U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom resigns

Religious Liberty | Suzan Cook Johnson steps down after an unremarkable tenure
by Emily Belz
Posted 10/17/13, 02:29 pm

After two-and-a-half years on the job, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook has resigned. Her last day at the U.S. State Department was Wednesday, according to sources. 

During her tenure, Cook claimed some victories by using her position to bring attention to religious freedom violations, like the release of the Iranian pastor Youcef Nardarkhani, who had been sentenced to death in an Iranian prison. She was also vocal against blasphemy resolutions (also know as “defamation of religion” resolutions) that Islamic countries tried to bring forward at the United Nations. 

But overall Cook left little impression among religious freedom advocates. She came to the position with a background as a pastor, with no diplomatic experience, and never seemed to embrace that diplomatic role for herself. While religious freedoms, especially in the Middle East, have spiraled downward in the last couple years, Cook did little publicly in the way of advocacy beyond presenting annual reports on violations. In a September meeting with religious freedom nongovernmental organizations, one attendee brought up the religious freedom situation in Syria, and she declined to comment. 

The ambassador position itself is one the government would like to ignore, and the State Department has minimized its power over the years. According to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the position, the ambassador was supposed to be an adviser to the secretary of state. But the ambassador currently has several layers of offices between her and Secretary John Kerry. 

Lately, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has taken on the role of advocate—but the independent commission doesn’t have the weight with other governments that a U.S. ambassador does, and therefore can only go so far in its advocacy. 

At Cook’s Senate confirmation hearing in 2011, Jim DeMint, who was then a Republican senator from South Carolina, urged her to try to change the culture at the State Department on religious freedom issues. “When pressed, they tend to pat you on the head, and I’m speaking of my head, and say, ‘That’s important rhetorically, but frankly it’s too messy to compromise a political or economic relationship,’” he said. Cook does not appear to have changed that dynamic. 

President Barack Obama faced criticism in his first term because he didn’t nominate anyone for the position for a year and a half. So far no names have emerged to replace Cook. A White House spokesman did not answer a question about her resignation, saying there were “no personnel announcements.”

UPDATE (Oct. 18, 3:25 p.m.): Ann Buwalda, the director of the Jubilee Campaign, who is normally diplomatic, gave a scorching assessment of Suzan Johnson Cook’s time as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, saying, “Her tenure was highly disappointing. She made no remarkable or groundbreaking announcement whatsoever to advance religious liberty or dissuade the persecution of religious minorities in any country.”

Buwalda said Cook paid little or no attention to countries at risk or to those on the State Department’s countries of particular concern list.

“She pointlessly traveled to at least two countries, Ghana and Liberia, which have no religious freedom issue whatsoever,” Buwalda said. “Her departure will not be missed because her tenure was so unremarkable.”

Tom Farr, the director of the State Department’s international religious freedom office under President George W. Bush, said he believed Cook’s resignation would provide a “dramatic opportunity” for the Obama administration to become more aggressive in this area and promote religious freedom around the world.

“If the position remains vacant, or if it is filled with someone not qualified to move this issue into the mainstream of diplomacy, that will confirm the views of the critics, including me, that the administration does not see international religious freedom policy as a priority,” he said in an email.

Farr outlined several steps the Obama administration could take to demonstrate its renewed focus on religious liberty, including nominating an ambassador with diplomatic experience and a working knowledge of global religious freedom issues.

“There are several candidates whose views are consistent with those of the administration and who meet these two criteria,” Farr said.  

He added that the new ambassador should receive much more support from the Obama administration than Cook did, including the White House working to get the nomination confirmed in the Senate, providing adequate resources and status for the ambassador within the State Department, and having President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry publically endorse the position and its prominent role in American foreign policy.

“This means, at a minimum, that the ambassador should report directly to the secretary of state and attend all regular meetings of senior department officials,” Farr said.

Farr added that the Senate needs to do its part to support the efforts of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“In the 15 years since the passage of [the International Religious Freedom Act] it has not held a single oversight hearing to ask whether and how the law is being implemented,” he said. “It now has the opportunity to step up to the plate and demonstrate its commitment to U.S. international religious freedom policy.”

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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