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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal John Shattuck
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Statement on H.R. 1685, "Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997"
Before the House International Relations Committee
Washington, DC, September 9, 1997

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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this hearing. Mr. Chairman, under your leadership this committee has cast a strong spotlight on human rights. Last February, as you began your work in the 105th Congress, you opened the session with hearings on religious persecution, and throughout the year you have focused attention on human rights problems around the world. I and my colleagues in the Administration have been privileged to work closely with you.
Mr. Chairman, the issue of religious freedom is a high priority for this Administration, at home and abroad. We share your deep interest in engaging the United States in a global effort to prevent religious persecution. The United States government plays a leading role around the world in upholding the principle that the freedom of religion, conscience, and belief is an inalienable and fundamental human right. And we agree with you that more needs to be done.
President Clinton declared in his proclamation of Religious Freedom Day on January 16, 1997 that: "America's commitment to religious tolerance has empowered us to achieve an atmosphere of understanding, trust, and respect in a society of diverse cultures and religious traditions. And today, much of the world still looks to the United States as the champion of religious liberty."
Freedom of religion is a bedrock issue for the American people and its government. Indeed, the United States was founded in large part by people who fled religious persecution and intolerance. They carried a craving for religious freedom with them when they crossed the Atlantic and inscribed it into their laws and charters. Our country's founders were sensitive to the need to protect religious freedom, placing the right to religious liberty in a preeminent place in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Religious freedom is not only an American value; it is also a universally recognized human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many international human rights treaties grant all citizens of the world the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right is inherent in the dignity of every human being; no government can justifiably deny it, for it is universal, inalienable, and endowed by virtue of birth. Religious liberty also means free speech, and freedom of assembly and association.
Sadly, as we come to the end of the 20th century, a century plagued by gross human rights abuses, people of every faith -- including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Baha'is and many others -- in many parts of the world face serious discrimination, restrictions, and sometimes severe persecution for practicing their faith. This is a grave problem and we are committed to addressing it.
Secretary Albright has stated that: "Our commitment to religious liberty is even more than the expression of American ideals: it is a fundamental source of our strength in the world. We simply could not lead without it. We would be naive to think that we could advance our interests without it."
The President and Secretary Albright have made clear that advancing religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and I would like now to set out what we are doing to implement this commitment. They have instructed all United States agencies and embassies to treat the issue as a priority and are insisting that it be integrated into the core of our foreign policy. The President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, our Ambassadors, and other U.S. Government officials at all levels have all raised specific cases and policies of persecution in countless meetings with foreign leaders and their representatives.
In addition, Secretary Albright in a series of unprecedented worldwide cables has instructed all U.S. diplomatic posts to give greater attention to religious freedom both in their reporting and in their advocacy. In practical terms, this means that the Secretary of State is telling State Department employees and foreign governments alike that religious liberty is a key component of our human rights policy. The State Department reports publicly on religious persecution in our annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which provides information on 194 countries and territories, with specific sections on religious liberty, which have been expanded by this Administration to include greater detail on religious persecution. This year we issued an additional, unprecedented report on "U.S. Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians," which details recent U.S. Government actions taken on behalf of persecuted Christians and followers of other faiths around the world.
The President, the Vice President and Secretary Albright have met frequently with eminent religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II. Last year, the President and the Secretary created the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, composed of distinguished religious, academic, and advocacy leaders. The Committee and its subgroups have held extensive hearings and meetings on both religious persecution and religious reconciliation and are now preparing policy recommendations to the President and the Secretary. These initiatives indicate the growing importance of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, and unprecedented cooperation between our government and religious institutions in promoting religious freedom, conflict resolution, and respect for human rights around the world.
We have used multilateral fora to speak forcefully and shape international policy in support of religious freedom and in opposition to violations. Promotion of religious freedom was a central element of our efforts at the 1997 United Nations Human Rights Commission. The United States Delegation delivered a strong statement on religious liberty, citing country specific examples of the persecution of specific religious groups. We also helped negotiate adoption of a resolution against religious intolerance and discrimination, and we continued firm support for the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance while extending an invitation for the Rapporteur to visit the United States next year. At conferences of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe we have stepped up our advocacy for religious freedom, delivering public statements that challenge governments in the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union to uphold international standards and confronting them on cases of concern.
Through our foreign assistance budget the U.S. Government is sponsoring and funding programs to promote religious liberty and tolerance. For example, the United States Information Service has initiated an International Visitors Program to bring clerics, journalists, politicians and academics to the United States for discussions on "Religion in America," where they meet with American Christians, Muslims, Jews and ecumenical groups to promote religious tolerance. The Administration has also strongly supported religious reconciliation and interfaith cooperation in countries torn by conflict. Consistent United States leadership has been critical to maintaining the peace processes despite constant setbacks in the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. Through the Voice of America, we broadcast editorials to promote religious freedom.
