Statement by Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia

Madrid Conference on Victims of Ethnic and Religious Violence in the Middle East: Protecting and Promoting Plurality and Diversity, May 24, 2017

On behalf of the United States government, I want to thank King Felipe VI, Foreign Minister Datsis and his co-convener Foreign Minister Safadi for hosting this important and timely meeting.  We appreciate Spain continuing this series of meetings, launched by France at the UN Security Council in March 2015 and followed in Paris a few months later, and then hosted by the U.S. Department of State in Washington last July.

We are here out of a shared concern about the future of religious diversity and pluralism in Iraq and Syria.  By coming together today, we stand united in our joint condemnation of the atrocities ISIS has committed against religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the atrocities that ISIS committed against others in these countries.

We are here to shine our light on the darkest impulses of humanity: the violence, hatred and oppression demonstrated in ISIS’ actions. Our strength is our unity of purpose and commitment. We stand together in insisting that the human rights, including religious freedom, of all must be respected.  And we are meeting today to move words into action, to find ways to do more at this crucial moment, to ensure Iraq and Syria’s historic religious and ethnic pluralism remains, to see that these men and women are respected as equals and that they have a hand in determining the future of their communities.

The United States is fully committed to assisting the victims of ISIS atrocities and promoting religious diversity and pluralism.  President Trump emphasized during his visit to Saudi Arabia the need to address radicalization and the harmful effects it has on minorities and others in Syria and Iraq, calling on the international community to stand together “against the murder of innocent Muslims, the oppression of women, and the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.”  Vice President Pence also made clear that, “Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration,” which “…is fully committed in bringing relief and comfort to believers not only across the Middle East but across the world.”

This is too big a task for Iraq, Syria or any country to face alone.  We must continue to work together to help these communities in the ways we can, whether by training police, supporting accountability efforts through identifying and preserving evidence of ISIS crimes, including mass graves, or ensuring that the survivors of the horrors endured under ISIS captivity, including women and children, get the psychosocial assistance they need.

The fight against ISIS has been difficult and is not over, despite large parts of Ninewa and much of Mosul liberated due to the efforts and sacrifices of Iraqi security forces and the Defeat-ISIS Coalition.  Now the international community must now shift from the hard work of winning the military fight, to the equally difficult task of winning the peace.  In this effort, we continue to see the Paris Action Plan as a useful roadmap for steps governments and others can take to aid religious and ethnic minority communities targeted and threatened by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.  The Action Plan rightly emphasizes several key goals, such as ensuring protection of affected populations and increasing security, supporting sustainable and voluntary return and reintegration of displaced populations, fighting impunity and working to help ensure accountability, promoting inclusiveness and plurality in political processes, and preserving cultural heritage.  These goals reflect the importance of protecting human rights like religious freedom and promoting equal citizenship for all.

The United States has been a leader in this effort.  We have provided billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance funding for Iraqis and Syrians in need, and since 2008 the United States has also provided more than $100 million in assistance for religious and ethnic minority communities in Iraq – including Christians, Shi’a, and Yazidi.  This assistance has supported promotion of respect for human rights of members of minority groups, interfaith tolerance, community stabilization, conflict mitigation, and cultural preservation.

The United States fully supports and provides funding for post-liberation stabilization efforts through the UN’s Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilization (FFIS) and Funding Facility for Expanded Stabilization (FFES), with at least 70 projects underway or in development for vulnerable communities in the Ninewa Plains.  Additionally, the United States supports accountability initiatives, including documenting abuses committed by all sides of the conflict.  We assist with securing, preserving, and exhuming mass graves resulting from ISIS atrocities.  We support training and technical assistance to judicial actors on legal frameworks to prevent arbitrary detention and protect vulnerable populations, including by promoting access to representation and due process in detention facilities. And we support cultural heritage protection efforts in liberated areas.

In Syria, U.S. programs also support civil society organizations, which are among the strongest bulwarks against ISIS and other violent extremist groups.  These programs help Syrian civic leaders provide essential services, organize community action locally, and provide support to former detainees and survivors of torture and sexual and gender-based violence.

The question before all of us today is what more we can do as a community of values – a community that respects diversity of thought and belief – to help recreate conditions that give minorities confidence in a future in their ancestral homelands.  Time is working against us.  After years of terror, the rich tapestry of religious and ethnic communities in the region has begun to fray and tear apart.  During my visits to Iraq, I have seen the vibrancy in what is left of these minority communities, but also their precarious and fragile existence.

If robust steps are not taken in the coming months so minority communities can provide for their security and so their towns and villages receive reconstruction assistance, the exodus will likely continue.  We support this series of conferences the French government initiated, and we hope to see another country host a following meeting, so this timely process will continue in the months to come.  From these discussions today, let’s work to develop a plan towards greater respect for human rights, equal citizenship, religious freedom, and interfaith and interethnic tolerance and acceptance. The best way to defeat ISIS and counter its ideology of hate is by protecting what they tried to exterminate – respect for religious and ethnic pluralism.  Thank you.