Empowering the ambassador for religious freedom
Sometimes the numbers tell the story. This certainly appears to be the case in timing of nominations for the U.S. Ambassador-at-large (A/L) positions. The A/L for Global Women's Issues was filled April, 2009. By May of last year, the A/L for Trafficking in Persons was in place, as was the A/L for Anti-terrorism. By June, the A/L with responsibility for global HIV/AIDS was in place. And in September the A/L for War Crimes joined the team. This month, almost 15 months after the A/L for Global Women's Issues was in the job and pushing forward the Administration's policies, the nominee for the A/L for International Religious Freedom was finally announced.
One would think that with two wars involving religiously motivated violence, and with mounting scholarly research pointing to the critical importance of religious freedom in building stable, successful societies, having a top ranked official skilled in an understanding of the intersection between religion, human rights and foreign policy would be a pressing priority. Despite urging from the earliest days of the Administration to appoint the A/L as mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the A/L for International Religious Freedom has remained vacant. With that vacancy, a clear focus and plan on how to promote religious freedom has lagged behind other Administration priorities.
Nevertheless, there is still a chance for the Administration to succeed if two reforms take place.
First, and most importantly, the A/L for International Religious Freedom must be given the same level of access to the Secretary provided to other A/Ls. The A/L's for Global Women's Issues, Anti-terrorism and War Crimes all report directly to the Secretary of State. In contrast, the A/L for International Religious Freedom has traditionally been buried down the State Department's chain of command. If nothing changes, she will report to the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who, in turn, reports to the Undersecretary for Democracy & Global Affairs, who in turn reports up to the Deputy Secretary of State, who in turn reports to the Secretary of State.
A/L for Global Women's Issues? Report directly to the Secretary of State, sit in senior policy making committees, situated at the top of the engine of State. A/L for International Religious Freedom? Report to the man, who reports to the woman, who reports to the man, who reports to...
In truth, the A/L for International Religious Freedom has been so marginalized as to undercut the relevance of the position. Unless something changes, and changes fast, the nominee will be Ambassador-at-large in name only. She won't be hard wired into the senior team at State, she won't be automatically included in senior policy making meetings, she won't be viewed as a senior official within the State Department community. In short, she and the critical issue she charged with representing, will be lost in the noise of competing priorities.
But something can change. The Administration can, if it chooses, give their nominee the same respect, access and seniority as its other A/Ls. And it can start by simply ensuring she reports directly to the Secretary.
There is a second step the Administration can take. It can ensure the A/L maintains control of her staff. Up to this point, personnel working in the State Department's international religious freedom office have reported directly to the A/L. An internal reorganization is reported to be under discussion that would strip the A/L of her authority over her staff and would, instead, have them report to an Assistant Secretary of State. If this occurs, the A/L will no longer be in charge of the permanent staff assigned to support her mission. There could be few more effective moves to undercut her ability to do her job.
But once again, this does not have to happen. A simple decision by the Administration can ensure the Ambassador's staff continues to report to her.
From its start, some in the State Department have viewed its congressionally mandated role of promoting religious freedom with suspicion. Some who have worked in the State Department's office of international religious freedom report of institutional hostility accompanied by efforts to isolate and marginalize the office. If all proceeds as currently planned, those forces are well on their way to achieving their goal - an inexperienced Ambassador, isolated well down the chain of command, and stripped of her staff. What better way to ensure the issue is marginalized?
As we prepare for confirmation hearings, it will be very helpful if the Administration clarifies in advance the new Ambassador's reporting line and her authority over her staff. While she may be coming to the position later than her peers, with the right placement and the right support, she may well be able to overcome this disadvantage. It is up to the Administration whether they will give her the necessary tools to do so. Religious freedom is not a nice add on to our foreign policy, rather it is central to our ability to advance the cause of peace, promote stability and foster prosperity. Ensuring our top official in the field is empowered to do her job is a modest step towards achieving our goals.
Posted by: ChrisVogel | June 26, 2010 4:20 PM
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