We also recognize the important role of the private sector and are promoting Model Business Principles among U.S. businesses to underscore that human rights and religious freedom, on the one hand, and economic development on the other, are complementary, not contradictory, and that a good human rights environment supports and promotes a good business environment. This year, we gave the first annual Best Global Practices Award to John Kamm, President of Asia Pacific Resources, for efforts to obtain the release of individuals detained and imprisoned by Chinese authorities for exercising their right to free expression and freedom of religion.
And of course, we recognize and applaud the critical efforts of so many religious groups in shining a spotlight on abuses wherever they occur. These groups are invaluable partners in our effort to focus world attention on the issue of religious freedom.
Our strong commitment to religious liberty is reflected also in our asylum initiatives. In 1994, for example, President Clinton directed that the United States would grant special consideration to those fleeing coercive family planning, and in 1996 he endorsed immigration legislation codifying this approach. Religious persecution also plays a role in refugee admissions, particularly under the Lautenberg Amendment.
In short, we are treating religious liberty as a foreign policy priority and we seek to respond to the call for action by Americans of every faith and belief.
With that important background, let me now turn to the "Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997."
In summary, the Administration strongly supports the objectives of eliminating religious persecution, but we do not believe that the bill in its current form would accomplish this goal. In fact, we believe that the current draft would frustrate these and other objectives, and, for this reason, we oppose the legislation in its current form.
In particular, we fear that the legislation:
-- Is a blunt instrument that is more likely to harm, rather than aid, victims of religious persecution;
-- Runs the risk of harming vital bilateral relations with key allies and regional powers, and undercutting U.S. Government efforts to promote the very regional peace and reconciliation that can foster religious tolerance and understanding from Europe to the Middle East to South Asia.
-- Creates a confusing bureaucratic structure for dealing with religious persecution at the very time the Department of State is consolidating its authority and expanding its effectiveness on these issues; and
-- Establishes a de facto hierarchy of human rights violations that would severely damage U.S. efforts -- long supported by the religious community -- to ensure that all aspects of civil and political rights are protected.
Before I detail these and other serious concerns, let me again emphasize our willingness to work with members in fashioning workable responses -- legislative and otherwise -- to religious persecution, wherever it occurs.
In particular, we are committed to strengthening and improving our new structures for addressing religious freedom and persecution in our foreign policy. We are prepared for serious discussions with the Committee about ways to reinforce these structures, including by the development of legislation to further enhance our efforts to promote religious freedom, such as by:
-- Further increasing the visibility of this issue in the U.S. Government, undertaking official fact-finding and monitoring missions, and dedicating additional agency personnel to address religious persecution and complement the efforts of the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad;
-- Acting to insure that U.S. laws that involve human rights take explicit account of religious persecution;
-- Initiating periodic public reporting on religious freedom issues in general, and increasing U.S. Embassy reporting and action on cases and situations involving religious persecution; and
-- Supporting measures to improve immigration and refugee processing consideration of applicants fleeing religious persecution.
Let me set forth in more detail the basis for our concerns about H.R. 1685. First, and most importantly from our perspective, the bill could seriously harm the very people it seeks to help -- those facing religious persecution. It runs the risk of strengthening the hands of governments and extremists who seek to incite religious intolerance.
In particular, we fear reprisals by repressive governments against victims, as well as an end to any dialogue on religious freedom, in retaliation for the sanctions that the bill would automatically impose.
The provision that sanctions governments for failure to take adequate action against private acts of persecution is also troubling. Many governments that fail to combat societal religious persecution are simply too unstable or too weak to control extremists, insurgents, terrorists and those inciting societal religious persecution. Imposing punitive sanctions on weak governments would only play into the hands of those elements in society that are perpetrating religious persecution. To deal effectively with societal religious persecution, our laws must allow us to help these weak transitional governments check extremist forces and protect victims from further persecution.
The bill would mandate a wide variety of sanctions against governments that engage in officially-sponsored religious persecution or that fail to combat societal religious persecution. Because our laws and policies already give significant weight to human rights, the United States provides little direct assistance to such governments. The imposition of automatic sanctions, therefore, would have little effect on government-sponsored religious persecution in most countries, but would make a productive human rights dialogue with sanctioned governments far more difficult or even impossible. The bill also runs the risk of harming vital bilateral relations with key allies and regional powers.
Second, the bill would create a de facto hierarchy of human rights violations under U.S. law that would severely damage our efforts to ensure that all aspects of basic civil and political rights, including religious freedom, are protected. It would differentiate between acts motivated by religious discrimination and similar acts based on other forms of repression or bias, such as denial of political freedom, or racial or ethnic hatred. In doing so, the bill would legislate a hierarchy of human rights into our laws. Certain deplorable acts would result in automatic sanctions when connected to religion, but not in other cases. As a consequence, our ability to promote the full range of basic rights and fundamental freedoms would be compromised.
Some governments and their apologists are now engaged themselves in an insidious campaign to devalue human rights by creating their own hierarchy, arguing that respect for economic rights should be preeminent. Those advancing this argument have often sought to justify a government's failure to respect civil and political rights (such as freedom of expression, assembly and association) by claiming that economic development must precede respect for civil and political rights. The United States has long resisted these attempts to create a hierarchy of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. We should not yield to the temptation to do so now.
