Opening Remarks of the United States, Fifth Meeting of the Istanbul Process for Promoting Implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on Combating Religious Intolerance, Discrimination, and Violence

Arsalan Suleman
Acting U.S. Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation 
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
June 3, 2015

Your Excellency OIC Secretary General Iyad Madani, Honorable Ambassadors, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Assalamualaikum.

On behalf of Secretary of State John Kerry, we thank Secretary General Madani and the OIC for hosting the fifth meeting of the Istanbul Process for promoting implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18.

Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein and I are honored to be representing the United States at this meeting, and we look forward to our discussions over the next two days. Ambassador Saperstein will be joining us this afternoon due to some travel delays.

This meeting comes at a critical time. We are all sadly familiar with the challenges we face in terms of violence, discrimination, and intolerance on the basis of religion or belief. In many parts of the world, religious minorities, including Christian, Shia, Sunni, Yezidi, Ahmedi, and Bahai communities, are facing discrimination and violence at the hands of state and non-state actors.

There is an urgent need to enhance global efforts to protect the rights of minorities, including religious minorities. In some cases, like for the Burmese Rohingya population, discrimination has reached such proportions that it has led to a regional humanitarian emergency. Non-state attacks against members of religious communities are also an urgent challenge. In April, for example, we were appalled by the murders of Christians in Libya and Kenya by terrorist groups.

We were shocked and saddened by the deplorable bombings in the past weeks of a mosque in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, where at least 21 people died and over 80 were injured, and the attempted attack on a mosque in Dammam, which killed four people. We condemn such deplorable, criminal acts and express our condolences to the families of the victims and the people of Saudi Arabia. Sadly, these are just the latest in a succession of actions seeking to foment sectarian tensions. Such terrorist acts, as well as divisive sectarian rhetoric, seek to tear societies apart.

We are also faced with intolerance and societal discrimination against members of religious communities in various parts of the world, including for Muslim communities in Europe and the United States. We have seen provocative demonstrations and efforts seeking to target such communities, and sadly we have also seen isolated incidents in which individual criminals have engaged in terrorist violence purportedly in response to certain forms of peaceful expression.

Effective implementation of Resolution 16/18 by governments can help address many of the challenges relating to religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. Resolution 16/18 is a comprehensive action plan -- it explicitly defines the shared values and commitments that serve as our foundation and guiding principles when dealing with religious intolerance. The resolution acknowledges that there is no justification for violence in response to peaceful expression.

It calls on governments to foster religious freedom and pluralism, to protect places of worship, to enforce anti-discrimination laws, to engage with members of religious communities, and to promote conflict resolution. It also encourages leaders in government and civil society to speak out against religious intolerance and to form collaborative networks to address these challenges.

The blueprint is clear and has the consensus of the international community. As the purpose of this gathering indicates, we must focus our attention on implementation. This discussion is both timely and necessary.

We must reaffirm our core values and strengthen political and civil rights protections for the members of all our communities, including members of religious and ethnic minority groups. Reaffirming our commitment to human rights will prevent the political marginalization that can drive members of vulnerable communities toward violent extremists. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and respecting religions and religious beliefs of others are critical to promoting peace and understanding worldwide.

President Obama and his Administration are wholly invested in this approach worldwide, and we are working with partners, including all of you, to promote peace and stability in the region and around the world.

Though the challenges are daunting, we’ve seen recent examples of how governments have responded to terrible tragedies in ways that further the values enshrined in Resolution 16/18. In Afghanistan, a young woman named Farkhunda was brutally killed by a mob following false allegations of blasphemy. On May 6, after an investigation and prosecution, an Afghan judge sentenced four of the individuals involved in the violence to death, with other participants receiving prison terms for their participation. Although we have concerns regarding due process, we welcome the Afghan justice system addressing the mob lynching of Ms. Farkhunda. In Pakistan, a mob beat, killed, and burned the bodies of a Christian couple, also on allegations of blasphemy. And on May 21, an anti-terrorism court charged 106 individuals involved with the crime.

As demonstrated in these cases, the appropriate way for governments to respond to such injustices is to take the necessary steps to ensure that perpetrators of violence are held accountable, and that there is no impunity for such crimes. Governments must act quickly, but they must also ensure that defendants are afforded due process and fair trial guarantees. That is the true essence of 16/18.

As to the way forward, it is important for us to continue having experts-focused meetings to discuss best practices for implementing each step of Resolution 16/18. Governments should then follow through and implement the experts' findings and recommendations as appropriate. And that implementation should focus on all aspects of the comprehensive action plan, not just one prong.

We encourage greater and more effective state reporting on implementation activity. Civil society can play a important role in promoting and monitoring implementation, as well as contributing to implementation directly as appropriate. For example, the Universal Rights Group's recent study on 16/18 implementation has provided useful analysis on the lack of reporting and gaps in implementation.

As we will discuss in further detail during the meeting, the United States has partnered with other states, namely Bosnia, Indonesia, and Greece, on workshops to discuss practical approaches to implementation. These technical engagements have focused in particular on best practices for promoting engagement with minority religious communities and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. We welcome the opportunity to work with others on such workshops as a cooperative way to promote implementation of Resolution 16/18.

In closing, I'd like to thank the OIC and all participating countries and organizations for their commitment to this dialogue and to have this renewed focus on implementation. This gathering in itself is an achievement. Let us make the most of our collective experiences, expertise, and passion to realizing the full potential of Resolution 16/18 and all the key principles therein that we all value deeply.