Remarks at the Washington Conference on Threats to Religious and Ethnic Minorities Under ISIL
Deputy Secretary of State
DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, good morning and thank you all very, very much. Welcome to Washington, welcome to the State Department. It is a privilege to have all of you here with us today. I especially want to thank Ambassador Saperstein. David, thank you not just for today, but for every day and your leadership of this extraordinarily important effort. To you, to Knox Thames for your work, for your entire team, we’re grateful. Their laser focus on international religious freedom helps ensure that this essential right, which has done so much to renew and strengthen the vitality of our own nation, is defended and championed everywhere, but especially – especially – where it is under threat.
This conference today is a concrete expression of that concern for the future of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria for whom the last three years have been a living nightmare, a daily fight under the genocidal regime of Daesh, for their survival, for their way of life, their very existence, and that of centuries of religious traditions and cultural heritage.
We gather today at a moment of great urgency and great consequence, a moment when we can clearly look forward to the day when Daesh is finally defeated, driven from Iraq and Syria, but also a day when we have to think about preparing ourselves for the immense challenges that will follow its defeat. As Secretary Kerry said last week, momentum in the fight to defeat Daesh has shifted and shifted dramatically thanks to a coalition of 65 partners from every corner of the world, including all of the governments that you represent today.
This comprehensive campaign is systematically cutting off Daesh’s financing, denying its sanctuaries, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, combating its narrative on social media, liberating communities, allowing citizens to return home, and gutting the twisted foundation on which Daesh’s global ambitions rest.
We’ve eliminated tens of thousands of fighters and hundreds of senior leaders. We’ve destroyed thousands of pieces of equipment and weapons. We’ve deprived Daesh of 20 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria and 50 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, including most of Sinjar, home to so many Yezidis.
Now, we know that the fight to defeat Daesh on the ground in Iraq and in Syria is not over. There is a lot of work to be done, cities to be liberated, millions of people still to be freed. There are Daesh leaders to hunt down, illicit networks of oil, antiquities, and foreign fighters to stop.
In Syria, Daesh still remains a primary beneficiary of a devastating civil war brought on by a dictator against his own people. That’s why 36 hours a day Secretary of State Kerry is working for a settlement in Syria that will give its people viable choices other than to support Assad for fear of terrorists, or terrorists for fear of Assad. And as Secretary Kerry does so, we continue around the clock to preserve and extend the cessation of hostilities, to get food and medicine to every single citizen in Syria who needs it.
As the noose around Daesh closes, we’ve seen them try to adapt by encouraging indiscriminate attacks in as many places as possible: a market in Baghdad, a nightclub in Orlando, a promenade in Nice, a cafe in Dhaka, a square in central Istanbul. Moreover, the fight to hold ground, to rebuild cities, to restore services, to clear schools and clinics of IEDs, to care for displaced children, to help families return home, to hold Daesh accountable, to provide genuine security, to re-establish the rule of law. In other words, the fight to provide the basic needs of a nation and prevent the emergence of Daesh 2.0 – that ultimate fight is only just beginning.
As Iraqi forces prepare for the greatest battle against Daesh yet – the liberation of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh plains – these twin responsibilities – military victory but also inclusive political and economic progress – must proceed together in lockstep.
Last week, over 30 countries met here at the State Department to pledge over $2 billion in assistance for this essential task. It’s going to be this work – the backbreaking, painstaking work of stabilization, reconciliation, and governance – that will ensure that Daesh, once defeated, stays defeated.
The fight to take Mosul back will mark the liberation of Iraq’s second-largest city, an enormous feat of coordination, of planning, of resources, and commitment in order to effectively drive out an enemy and care for hundreds of thousands of people newly displaced.
But it’s also going to mark something else – a moment that may determine not only the fate of more than 2 million Iraqis, but the future of all of Iraq.
A rich cultural, religious, and social mosaic, Mosul holds a unique and important place in the history and identity of the modern state of Iraq. For thousands of years, under countless regimes and through successive conflicts, Christians, Yezidis, Turkoman, Sunni, Shabak, Kurds, Shia, all – all have made this ancient city their home.
When Daesh overran the region in 2014, we watched in horror as they targeted minority communities with the intent to destroy them, to enslave their young women and girls, to murder their men and older women. In Mosul, Sinjar, Amerli, Daesh killed Christians because they were Christian; Yezidis because they were Yezidi; Shia Muslims because they are Shia.
Indeed, it was the enormous risk to tens of thousands of Yezidis – men, women, children – trapped on Mount Sinjar that prompted us to launch airstrikes in August 2014 to break that siege. Without our intervention, it was clear many more would have been slaughtered.
Daesh has not only killed, they’ve sought to erase the identity of those that they’ve killed – to supplant centuries of culture and history with their own ideology of nihilism and murder.
Church bells that had rung in Mosul for more than 1,600 years went silent. The Tomb of Jonah, in Mosul, was bombed. Shia shrines and mosques in Tal Afar were destroyed. In Dair Mar Elia – Saint Elijah’s Monastery, the oldest in Iraq, was reduced to rubble on the plains of Nineveh.
It was in this region – the cradle of civilization – that the roots of humankind first came together, roots that bind us not only to our ancestors, but to each other. The heritage of Iraq represents so much more than just physical antiquities, important as they are. Iraq’s heritage is also the cultural infrastructure of pluralism and diversity.
Today, intense violence and terror has so badly frayed these roots that there is a real risk that minority communities that lived and survived and even thrived together for centuries will vanish entirely from the region, tearing apart whatever remains of the social fabric of Iraq. Fragile, beleaguered, widely displaced, these communities do not want to leave their homelands in Iraq, but without concrete steps to address the needs and aspirations of all Iraqis, simmering ethno-sectarian divisions may erupt, competing agendas may distract from progress, and old, heated questions of disputed internal boundaries may re-emerge with a vengeance.
