Promoting Religious Freedom During #UNGA

During this month’s opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), world leaders, diplomats, and civil society representatives will gather in New York to debate and discuss many important global issues. Among those issues is protecting religious freedom. Last week, I participated in two events here in New York to demonstrate the importance of this topic to the United States and the international community.

On September 17, I co-hosted a roundtable with Religions for Peace on the intersection between women and religious freedom. Joined by civil society and religious leaders from around the world, I led a discussion on the connection between protection of freedom of religion, respect for women’s rights, and how advancing women’s rights can help expand women’s roles in peacebuilding and promoting tolerance. The latter was particularly relevant this year, as we mark the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and stresses the importance of their equal participation in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security. 

Ambassador Saperstein addresses Religions for Peace event focused on the intersection between women and religious freedom, on September 17, 2015, in New York, NY [State Department Photo]

During the roundtable discussion, the group, which represented diverse faith backgrounds, examined laws and regulations from around the world that restrict women’s choices relating to education, worship, dress, and marital status. We heard first-hand accounts from groups and individuals detailing examples of how religion can be distorted to justify gender-based violence (including rape), forced marriages, and so-called “honor killings.” But it wasn’t all bad news. The critical role women play in countries affected by war, violence, and insecurity was highlighted throughout the discussion. In Liberia, for example, Christian and Muslim women joined forces to demand a resolution to the country’s violent civil war by barricading the site of stalled peace talks. And in Syria, women leaders have come together across sectarian lines to negotiate ceasefires, work for humanitarian access, and try to build peace in the most dangerous of circumstances. 

This roundtable served as a powerful platform for the narratives of women taking the initiative to promote religious freedom by engaging both government authorities and religious leaders. Participants urged that governments who ostensibly champion international religious freedom ensure that those values are fully reflected in their domestic contexts, where many members of religious minorities face significant challenges – a point on which the United States strongly agrees. The international community can and should play a larger role in amplifying the female voices of faith that are at the forefront of promoting religious freedom. 

While in New York, I also participated in a panel discussion on multinational efforts to promote religious freedom hosted by the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which brought together parliamentarians from around the world to discuss how to best coordinate efforts to promote religious freedom globally. One of the driving forces in the creation of this enterprise was Knox Thames, who has just been appointed as Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia.

Ambassador Saperstein addresses International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief panel  on multinational efforts to promote religious freedom on September 18, 2015, in New York, NY [State Department Photo]

During the panel discussion, I described a program where the United States is working with other countries to implement United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on combatting religious intolerance.  Through this program experts from across the U.S. government are evaluating practical ways to deal with intolerance while preserving the right to freedom of expression. We have already had great success in with our partners in Bosnia, Greece, and Indonesia, and we hope to soon expand this program to every region of the world.  Parliamentarians, specifically, can play a role in implementing this resolution, either via our program or through their own initiatives. Parliamentarians can also pass legislation to fund their own religious freedom programming in their countries.

Finally, I also mentioned the work of the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, comprised of executive branch officials from many countries, which complements this group of international parliamentarians. Under the leadership of my Canadian counterpart, Ambassador Andrew Bennett, we began to share information on how best to work together as like-minded governments to advance our shared interest in promoting and defending religious freedom as a universal human right. 

We encounter stark reminders every day of the challenges we face in promoting and defending religious freedom across the globe. In recent months, I have been asked to address a consortium of UN entities working on development issues on the relationship between their development work and religious freedom. I have engaged in two rounds of meetings with key staff in regional and issue-focused offices on the connection between our work and theirs. 

What all these engagements have reinforced for is me is the fact that multilateral bodies such as the United Nations are indispensable if we are to make progress in protecting human rights, including religious freedom.  Understanding this reality, we are encouraged by growing interest by UN-related entities in engaging on religious freedom issues. 

About the Author: David Saperstein serves as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.



Patrick W.
Maryland, USA
September 21, 2015
I hope we all can learn to get along with each other. :)
Patrick W.
Maryland, USA
September 23, 2015
Here is religious freedom: God is God he is every where and part of everything and people that fight over little differences are morons..... :)
A Pakistani Christian woman prays during service at a church, which was attacked by the Taliban last March, in Lahore, Pakistan
Posted by David Saperstein
September 21, 2015


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