US to Host Meeting on Istanbul Process for Combating Discrimination on Basis of Religion or Belief
Suzan Johnson Cook is the Ambassador At Large for International Religious Freedom.
Next week the State Department will host a gathering of law enforcement and justice officials representing approximately 30 foreign governments and international organizations united around the shared goal of combating intolerance, discrimination, and violence on the basis of religion or belief.
For more than a decade, the international community has been engaged in a polarized debate over how best to combat religious intolerance. The United States has championed a call for governments to do the kinds of things we do domestically to address acts of intolerance that are also in line with respect for universal human rights, such as prohibiting discrimination against individuals based on religion or belief, training officials to avoid discrimination in their official duties, putting enforcement mechanisms in place, and engaging with members of religious communities. Others have pressed for governments to ban expression that might be considered insulting or “defamatory” toward religions or their believers. The United States has consistently opposed -- and continues to oppose -- this approach, and UN resolutions endorsing this "defamation of religions" approach, because it would be contrary to the principle of free speech, put governments in control of religious expression, and exacerbate religious intolerance.
In March 2011, Resolution 16/18 was adopted by consensus in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, securing an international consensus around our action-oriented approach to combat religious intolerance that protects freedoms of speech and religion. Additionally, last month a similar resolution was adopted in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York, solidifying this global consensus. The global support for this resolution marks a major departure from the "defamation of religions" resolutions, and our meeting here next week is an effort to cement that consensus and focus governments' attention on the best ways to implement the carefully defined actions called for in Resolution 16/18. Our goal is to work with governments to translate this consensus into real world action to ameliorate the serious challenges of intolerance, discrimination, and violence that members of various religious groups face around the world.
Accordingly, to ensure an action oriented meeting with a substantive focus on implementation, the United States has invited foreign government officials with responsibilities comparable to those at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to discuss best practices for two of the recommended actions from resolution 16/18: engagement with members of minority religious communities and enforcement of laws that prohibit acts of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. Representatives from approximately thirty countries have been invited to attend, in addition to participants from various international organizations such as the European Union, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Organization of American States, ASEAN, the Arab League, and the African Union.
Subsequent to the meeting, the State Department will issue a report outlining a set of best practices identified during these sessions to be submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and for public distribution. We expect that this meeting will be the first in a series of such "Istanbul Process" meetings that will help direct efforts and resources towards implementing real and effective measures against intolerance, discrimination, and violence based on religion or belief, as specifically delineated in Resolution 16/18, which are fully consistent with freedom of expression.
This is an opportunity for the international community to have a meaningful, positive impact on a problem that has concerned so many for so long. I am excited for a productive meeting and hope that you all will join our efforts on these grave and challenging issues. You can join me for a webchat at here Wednesday, December 14 at 7:45 EST to discuss these issues as well as the progress of our meeting.