Third, the bill would provide no flexibility to tailor our religious freedom policies to differing circumstances in different countries. Following a finding of persecution by the Director of Religious Persecution Monitoring, sanctions would be automatic. The mechanics of imposition appear designed to make sanctions more likely to be imposed, cumbersome to waive and difficult to terminate. Their effectiveness as a means of influencing policy would be sharply limited as a consequence. The provisions of the bill, that authorize the President to waive sanctions for periods up to one year, require the President to determine that such a waiver is in the "national security interests of the United States." This stringent standard would appear to shut the door on any consideration of U.S. foreign and domestic policy interests that do not rise to the level of a direct threat to our national security (e.g., regional peacemaking and stability, environmental protection). Under the bill, in addition, a presidential waiver would not take effect for forty-five days, absent emergency conditions. Affording the President such limited discretion in the area of foreign affairs is contrary to the national interest and is constitutionally suspect.
Fourth, the bill would create a new and unnecessary bureaucracy which would duplicate, and possibly undercut, the functions of the Secretary of State by the creation of an "Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring" within the Executive Office of the President. Creating the position of Director of this office, who would be subject to Senate confirmation, would duplicate existing State Department functions, including promoting religious freedom. The Secretary of State is best situated to report and advise the President on religious persecution abroad. The State Department's reporting channels and annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices represent the most accurate, cost-effective and appropriate method for the U.S. Government to obtain and report information on religious persecution. Determinations that affect fundamental aspects of our foreign policy, including those regarding sanctions, should be made by the President with the assistance of the Secretary of State and other relevant Department heads, not by the Director of a new specialized office on religious freedom which has no other foreign affairs expertise or responsibility.
Fifth, the proposed administrative structure in the bill in reality would marginalize religious freedom rather than "mainstreaming" religious freedom and other human rights issues in our foreign policy. The Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad represents a significant example of mainstreaming. The Advisory Committee reports to the Secretary of State, and through her to the President and other parts of our government. Enhancing existing structures would represent the most effective way to ensure the prominence of religious freedom in our foreign policy. We would be pleased to work with the Congress to accomplish that.
Sixth, the bill would impose several new obligations that would have significant financial implications, without providing any indication of how these mandates would be carried out without new resources. These requirements affect not only the State Department, but also Commerce and the INS. Speaking for my own bureau, I can tell you that additional unfunded mandates require diversions of resources from what we are doing in other areas to promote human rights.
Seventh, the bill would pose the risk of challenge as being inconsistent with our international legal obligations, including through the WTO agreement and under other trade laws. The bill poses a similar risk with respect to international obligations contained in the Articles of Agreement of most international financial institutions in which the U.S. participates.
Eighth, while we welcome and share the sponsors' concerns about fairness in asylum adjudications, the bill's proposed changes to asylum procedures would create troubling disparities and threaten to unravel many recent improvements. For example, for persons making asylum claims based on religious persecution in the context of expedited procedures at ports of entry, the bill would create effective presumptions that ease evidentiary burdens and that are not available to others fleeing persecution. Let me be clear: We support procedural protections for all applicants at ports of entry. In fact, before passage of last year's immigration bill, we urged that expedited procedures apply only in exceptional, emergency-like circumstances, but Congress determined that such procedures should be applied more broadly. While we are prepared to readdress this issue, we hope that Members can appreciate our desire to do so with respect to all classes of applicants. Furthermore, we are deeply concerned that changes the bill would make to regular, affirmative asylum procedures (claims made by those already in the country) would recreate unnecessary burdens and inefficiencies that made asylum vulnerable to abuse in the past. We fear that such changes would hurt all legitimate asylum seekers, including those making claims based on religious persecution.
Ninth, the bill contains numerous sanctions specific to Sudan. The United States, of course, already has in place sanctions against the Sudanese Government as a result of its support for international terrorism. The Administration nevertheless remains willing to consider a reasonable and workable expansion of our Sudan sanctions to reflect the lack of Sudanese Government actions on issues of concern: state sponsorship of terrorism; support for aggressive actions against its neighbors; failure to come to terms with the opposition in the longstanding civil war; and an abysmal human rights record, including violations of religious freedom. We value the opportunity to continue discussions on this subject with Members in connection with the State Department authorization bill. For that reason, continued inclusion of Sudan sanctions in this bill would seem both unnecessary and counterproductive.
Having highlighted our concerns with some of the provisions of this bill, let me conclude by repeating that we welcome the opportunity to work with this committee and the rest of the Congress to fashion appropriate legislation that will underscore and strengthen the commitment of the United States to promote religious freedom. The President and the Secretary of State have made it crystal clear that this issue is now a foreign policy priority. In the endless battle for freedom, we do not claim that we have all the answers. Nor can we assert that the United States alone has the power to bring about an end to all religious persecution abroad. What we can and must proclaim, however, is that we are committed to making the effort, and to working in the most effective way to combat the persecution now victimizing so many people of faith around the world.
[end of document]

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