Saperstein Can Connect Religious Freedom and National Security in the State Department

As Rabbi David Saperstein is scheduled to be confirmed as the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF), Cornerstone writers will debate the meaning and influence of the office and the policy he will enact.

By: Tad Stahnke

Religious freedom has been a blind spot in US foreign and national security policy. The State Department, for much of the last 15 years, has ignored the role of advancing religious freedom in order to conduct effective counterterrorism, conflict prevention, and democracy promotion. The need to do so is particularly acute in the national security area. One needs to look no further than the past year’s headlines to see the religious freedom-security connection. Events in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Egypt underscore the urgency of formulating national security policies that promote religious freedom and related human rights as part of a broader strategy to secure US national interests.

Rabbi David Saperstein, if and when confirmed as the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF), has the ability and experience to connect those very important dots. At his Senate confirmation hearing, he said that he would seek to engage “every segment of the State Department and the rest of the US Government, to integrate religious freedom into our nation’s statecraft: counterterrorism, conflict stability efforts, economic development, human rights…” This kind of integration can produce smarter, more effective strategies to advance US interests and reduce human rights violations on the ground.

Though previous ambassadors-at-large may have failed to influence the State Department significantly, Saperstein has long experience and a track record of getting things done in Washington. Indeed, such political acumen has been sorely lacking in the previous holders of the position.

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry need to seize the opportunity to empower Saperstein to bring the international religious freedom and human rights perspectives into key policy debates facing the nation. To allow him to be successful in his role, they need to give Saperstein access to high-level policy discussions and a measure of leadership in those discussions.

Regardless of where the IRF ambassador and the IRF office sit in the State Department bureaucracy, the Secretary of State should ensure that the ambassador has regular and consistent access to him, attends senior level State Department meetings, and is fully integrated into policy discussions on issues of national security and bilateral relations with countries that violate religious freedom.

Saperstein can particularly help in formulating country-specific strategies to integrate the promotion of religious freedom into efforts to confront national security challenges like those in Iraq, Nigeria, Egypt, Burma, and elsewhere. To do so, the administration needs to do the following:

1. The President should issue a clear statement that it is US policy to advance international religious freedom and related human rights as part of the strategy to promote stability in foreign countries and combat terrorism. Such a statement should reflect that advancing the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (including religious pluralism and tolerance, the rights of religious minorities and the freedom of expression, dissent, and debate) is essential to US interests.

2. The President should create a permanent interagency policy committee (IPC) on religion, human rights, and national security co-chaired by a deputy national security advisor and the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The IPC should have the resources and mandate to coordinate international religious freedom policy across the administration as it relates to national security issues. This will help to integrate the IRF ambassador into work on national security, conflict prevention and mitigation, counterterrorism, countering violent extremism, and democracy promotion.

3. The secretary of state should instruct the under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights to create an integrated unit within the “J” family of bureaus that can be deployed into the field to assess the risk of systematic violence targeting religious communities or other severe abuses of religious freedom and make recommendations on confronting the situation in a coordinated fashion. They should utilize existing tools of diplomacy and assistance—in particular those under the control of the Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO); Counterterrorism (CT); International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL); Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL); and Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) Bureaus to promote civilian security, rights-respecting counterterrorism, law enforcement reform, protection of human rights and religious freedom, atrocity prevention, protection of vulnerable populations and the displaced, and women and girls.

4. The secretary of state should require training in international religious freedom, the religious dimensions of US national security challenges, and engagement with religious leaders as mandatory for ambassadors and deputy chiefs of mission.

As the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Saperstein could change the conversation on religious freedom and national security at the State Department. The tools are available to formulate an effective security and counterterrorism strategy that integrates religious freedom as an essential element—the administration needs to implement them.

Tad Stahnke is currently the vice president of research & analysis at Human Rights First.

This piece was originally authored on November 12, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

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