Former U.S. Senator and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is the State Department’s new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Brownback has an extensive track record of working in a bipartisan manner to promote religious freedom and other human rights for people around the globe. He also possesses more extensive government experience than any other international religious freedom ambassador to date. Indeed, Brownback is unusually qualified to propel religious freedom into the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy.
During his sixteen years as a Congressman and U.S. Senator, Brownback was a leading advocate for international religious freedom. He was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). With his help, the Senate passed the act unanimously. IRFA passed the House with similarly overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The International Religious Freedom Act established a legal mandate for the promotion of religious freedom as an element of U.S. foreign policy. It also created Brownback’s current position in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
A longtime critic of North Korea’s massive human rights violations, including the brutal persecution of people of faith, Brownback was the original Senate sponsor of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. The bipartisan legislation authorized humanitarian assistance for North Korean refugees, many of whom flee religious persecution, and clarified and strengthened their eligibility to seek refugee protections under U.S. law. Five years later, he was one of nine Democrats and eight Republicans who co-sponsored a Senate resolution condemning Iran for “state-sponsored persecution of its Baha’i minority.”
From 2005 to 2007, Senator Brownback served as the Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. agency that monitors compliance with the Helsinki Accords and advances human rights throughout the 57-nation region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Article Seven of the Helsinki Accords guarantees religious freedom. The Helsinki Commission’s current chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, said that in Congress and as chairman of the commission, “Brownback tirelessly fought for the religious freedom and human rights of people of all faiths, at home and abroad—especially those suffering in the gulag of North Korea.”
Ambassador Brownback complemented his work in Congress on religious freedom with signature legislative accomplishments on a host of other critical human rights issues. In 2000, Senator Brownback played a role in bolstering the U.S. response to global human trafficking through his support for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. A key player in ensuring a stronger U.S. response to the genocide in Darfur, Senator Brownback was one of the chief sponsors of the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006. He also helped address critical humanitarian and human rights problems in Africa, exemplified by his leadership with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and others in support of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and his co-sponsorship with Sen. Durbin of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008.
During his confirmation hearing in October, Ambassador Brownback received bipartisan praise for his record as a defender and advocate for religious freedom. Maryland’s Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted his own frequent partnership with Senator Brownback on human rights issues. Cardin lauded Brownback’s leadership of the Helsinki Commission and affirmed his “great record of working across party lines to get things done.”
New religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback has extensive experience working with Democrats and Republicans in Washington to promote religious freedom and other human rights. This should serve as a solid starting point for Brownback's Office of International Religious Freedom to fulfill IRFA's mandate to advance religious freedom as a core element of U.S. foreign policy.