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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 15th annual report today, and this year we decided to do something different.
USCIRF was established in 1998 when Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act. Since then, we’ve issued a report each year highlighting the world’s worst religious freedom abusers and recommending constructive ways the U.S. government can spur nations toward reform. USCIRF looks to international standards to define religious freedom, which includes the individual right to believe (or not) and to act on those beliefs peacefully and without coercion through worship, speech, dress, teaching, and observance.
As usual, our 2014 Annual Report documents abuses in countries and recommends specific actions and “country of particular concern” designations.
Here’s where the report differs from prior years: we examine the past decade-and-a half of U.S. foreign policy relating to religious freedom and propose ways to reenergize and reposition the United States to promote this universal right more effectively across the board.
We see at least two problems with today’s status quo on this issue. First, while religious freedom abuses are frequent and alarming, no administration has fully honored or fulfilled the act. Second, the act needs updating. The global terrain for religious freedom has changed dramatically since 1998, but the act has not. As a result, the United States is increasingly behind the curve on major foreign policy challenges related to ongoing violations of religious freedom, new religion/state questions, and spreading violent religious extremism. The U.S. government is not well positioned or resourced to engage effectively.
It is incredibly important that America take action now to “renew the commitment” to religious freedom. However, reenergizing American efforts will take a dedicated push. It will require the president, the secretary of state, other senior U.S. officials, and members of Congress to consistently stress the importance of international religious freedom and back it up in public statements and private meetings here and abroad. U.S. officials must continuously affirm how religious freedom is a right for all human beings, be they members of religious minorities or majorities, or members of no religious group at all.
The United States can and should use existing tools to greater effect. The International Religious Freedom Act created a unique human rights mechanism to help advance this fundamental freedom in the form of the “country of particular concern” (CPC) designations. It serves as a blacklist of sorts for the worst religious freedom violators worldwide. Yet what the law intended to be an annual process has fallen off the rails, with designations being announced by the State Department at longer intervals — two or more years. The report recommends that CPC designations be made annually, and if the State Department does not act, Congress should take legislative steps to require annual designations.
Besides having an annual process, the CPC list should expand and contract as conditions warrant. Today’s eight CPC countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan — have remained on the list for between eight and 15 years. USCIRF also recommends that eight more countries be added — Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. The growing disparity in the lists suggests that CPC designations are not keeping up with conditions on the ground.
Coupled with smart diplomacy and the potential for consequences for religious freedom violators, an annual CPC process can generate political will in foreign capitals to bring about concrete improvements. But USCIRF is also clear in saying that U.S. government activity on religious freedom should not be limited to naming “countries of particular concern.” U.S. efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief need to be multifaceted, looking to bolster reformers and supporting those pushing for change.
The United States cannot and should not go at it alone on this issue. This year’s report recommends that the government continue vigorous, multilateral religious-freedom engagement at the United Nations and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. We also urge the U.S. government to partner with other governments and parliaments to build a global religious freedom coalition. There are ready partnerships to be had — see Canada’s notable focus on international religious freedom, as well as increasing European interest both in the British and European parliaments, as well as in governments in Berlin, The Hague, London, and Oslo.
Fifteen years ago, the International Religious Freedom Act was ahead of its time in recognizing that religious freedom should be a key foreign policy concern. Today, with its mechanisms underutilized and global conditions even more complex, it’s time to reinvigorate America’s commitment. The United States needs to recommit itself to the vigorous, flexible, principled, and effective international religious freedom policy the act envisioned. Reenergized U.S. engagement, together with new partnerships with like-minded countries, can create new momentum for positive change.
Image of Thich Quang Duc memorial via Shutterstock.