaith Conference brought together private sector, civil society and faith leaders from eight countries to work together on projects that will have an impact on their communities in the areas of poverty eradication, environment, education, and governance. Here in Geneva, we were pleased to partner with Jordan to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding earlier this year during World Interfaith Harmony Week. These collaborations have created long-term partnerships that have resulted in constructive dialogues as mechanisms to advance religious freedom and avoid violence and mistrust.

Vigorously Defend the Freedoms of Religion, Belief, and Expression:

Our founding fathers, understanding the importance of freedom of religion, made it first in our Bill of Rights. In 1790, George Washington wrote to a synagogue in Rhode Island, that this country will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Rather than seek prohibitions on offensive expression, the United States advocates for other measures such as urging political, religious, and societal leaders to speak out and condemn offensive expression; creating a mechanism to identify areas of tension between communities; training government officials on outreach strategies; and encouraging leaders to discuss causes of discrimination and potential solutions with their communities. Indeed, we believe that laws seeking to limit freedom of expression in the name of protecting against offensive speech are actually counterproductive. The suppression of speech often actually raises the profile of that speech, sometimes giving even greater voice to speech that others might find offensive. In some countries, politicians will not condemn offensive speech, but instead will defer to the courts to judge if it is legally prohibited. In our view it is far more effective if political leaders know that they cannot point to the law as an excuse for doing little to nothing. They have a moral and political obligation to use their own freedom of expression to lead a strong counter effort, and should be held to account politically.

As I have said before no country is immune from the problems of intolerance and hatred, but governments can and must respond in ways that promote the human rights of all individuals. Here in this room where consensus and unity was achieved, I wish to conclude by thanking you for this opportunity. I hope that together we will move forward to achieve the substantial goal of combating religious intolerance, discrimination and violence.