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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo Robert A. Seiple
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
Testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC, May 16, 2000
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Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I am pleased to appear before you today to testify on the report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Let me begin by thanking the Chairman and the Committee for their strong and continuing support in our work of promoting religious freedom internationally. Each of us here today shares a vision: a world in which every member of the human family is permitted to seek God in his or her own way -- protected in that endeavor by the state, but also free from its interference. We seek to safeguard the most fundamental and precious of human longings -- that of understanding who we are, why we are on this earth, and how we ought to order our lives. If we are not free to seek the truth in such matters, then we are not living a fully human life.

The religious freedom policy of the United States is, of course, based in part on the American experience, in which religious liberty was and is the "first freedom" of the Constitution. But the brilliance of the Founders was that they articulated truths that went beyond mere national borders. Religious freedom is "the first freedom" of America, not only because it is the first of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, but also because it is foundational for democracy itself. The Founders knew that a government which fails to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscience is a government which does not recognize the priority of the individual over the state, and that the state exists to serve society, not vice versa. This is why they put religious freedom first -- to acknowledge the sanctity of the human conscience, and the importance of structuring society so that human beings may seek the truth unhindered by the state.

These are the universal values that all of us seek to promote as part of U.S. religious freedom policy. It makes sense from the standpoint of religion, from the standpoint of all human rights, and from the standpoint of promoting democracy. One of the key elements of our policy is the work of the independent and bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. As the Committee knows, the Commission was established by the International Religious Freedom Act, passed unanimously by both Houses of Congress and signed by the President in October of 1998. As Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I serve ex officio on that Commission as a non-voting member. I have attended the great majority of its meetings, have heard the views expressed by its Commissioners, and have given my own views when appropriate. It has been and continues to be a productive and professional relationship -- one that is, I believe, faithful to the spirit of the Act.

You have invited me to testify this morning on the Commission's first annual report -- not as a member of the Commission, but as the principal adviser to the President and to the Secretary of State on international religious freedom. I am happy to do so. Let me begin with some comments on each of the three countries on which the Report focused -- Sudan, China and Russia. Because I have recently testified before the Congress on China and Russia, I will allocate a bit more time today to Sudan. I will then conclude with a response to the Commission's critique of the State Department's own Report on International Religious Freedom.

Sudan

Turning to Sudan, we agree with the Report's assessment of the state of religious freedom in that country. The long and tragic civil war has created the context for unconscionable depredations against innocent civilians by the Sudanese Government or its agents. There have also been significant human fights violations by those opposing the Government, although they are not equivalent. The causes of this war and its horrors, of course, are not exclusively religious. There are significant ethnic, political and economic factors as well. But we agree with the Commission's conclusion that religion is a major factor in the crisis, evidenced by the Government's extremist interpretation of Islam, which it imposes on all Sudanese Muslims, and its attempts to impose Shari'a law on the Christians and traditional religionists in the south.

These policies form the context for slave raids by Government-sponsored militias into the south, resulting in the enslavement of thousands of people, including women and children. While, such behavior is not overtly motivated by religious differences, and has economic and ethnic roots, the slave raids have a significant religious dimension. Their victims are almost uniformly Christians and adherents of indigenous religions. Some of the children captured and sold into slavery have been forcibly converted to Islam.

The same can be said for the victims of Government bombings in the Nuba Mountains and the south -- an outrageous and ongoing use of lethal force against Christians, adherents of indigenous religions, and, in this case, Muslims who do not accept the government's interpretation of Islam. I was present at a remarkable meeting in February between the Secretary and Bishop Macram Max Gassis, the heroic Catholic Bishop whose diocese includes the Nuba mountains. Everyone in the room was moved by his description of the 14 children -- "his children," he called them -- who had been killed by aerial bombs just one week before. He told the Secretary that the dead were students in a Catholic school that includes children from Protestant and Muslim families, families adhering to indigenous religions, as well as Catholic families. And from an official of the Sudanese government came the reprehensible announcement that the school was a legitimate military target.

And so, Mr. Chairman, there is little disagreement that a humanitarian crisis of stunning proportions is occurring in Sudan, and that religion plays a significant part. The real issue is how to address the crisis, and what the role of the United States government should be. The Commission has laid out a detailed set of policy recommendations which are being studied by the Department, and which will in due course lead to a more considered reply. As a preliminary matter, however, let me make a few comments. A substantial part of the Commission's recommendations involves what it characterizes as a "comprehensive plan" to bring pressure on the Government of Sudan to change its behavior. It calls for an informational campaign, unilateral economic pressures, and vigorous multilateral and bilateral efforts to increase economic and other pressures on the Government.

