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Commissioners' Opening Remarks on Issuance of First Annual Report

Presented by Chairman David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein, Chair
Dean Michael Young, Vice Chair

Monday, May 1, 2000
Washington, DC

CHAIRMAN SAPERSTEIN: Good morning and welcome to this press conference. I'm Rabbi David Saperstein and I am honored to serve as Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Before we launch into our topic this morning, let me just take a minute to introduce those of my colleagues on the Commission who were able to be with us here today. First is Dean Michael Young of George Washington University Law School, our Vice-Chair. Dean Young will have some comments on China when I'm finished. Also here are:

Elliot Abrams, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center; John Bolton, Senior Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute; Nina Shea , Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House; Firuz Kazemzadeh, Secretary for External Affairs of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States; Ambassador Robert Seiple, Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

Our other Commissioners who couldn't be here today include Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, Dr. Laila Al-Marayati, Past President of the Muslim Women's League, and Justice Charles Smith of the Washington State Supreme Court. I'd also like to introduce the Commission's Executive Director, Steven McFarland and acknowledge the extraordinary work of the Commission staff, many of whom are here with us today.

Today is really a milestone event: The issuance of the first Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as foreseen under the International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA, passed in October 1998. The vision of the IRFA process is this: The Founders of our country understood that the words, "We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights," put freedom of religion at the center of those fundamental rights. It is the first of the enumerated rights in the First Amendment. It is central to the human condition and to what we have striven for during so many decades of the 200-plus-year history of this country: to ensure that the religious life of the individual and of religious communities could flourish without the government restraining or interfering with that freedom; that this is part of the vision of human rights that cuts across the global community, and as such, it ought to be a centerpiece of American foreign policy.

As we look around the world, however, we find this fundamental liberty under serious threat. In Sudan, the Islamist extremist government is bombing Christian churches, church-run schools, and hospitals. In China we see mass arrests of Falun Gong practitioners, the harassment and arrest of leaders of the Muslim Uighur community, the continued systemic infringement of the Tibetan Buddhists' religious freedom, the arrests of leaders of the underground Catholic and Protestant Churches in China. In Iran, Jewish activists who try to live freely as Jews today go on trial charged with espionage and Baha'is are sentenced to death just because they are Baha'is. All these things testify that the work of this Commission is urgent work, work of fundamental liberty and of priority importance.

The IRFA process created an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department and mandated a State Department report once a year. That report, which you may have read, marked a significant change in the way business is done in the American foreign policy establishment. Over an extended period of time, there were foreign service officers in embassies across the world and in regional bureaus here at the State Department, who were focused on what to say about religious liberty, how to deal with it, how to express it, how to define it, how to describe what is happening on the ground and what America's interests are regarding this issue. More difficult decisions required the attention and involvement of high-ranking State Department officials. That alone marked an important structural change. As our commissioners traveled to other countries this year, they met with and worked with foreign service officers who are now knowledgeable about issues of religious liberty and involved in diplomatic efforts to combat religious persecution.

It is the role of this Commission on an ongoing basis, and then summarized once a year in an annual report May 1st, to make recommendations to the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, and the Congress of the United States on how to address policy related to combating religious persecution and enhancing religious freedom. Because of the delay in appointments of members of the Commission and in Congressional funding for its work, we have only been at full strength for only six months and decided, as a result, to focus on three priority countries. Two are nations designated by State in the IRFA process as "countries of particular concern." These are countries in which there are systematic, egregious, ongoing manifestations of religious persecution. Those countries are China and Sudan.

At the same time, we also selected another country, Russia, which reflected a completely different dynamic, a country that allowed much more religious freedom. There was not the same manifestation of religious persecution, but there were growing problems. This was a country with which the United States has close relations and the ability to make its voice heard more effectively. So we targeted Russia because there are so many religious groups in that country, and in many ways it is a litmus test for all the other new independent states that have sprung up after the collapse of the Soviet empire.

