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.
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