An Interview with Commissioner Kristina Arriaga de Buchholz
On October 26, 2018, Commissioner Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz gave the keynote address at The Fletcher School’s annual Religion, Law and Diplomacy conference - a student-organized event that examines the role of religion in international affairs. This interview was conducted by Britta Wilhelmsen, Senior Web Editor, and Laura Handly, Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum.
FF: Our theme this year at the Fletcher Forum is Global Transformations: A Century since World War I. In the spirit of this theme, how would you say your role has evolved over time and how has it been shaped by the current political climate?
KA: For the last twenty-five years I’ve worked specifically on human rights issues and a subset of those human rights issues—religious freedom, or the international formulation of it, which is freedom of religion or belief. I think it’s a core and vital human right, and it is the only right in the Declaration [of Human Rights] that is both individual and communal. Article 18 specifically says that everyone should have, and I’m paraphrasing, the ability to follow their beliefs and also practice them both individually and communally. From 1948 until 1998, for those fifty years, there was a realization of two things: that what had happened in the Holocaust was inexcusable and that countries can no longer claim sovereignty over issues that are born out of human dignity. That’s why the Universal Declaration was drafted and, think about it, there was no water, no electricity, no food, and these countries came together to talk about human dignity. It’s amazing! Then fast forward to 1998, where in the United States, Congress realized that there has to be a freedom of religion component to our foreign policy. That’s how the agency to which I was named was created—the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
So, how has that changed? It’s changed enormously. Regrettably, religious freedom has been weaponized internationally. Countries that claim religious reservations to women’s rights have twisted religious freedom into something that justifies a harmful practice. That is key to our understanding of religious freedom because religious freedom doesn’t protect religion, it protects people. So, the moment that that is warped into a belief system, then people, individuals, and human dignity are secondary to that. Second, I think that there has been a tendency to separate the rights in the Declaration. Even though they are separate, they’re also interdependent, interrelated, indivisible and universal. Once you start picking one right over the others you start creating unnecessary conflicts. There has to be a holistic approach to all of the rights in the Declaration.
FF: We’re very curious about your role as commissioner. What do you consider to be your central mission in your role? Have you encountered any challenges to that mission, and how did you deal with that?
KA: When I was first named to the commission, I introduced the idea of creating a study on the intersection of women’s rights and religious freedom. To my surprise, no other organization had done that before, so the Commission worked with external partners to prepare a report that maps the presence of women’s rights in international jurisprudence and religious freedom in the international instruments that deal with women’s rights.
To our surprise, The Council for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women doesn’t mention religion or religious freedom once, except when countries file reservations against women’s rights. Also, in terms of religion or religious belief, there is very little crossover. We know that countries that have robust freedom of religion or belief protections for women have a better situation for women where they are not forced to be child brides or to get divorced and lose the rights to see their children, or the husband is not dominant in the family. So, the first challenge was to look at this closely, and it wasn’t an internal challenge because the project was approved unanimously. It was interesting to start meeting with groups on both sides and talk about the issue. To a person, all the groups thought, “Wow, we can double our advocacy presence if we can work jointly on these issues.”
Being a Hispanic woman in certain Muslim-majority countries has been difficult. For instance, I was the head of the delegation on one of our Saudi trips. American diplomats don’t have to wear an Abaya, but twice I was told I had to put one on, otherwise I couldn’t go to the restaurant in the hotel in Jeddah. To me, coffee was more important than being principled that morning, so I threw on the Abaya, had my cup of coffee, and then had an argument with the manager of the restaurant. When I met with the Vice Minister of Islam, he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I think humor is universal, so I started by saying, “You probably think I’m here to talk about women drivers, if it were up to my father and my husband women would not drive in the Americas. I’m not here to talk about women drivers, I’m here to talk about bigger issues.” It broke the ice enough that we were able to have a substantive, great conversation afterwards, but it’s very interesting that in 2018 you come in as an American diplomat and your counterpart is unwilling to look at you while you’re speaking. Eventually he softened, I think, his stance, and we were able to talk to each other.
Most countries understand that USCIRF looks at the religious freedom experience through the international universal declaration of human rights lens, not through the American First Amendment experience. It has been very productive to have conversations with government officials. I think the most difficult experience I had was going to a prison in Turkey to see an imprisoned American pastor, Andrew Brunson; that was something I will never forget. It was very hard to leave him behind, but gladly he was released recently.
FF: What would you say are some of the most common biases or assumptions about the role of religion in international affairs, and is your team working to address any of these specifically?
KA: Religious freedom is considered the eccentric uncle of the human rights family—your relative that comes to a party, people admit he’s part of the family, but no one wants deal with him.
Unfortunately, that perception has been created by a misunderstanding of what Article 18 really consists of. Even though there have been these claims that the world has become secularized and people are unaffiliated with organized religions, the fact is that over 80% of the world claims that they have religious beliefs. The world continues to be a deeply religious place. Meanwhile, the Pew Institute has stated that over 75% of the world’s population live in places where religious practice is constricted.