We welcome these recommendations -- indeed, I would argue that we are in many ways already implementing them. For example, we agree that the United States should highlight Sudan's continued crimes against humanity wherever and whenever we can. I would note the Secretary's designation in October of Sudan as a "country of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for "particularly severe violations" of religious freedom -- a status it shares with the worst abusers in history. We lobbied for comprehensive and accurate resolutions on Sudan at the UN General Assembly last November, and at this April's UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

I would also note that the United States has had in place since November 1997 comprehensive sanctions on Sudan, denying it virtually every economic advantage except for the sale of food and medicines and the humanitarian aid we provide to the victims of Government violence and neglect. We have worked intensively during the past year to invigorate the peace process led by the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a group of East African countries. These efforts have been led by the President's and Secretary's Special Envoy for Sudan -- Ambassador Harry Johnston -- whose mandate includes reinvigorating the peace process, pressing for human rights improvements, and ensuring the delivery of relief aid to victims of the conflict. We invite the Commission to work with us in finding ways to enhance and improve our implementation of these common objectives.

Let me also respond briefly to some of the Commissions' other recommendations:

  • We agree that we should continue to do all we can to meet the humanitarian needs of the victims of the war. The U.S. provided $159.1 million in humanitarian assistance in FY 1999, and over $1 billion since 1990, far more than any other donor.

  • We agree on the need to continue to provide food and other assistance outside of the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) structure, while still supporting the critical role of OLS. In FY 1999, USAID provided $24 million in food aid and $4.6 million in other emergency assistance through non-OLS NGOs.

  • The Commission's report recommends we provide non-lethal aid to the opposition within 12 months if progress is not made by the Sudanese government on critical human rights issues. I would note that FY 2000 Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Act authorizes, but does not require, the President to provide food assistance to opposition groups engaged in the protection of civilian populations from attacks by Sudanese government forces. The Administration has not made a decision to use the authority under this act at this time, but will continue to consult with Congress on this issue.
China

Let me turn now to China. Here again, I share the Commission's analysis of the status of religious freedom. Like Sudan, China was designated a "country of particular concern" for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. I recently testified on China before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, and gave an extensive analysis of the religious persecution which continues to occur there -- of Tibetan Buddhists, of Catholic and Protestant Christians, and of Uighur Muslims. I need not repeat that testimony here, except to say that it was entirely consistent with the assessment provided by the Commission in its report.

Mr. Chairman, I know that people of good will can, and do, disagree over where our shared analysis of Chinese human rights abuses ought to take U.S. policy. Some believe that it should prevent the establishment of Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or cause us to oppose Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization. The Commission itself -- while noting that the great majority of its members are free traders -- has recommended that the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) be conditioned on human tights improvements in China. I understand and respect this point of view.

However, I must disagree with the Commission. I believe that the setting of conditions on PNTR will not advance the cause of religious freedom in China, and will not improve the circumstances of the religious adherents about whom we are all deeply concerned. This is because conditionality as proposed by the Commission -- and even a vote to reject PNTR -- would provide little more than the appearance of U.S. leverage against the Chinese government. It would not prevent Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO); nor would it deprive China of the economic benefits of WTO membership. What it would do is deprive the U.S. of the full economic benefits of China's market-opening commitments, and severely restrict our ability to influence the course of events in China. It would reduce the role of American companies in bringing higher labor standards to China and in forcing local companies to compete in improving the lives of their workers.

However, with unconditional Congressional approval of PNTR, China will enter the WTO bound by the full range of economic commitments contained in the U.S.-China bilateral trade agreement. These commitments will move China in the direction of openness, accountability, reform, and rule of law, all of which will over the long-term contribute to an improvement in the conditions for religious freedom in China. Failure to approve PNTR would deprive the U.S. of the ability to hold China to all of these commitments. Given China's likely entry into the WTO, it would also put us in conflict with WTO rules, which require immediate and unconditional provision of PNTR for all WTO members.

Despite my disagreement with the Commission on the issue of conditionality, however, I want to repeat that we are one in our common concern about abuses of religious freedom in China, and together remain committed to sustained U.S. Government efforts to promote religious freedom.

Russia

Turning briefly to Russia, let me say that I share the Commission's concern over the continuing fragility of Russia's commitment to freedom of religion. As the Committee knows, a good religion law (passed in 1990) has been replaced by the 1997 law which creates a troublesome hierarchy of distinctions among religious groups. While the potential impact of the law has been mitigated by federal authorities and the Constitutional Court, the opportunities for discrimination against particular religions remain plentiful. And, while the amendment to the law signed by President Putin extended the registration deadline, it also appears to harden the requirement that groups not registered by the deadline be "liquidated." We will of course be watching this issue very closely, and will continue to express our concern to Russian authorities.

