Trump faces pressure on international human rights
Religious Liberty | Activists increase advocacy at first anniversary of genocide declaration
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 3/17/17, 02:41 pm
WASHINGTON—Advocacy groups are calling for the Trump administration to step up its fight against human rights violations as they mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. State Department’s declaration of genocide by Islamic State.
On March 17, 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared ISIS was carrying out ongoing genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria—only the second active genocide designation in U.S. history. Over the last 12 months, Iraqi ground forces and a U.S. air campaign have made significant gains against ISIS militants, but many genocide victims remain vulnerable.
“The victims want their suffering to be recognized, but this genocide has not stopped. It’s still going,” said Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor who appeared Thursday at a Genocide Coalition event at the U.S. Capitol. She called on the international community to rescue those still in captivity, investigate atrocities, and bring perpetrators to justice.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, urged the administration to issue an executive order in support of genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria, many of whom are not receiving aid, she said, because the UN has marginalized them. Last year, the United States, which receives refugees through the UN, admitted 10,801 Syrian refugees, including 56 Christians, 17 Yazidis, and 10,722 Sunni Muslims.
“For three years, the Christians, Yazidis, and others of the smallest religious minorities have been targeted by ISIS with beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture, and sexual enslavement,” Shea said. “Without President Trump’s prompt leadership, the entire Iraqi Christian presence could soon be wiped out.”
President Donald Trump’s earlier executive order temporarily suspending the U.S. refugee program included language prioritizing the immigration of vulnerable religious minorities in the region. But after several courts blocked enforcement of the directive, the White House took new action that dropped the religious minorities language. (A federal court blocked that action Wednesday.)
This week, the Knights of Columbus announced a $1.9 million contribution to aid persecuted Christians in the region. The group called on the Trump administration to reverse the policies it inherited and “stop the de facto discrimination” against minority religious communities.
On numerous fronts, the administration has demonstrated its intent to re-evaluate the previous U.S. approach but has not decisively followed through yet. In a letter first reported by Foreign Policy magazine, this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson informed nine human rights groups that the United States could withdraw from the 47-member UN Human Rights Council if the body didn’t make significant reforms. George W. Bush’s administration declined to join the council when it was created, but President Barack Obama changed course in 2009.
Several human rights groups criticized Tillerson this month when, in a break with tradition, he did not actively participate in the State Department’s release of its annual human rights report. The secretary sent a lone, anonymous official to speak to reporters via conference call.
The State Department declined to comment on its rationale for the low-profile announcement.
Travis Wussow, public policy vice president for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), cited ongoing staffing and transition issues as a possible explanation for lack of focus in the administration’s human rights agenda. He said he expected the Trump administration to play a larger role in fighting for human rights as time goes on.
Hudson’s Shea told me the human rights report did not deserve much attention until the process could be thoroughly reviewed. She said the report was mostly the work of the previous administration and cited its lack of reference to genocide in Iraq as evidence of an agenda-driven narrative.
“I would expect a high-profile rollout next year,” Shea said. “I would be very disappointed if there wasn't.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Tillerson has an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of human rights with the State Department’s two upcoming reports on human trafficking and international religious freedom. He said it was vital that the secretary take interest in the work of the bureaus that produce the reports.
“America’s foreign policy must be infused with our deeply held values, foremost among them the God-given rights and inherent dignity of every person,” Rubio said in a statement to WORLD. “I strongly encourage Secretary Tillerson to put the full weight of his Cabinet office behind the upcoming releases of the Trafficking in Persons and International Religious Freedom reports.”