So how do you reconcile those numbers? That, I think, is central to the dialogue that we need to have about what religious belief is, what is protected, and whether there is such a thing as the ability to be offensive. Heck yeah, I think we were born to offend each other! Think about the option of not being able to explore your deeply held religious convictions for fear of offending others. I think there is this discomfort with cultural norms associated with being offensive, but at the same time this tremendous thirst for knowledge and understanding what people believe, as well as a desire to understand what we ourselves believe.
FF: You touched on the intersection of religious freedom and women’s rights. In situations where you see that the principles of religious freedom and gender equality appear to be at odds, how would you say we should move forward? How do you get past that? The Islamic State claims that the enslavement of women is the enactment of an aspect of a very deeply held religious belief. Are there cases where one freedom can be prioritized over another? Or is there another way to reconcile that tension?
KA: Great question. In the American jurisprudence system, we have something called the Religious Freedom Act, which was created by Congress to give courts the ability to have a balancing test. So, for instance, if you have a religious group that claims they should be able to abuse their children because it’s in the Bible, the government can say we have a compelling state interest to protect children; therefore, you cannot do it. And if the government tells a group of nuns that they have to give abortion-causing drugs and pay for them, the nuns can say--and this is a real case--you exempted X in New York City from that rule, which means you do not apply it neutrally and there is no government compelling interest, so we should be exempt from that because of our religious belief system.
In the international jurisprudence system, there is no such balancing of rights. As a result, you have nations struggling to reconcile, for instance, their security concerns and religious freedom in their own country. I think one example where this is particularly insidious and damaging to women is the practice of female genital mutilation, which has been strongly condemned by the UN and criminalized in many countries, but is still religiously justified in certain communities. As a result, women continue to practice it and states look in the other direction. Some states have made some moves—Egypt has been arresting doctors that do it—but now we find ourselves here in the United States with the first FGM case in Michigan. This is a really interesting problem, because there are half a million girls at risk in the United States. It’s going to be really interesting to watch the case, because if the United States says that this kind of female genital mutilation is protected by religious freedom, it’s going to reverberate globally in all of the countries that continue to practice it.
FF: How would you describe the role of mass media and social media in religion? How can we better leverage the media in a way that supports and defends religious freedom?
KA: Well, we hear that in Myanmar, for instance, there are more people with access to Facebook than to electricity. So unfortunately, there was a lot of spread of fake news associated with the Rohingya Muslims, which has now been found to have fueled an already bad situation and one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. Aung Sun Suu Kyi did not address the crisis, the world stood back because it was such a young country, hoping that she would grow strong, and what ended up happening is that the military was able to continue its practices and Aung Sun Suu Kyi made absolutely no remarks on it. So in terms of social media, you had a population of people who were incited to either participate in the violence or stand back and not denounce it because of fake news.
The country that uses the most social media in the world is Saudi Arabia. When you go there, to a Starbucks, there’s an entrance for family, which means women, and there’s an entrance for men. Until very recently there were no public events where both genders were involved. And they still have the guardianship system, where if you’re a woman and you need to have your appendix removed, you need to ask your guardian, who can be your father, your husband, or your son, for permission to have surgery. It’s very limiting on women, so the benefit of social media in these countries, when it’s not blocked, is that women are able to find out what their rights are through apps created by women and lawyers in Saudi Arabia.
Social media cuts both ways. I think it’s a great way to talk directly to the population about their rights, but it’s also a terrible way to spread fake news, particularly in developing countries that have absolutely no context for what’s going on. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in both positive and negative ways, but do I believe it should be regulated? No. I think free speech is free speech and there are other ways to regulate what people say without banning them from using social media.
FF: For anyone who might be interested in following in your footsteps and making a career similar to yours, what advice would you give to them?
KA: There is nothing better than to work on these issues. Follow your passion and the job comes along. It depends what you want to do. There are careers in the Foreign Service. If you’re a good writer there’s always a job for you in the human rights community, because there’s always a dearth of writers. If you become a lawyer and go to the best school you can, there is an enormous need for lawyers that are involved in domestic civil rights litigation and international civil rights litigation. Language skills are missing. A lot of State Department people ramp up and go to the Foreign Service Institute, but if you have an interest in a particular region of the world and you can acquire the language, that’s absolutely a great way to go.
I also tell college students to find their passion, and then you’ll figure out how to get a job where you can be passionate. The NGO business is not where you’re going to get rich, but life is short and fragile, and there is nothing better than to be in a fulfilling career that helps others and improves the world for those that come after us.
Image: Jakar Tsechu (Dance by the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche)
Courtesy of Arian Zwegers / Flickr
Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz is the Commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. She has worked on the defense of Freedom of Religion or Belief in the United States and internationally for over 20 years as Advisor to the United States delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Since her appointment to USCIRF, Arriaga has met with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the Vice Minister of Islam in Riyadh, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, among many other foreign government officials, religious leaders, and human rights advocates.