I do want to note the encouraging news reports that, for the third time in recent weeks, local courts have ruled that members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have the right to choose civilian service in lieu of military service. This is not only a welcome sign of the proper operation of the Russian Constitution -- which explicitly provides for alternative civilian service -- but it also perhaps reflects a growing acceptance in Russia of religious-based differences.

As a general matter, we agree with Commission recommendations for continued active monitoring of the situation in Russia, and will continue to seek in our reports to give appropriate coverage to the various minority religions in the country. Although we have hosted a number of Russian religious leaders in visits to the United States, and I have met with some of them myself, we agree that we can and should do more. We will study with great interest the other recommendations -- including the promotion of exchanges between Russian legal defenders and their counterparts here, and the encouragement of Russian authorities to extend the length of visas for foreign religious workers wishing to remain in Russia.

The 1999 State Department Report on International Religious Freedom

Let me conclude by offering a brief response to the Commission's assessment of the first annual State Department Report on International Religious Freedom, which was presented to the Congress last September. That report, as the Committee knows, covers 194 countries worldwide, and includes an extensive Executive Summary which is mandated by the IRF Act. It is compiled and edited by the same talented and professional "Reports Office" that does the human rights report, but my office -- the Office of International Religious Freedom -- is responsible for the final product. All of us are, of course, gratified by the Commission's praise of our report, and the judgment that it marks -- as the Commission puts it -- "a sea change" in focusing attention on religious freedom.

The Commission's analysis also makes valuable suggestions for improving the report. They recommend, for example, that we improve the organization of material, prioritize better, and identify more fully where there are gaps in our sources of information. They call for more context and a fuller articulation of our methodology in preparing the reports. Importantly, the Commission recommends the scrupulous avoidance of appearing to favor or disfavor any state or religious tradition over another, and the imputation of particular extremist interpretations of religion to the religion itself.

Let me say that we welcome these and the other recommendations, and we will take them seriously. Our respective staffs have worked closely together over the last several months, and will continue to do so. As the Commission is sympathetically aware, our office is now in the process of doubling its size -- from a staff of three to six religious freedom action officers, plus an office director. In due course, our goal is to have nine action officers -- enough to cover every region, and to pursue some of the many worthy reconciliation projects that warrant our attention. We are presently involved in such efforts in Kosovo, Lebanon and Indonesia, but we could do much, much more. I would also note that, as the Committee is well aware, our Embassy resources in the field are stretched quite thin. At some of our posts, the foreign service officers who report on human rights and religious freedom are also responsible for covering political, economic and security matters. Some of them even have consular and administrative duties as well. Notwithstanding their many responsibilities, I cannot overemphasize the enormous contribution that these fine men and women have made to the success of our report -- sometime even at the risk of their own safety.

With respect to the Commission's recommendations, the ongoing consultations between our staffs have already led to the implementation of some of them. We have, for example, adopted some of their suggestions for the next report, including a greater emphasis on organization and legal context. We endorse the Commission's view that our report -- while lifting high the value of the religious quest itself, and of freedom of conscience -- must not appear to favor or disfavor any religious tradition, country or region. The Commission knows that this has always been, and will remain, one of my highest priorities, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure evenhandedness.

At the end of the day, Mr. Chairman, I conclude that the Commission's Report -- notwithstanding the existence of certain substantive disagreements -- has been a positive one. It has focused further international attention on the state of religious freedom in three critical countries. It has made clear recommendations, many of which can form the basis for further policy discussion. And it is already contributing to the State Department Report on Religious Freedom. On balance, I believe that the Commission is making a substantial contribution to our common goal of promoting religious freedom worldwide.

Those of us who are charged with implementing the International Religious Freedom Act have had some modest but invigorating victories -- some religious prisoners freed, some religious refugees assisted, a few bad laws altered or repealed. But we must take the long view: none of us can claim, nor should we expect, that the millions who suffer for their religious beliefs will have been loosed from their torments 18 months after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, or because of the actions of my office or those of the independent U.S. Commission. But, Mr. Chairman, I believe that we have made a start. Together, we have planted seeds -- seeds of hope and of future action. With God's help, those seeds are taking root and will one day bear fruit. I thank you and this Committee, and the members and staff of the U.S. Commission, for their commitment to the cause of religious freedom, and to the well-being of the human family of which we all are a part.

I would be happy to take your questions.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
05/01/00: Annual Report

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