Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you all for being here. I would also like to thank U.S. Embassy Prague for hosting us in this wonderful space, to our colleagues in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom for their tremendous support, and to the Czech Republic for their leadership on a successful and impactful Ministerial. I am also grateful to our Canadian colleagues, who are co-hosting this event with us, and for the participation of our distinguished panelists, including the UK Deputy Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief David Burrowes.

We are privileged to bring together this diverse group of stakeholders today to discuss one of the most urgent challenges to the freedom of religion or belief globally—the issue of cultural erasure.

My friends, we are at a critical juncture in history, where the very fabric of many unique religious and cultural identities is being threatened by authoritarian regimes and extremist groups around the world.

The importance of preserving and safeguarding these communities cannot be overstated. They help shape the rich tapestry of the global community and contribute to the diversity and prosperity of their larger societies and nations.

When authoritarian governments and extremists aim to forcibly assimilate these groups and erase their culture, they undermine the very essence of the human experience – the ability to express, create, and evolve through our own distinct identities.

Today we will be discussing three disturbing examples of cultural erasure in the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, Ukraine, and Iraq.

To take the first example, the PRC is systematically dismantling the long-standing traditions and identities of Tibetan and Uyghur communities in China. It is also destroying physical manifestations of Uyghur and Tibetan cultural and religious expression, including places of worship and other religious sites. In Xinjiang alone, the PRC is responsible for destroying or damaging an estimated 16,000 mosques and demolishing 30 percent of Islamic sacred sites.

In my role as U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, I am also focused on shining a light on PRC attempts to co-opt the traditions and eliminate the unique identity of Tibetan Buddhists in the PRC and across the region, including through its interference in the Dalai Lama’s succession.

In Ukraine, Russia is waging a war of aggression that has attempted to destroy Ukraine’s distinct cultural heritage in an effort to literally erase history. Russia has systematically removed artifacts of cultural significance, damaged cultural heritage sites in airstrikes, demolished grave sites, and shuttered churches and other houses of worship in Russia-occupied territory.

In addition to their physical destruction of Ukraine’s culture, Russia has forcibly separated thousands of Ukrainian families through their filtration and child deportation systems. Many of these children are subjected to re-education and pro-Russian indoctrination, in an attempt to deny their Ukrainian identity.

In Iraq, ISIS inflicted unimaginable suffering on the Yezidi community as part of its genocide. ISIS fighters destroyed Yezidi shrines and massacred thousands, including older women who passed down the Yezidi language to younger generations. The total number of people killed remains unknown, and discoveries of mass graves continue to this day.

By discussing these egregious examples of cultural erasure, I hope today’s discussion will renew a call to action for the international community to stand united in condemning these injustices, ending impunity for perpetrators, and upholding the universal rights that undergird our shared commitment to cultural diversity.

Everyone in this room – across government, civil society, faith leaders, and cultural organizations – has a role to play in this important endeavor.

From the United States’ perspective, we will continue to combat cultural erasure in three important ways:

First, we remain unequivocal in calling out these appalling actions and policies for what they are – grave violations of universal rights and, in some instances, atrocities – and in using all tools at our disposal to promote accountability for perpetrators.

In 2016, the United States declared ISIS’s brutality against the Yezidi and other Iraqi communities a genocide. As we look ahead to the tenth anniversary of the Yezidi genocide next August, the United States will continue to press for justice and accountability for victims and survivors.

Additionally, in 2021, the United States determined that since at least 2017 the PRC has committed crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghur Muslims and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.

We have applied sanctions, visa restrictions, and other accountability tools against individuals and entities in the PRC involved in the ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang and human rights abuses and forced assimilation in Tibet, as well as Russian military units and high-level officials involved with filtration centers.

The United States will continue to speak clearly and forcefully against attempts to erase the culture and unique identities of vulnerable communities, and we will back up our words with our actions.

Second, we are galvanizing multilateral coalitions to speak with one voice in advancing an affirmative vision for cultural preservation and calling out states and organizations that seek to undermine it.

As one example, at the Human Rights Council’s 53rd session in June, the United States led a joint statement on cultural preservation, signed by 67 countries. The statement decried the deplorable human rights violations being committed against persons belonging to religious, linguistic, national, and ethnic minorities and called on all governments to allow these cultures to flourish.

Third, in addition to our diplomatic work, the United States contributes financial support to cultural preservation efforts among governments, civil society, museums, and cultural institutions around the world.

As one example, through the State Department’s U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, we have provided $124 million to support more than 1,200 cultural preservation projects across 130 countries. To take Tibetan Buddhism as an example, the fund has been used to restore Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and conserve ancient Tibetan manuscripts at the National Library of Mongolia.

The United States will continue these lines of effort, and we welcome the opportunity to deepen and diversify collaboration with the stakeholders in this room who are working tirelessly to prevent cultural erasure.

In closing, my friends, protecting the rich and resilient identities of religious and cultural communities who are under threat is an imperative for the international community. It is a necessity for fostering global understanding, stability, and ultimately a peaceful co-existence among all peoples.

Let us stand together in solidarity and collective action to ensure that these diverse cultures are allowed to thrive for generations to come. Thank you again.

U.S. Department of State

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