As Iraqi and coalition forces plan for the liberation of Mosul, the challenge of protecting the nation’s minority communities will become intrinsically linked and tied with charting the nation’s political future. In other words, as important, as vital, as critical it is to defeat Daesh on the ground, to liberate communities, to allow people to come home, unless there is a fundamental political accommodation in which all of Iraq’s communities believe they have a future in Iraq, then the conditions that helped give rise to Daesh in the first place will still be there and we will be at risk of Daesh 2.0. For Iraq’s future, for the future of the region, indeed for the future of the civilized world, we cannot allow that to happen, you cannot allow that to happen.
All Iraqis – be they Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christian, or any other – have to be convinced that the state that they’ve been asked to fight for, the state they’ve been asked to remain a part of, will stand up for their rights and their equities, that they can advance their interests more effectively as citizens of a united Iraq than as supplicants of other regional powers or members of isolated competitive blocs in a fractured and weakened state.
Now, none of us – none of us are blind to the incredible challenges of this vision. Years of polarizing leadership in Iraq have not made credible, effective political reform easy. Yet Prime Minister Abadi has taken steps in the right direction, laying the foundation for national reconciliation and decentralization as a means of giving different ethnic and religious groups growing autonomy, growing control over their own affairs and their resources. After decades of dictatorship, all ethnicities and religions need to feel that they are represented by the nation that they call home.
Ultimately, only the people of Iraq can make this future possible. Only the people of Iraq can establish the lasting and inclusive political order that prevents the re-emergence of the conditions that helped produce Daesh in the first place.
Our role, the role of each of us in this room, the role of the governments that we represent, is to provide the support that Iraq needs in order to give this future a genuine chance to meet Iraq’s critical needs, to provide technical expertise, to help create the space for Iraq to make tough and important decisions about its own future.
That’s why we’re working closely with local authorities to address the immediate needs of liberated populations, to clear roads of mines and rubble, to turn the water and lights on, to reopen bakeries, to rebuild bridges, to get teachers back to work and kids back to school. UNDP’s funding facilities for immediate and expanded stabilization provide the most effective channel for countries and private donors to contribute to this urgent need.
At the same time, we continue to help Baghdad ensure that its security forces and institutions reflect the diversity of the country. Security formations organized from Iraq’s religious minority communities, including from Shabak, Yezidi, and Christian communities that are incorporated into this, be it Peshmerga or Iraqi Security Forces, serve as the future local security forces and police that minority groups will look to in order to feel safe and secure.
We’re also funding the investigation of mass graves, providing support for victims of gender-based violence, establishing protocols and a repository that collects, organizes, preserves, and analyzes the documentation of atrocities. This evidence, so bravely collected, so courageously shared, will help to see that one day, justice is served.
And we’re supporting Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to make real the hope of decentralization, to give all communities, including minorities, a genuine stake in a unified Iraq. These efforts have already showed great promise in Anbar, in Salah al-Din, where the prime minister has empowered governors to lead planning for stabilization and eventual reconstruction of Ramadi and Tikrit.
Finally, in parallel with the Iraqi Government’s formal efforts to empower its minority communities, by decentralizing power down to the provincial level, we also need to find ways to support the long-term repair and rebuilding of social ties, intercommunal relations, basic trust among neighborhoods ravaged by violence.
The events of recent years have stressed, if not broken, the social fabric of Iraq. It’s stretched certainly to the breaking point, if it hasn’t broken, resulting in fear, distrust, enmity between communities who, until recently, lived together in peace. Alongside steps to address the basic quality of life challenges that are so often the source of social tension, corruption, access to basic services, employment, we must also facilitate channels of dialogue, communication, and trust among the communities within Iraq’s civil society. Without these efforts, there will be an iron ceiling on what Iraq can achieve and the guarantee of security that it can provide.
So we come together at a time of extraordinary import and challenge, but also a time when some around the world seem to be suddenly debating the value proposition of diversity and inclusion. We see it in the desire of populations to turn inward and to pull up the drawbridge so that their neighbors and the rest of the world somehow can’t get in. We hear it in the calls to build walls and turn away families seeking refuge from war.
Yet those who seek to find fault or danger in our differences misjudge an essential and universal truth about humankind: tolerance, respect, inclusion – these are not sources of weakness. These are not sources of vulnerability or insecurity. To the contrary, they constitute our greatest reservoir of strength and stability.
The United States, as all of you know, is not immune to these debates. Sometimes we too slip from our pursuit of what we call a more perfect union. But we’ve always thrived when we find our way back to our own North Star, when we cherish and protect the rich diversity of our nation while honoring our common humanity.
Fifty or a hundred years ago, if you asked the experts what constitutes the wealth of a nation, how do you define it, I think the answer you’d get would be some combination of, well, it’s the size of the country, its population, its landmass, its abundance of natural resources, the strength of its military – and of course, all of these things still matter greatly. We in the United States are blessed with many of them.
But what we know – what we know now is that in the 21st century, the true wealth of a nation is defined by its human resources and by the ability of a country to maximize their potential, to allow them to build, to invent, to create, to excel. Countries that unleash that potential, no matter where they are on those other definitions of wealth, countries that invest in the health, in the prosperity, in the security, in the diversity of their societies will thrive in the 21st century.
That is the wealth of nations today. That is the future. And with your assistance, we can help Iraqis make possible that future for their communities, for their country. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)