The report we release today is the culmination of our work since the Commission first met late last June. We've held day-long hearings on Sudan here in Washington and on China in Los Angeles. Commissioner Abrams traveled to southern Sudan and other Commissioners have visited a number of other countries. We've reviewed the State Department reports and met with human rights and church groups, experts on economic sanctions and war-crimes, and others with first-hand information about the situation of religious freedom in these countries. We tried to visit China, but the Chinese authorities have yet to respond to our requests for visas. We held meetings at least twice a month, one in person, lasting one or two days, another by conference call. In addition, over the past month, we have spent at least 25 hours in conference calls going over every word in our recommendations and text for the Annual Report.

To me one of the most extraordinary results of the work of this religiously and politically diverse Commission is that both throughout the year and in this report, every recommendation and action was approved by consensus or unanimity. Bonded by a deep and profound commitment to addressing religious persecution for all religious groups and furthering religious freedom for all, these Commissioners' openness to diverse views, new ideas, and different approaches, combined with the respect we had for one another's expertise allowed us to present this report with the same overwhelming support as we have manifested in our recommendations during the year. Lest there be any confusion, our formal report is the document so named. The second document is a staff report for the Chair, drawing on our work during the year. It provides helpful background, particularly for those not familiar with the details of religious life in these countries. While I think you will find it a compelling indictment of religious freedom abuses in China and Sudan, we did not feel it necessary to resolve outstanding differences nor to adopt it formally. The Annual Report contains a host of recommendations, but I want to focus now on a few, and you may feel free to ask about others during the Q & A.

In Sudan, we confront a situation in which the government in Khartoum has conducted a 17-year civil war, a tragic and genocidal civil war that has taken some 2 million lives, and displaced 4 million-5 million more, mostly among the African Christians and traditional animists in the south. Religious factors play a major role in this war: The Arab Islamist extremist government is trying to extend Islamic law to the south and it's trying to impose its extremist interpretation of Islam on all other Muslims.

In the last year, in particular, the government has escalated an appalling policy of deliberately bombing civilian facilities in the south: It has repeatedly hit churches, schools, hospitals, and the facilities of aid organizations. Once or twice might be considered a mistake, but this is no mistake: Dozens and dozens of such buildings have been targeted. Scores have been killed. These are clearly crimes against humanity.

This war has got to end, and the U.S. government must act more effectively to end it. We make our recommendations acknowledging that the U.S. has done more than any other country to address the crisis in Sudan. The Administration should be commended for its efforts. But with the human rights situation in Sudan worsening, attacks on civilian targets escalating, and the prospect of new oil revenues fueling an intensification of the war efforts of the Sudanese government, more needs to be done as urgently as possible. And so, among our recommendations today is that the United States should increase the amount of food aid it ships in outside the United Nations Operation Lifeline Sudan program in order to get around Khartoum's unconscionable flight bans in areas whose population it is trying to starve into submission.

We also urge the U.S. to begin a 12-month plan to pressure Sudan to end human rights violations. If it does, closer relations with the U.S. should follow. If it doesn't, the U.S. should make clear that at the end of the 12-month period, it would begin providing non-lethal aid to appropriate opposition groups that adhere to specified human rights standards. And if the human rights situation in Sudan deteriorates markedly before that, the U.S. should act sooner. We're also asking the U.S. government to earmark more humanitarian aid to the south for building roads and bridges to help get food to the hungry and to work peacefully towards establishment of a "military no-fly zone" over Sudan for the same purpose. And we strongly recommend to the Administration that it urge Egypt to join and play an active role in the IGAD peace process. The Commission discovered a serious loophole in the U.S. sanctions vis-a-vis Sudan: While it's illegal for companies to do business with firms subject to the sanctions, it's still possible for firms doing business in Sudan to raise money in U.S. capital markets. We saw that last month with the PetroChina initial public offering (IPO). PetroChina's parent, China National Petroleum Corp., owns 40% of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the Sudanese project that is providing Khartoum with huge new revenues to step up the war.

So we're recommending steps be taken to prevent U.S. investors from inadvertently helping to fund crimes against humanity. We're urging the government to prohibit any foreign corporation from obtaining capital in the U.S. market as long as it is participating in Sudanese oil-field development. We also want Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, which is responsible for sanctions enforcement, to investigate a) how much of the debt that comes from Sudanese operations, China National Petroleum Corporation is going to retire using the IPO proceeds. And b), whether the U.S. underwriters should have known that CNPC would use proceeds from the IPO to retire Sudan-related debt.

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