US support of global religious freedom must go beyond rhetoric

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Religious freedom is regressing globally, and the United States has an opportunity to be in solidarity with the people most egregiously affected. But whether this solidarity goes beyond rhetoric depends on actions the United States takes against perpetrators and its engagement with governments and communities in countries where this freedom is most at risk.  

On Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published its annual report recommending that the secretary of State designate 15 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) and include 12 countries on the special watch list (SWL).  

A CPC designation indicates a government has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom, which the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 defines as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion.”  

Governments that “engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom” but do not meet all CPC criteria are included on the special watch list. While USCIRF makes designation recommendations, the secretary of State makes formal CPC and SWL determinations.  

USCIRF Vice Chair Nury Turkel commended the Biden administration’s efforts to “condemn abuses of religious freedom and hold perpetrators accountable through targeted sanctions and other tools at its disposal.”  

Historically, CPC designations have been viewed as a “name and shame” tool. As such, formal designations for some countries that undeniably meet CPC criteria — including some key U.S. partners — are perceived as a diplomatic death march. 

Since its first report, USCIRF has recommended 30 countries receive CPC or SWL. But the State Department has formally designated only 19 countries.  

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 amended and strengthened the 1998 IRFA legislation to advance religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy more effectively. Under that legislation, CPC designation is more than a perfunctory act. The legislation requires the president of the United States to take one or more of 15 specific actions, or a commensurate action, following a CPC designation to address religious freedom concerns directly. Actions range from a private demarche to sanctions. The president has always delegated this authority to the secretary of State. 

But the United States has effectively shelved any strategic engagement to advance religious freedom with many CPC-designated countries by applying waivers or “double-hatting” existing sanctions in response to a designation.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was first designated as a CPC in 2004. But the kingdom has always received a waiver on the basis of national interest or to “further the purposes of IRFA” in response to its designation and redesignation. The State Department first designated Burma (Myanmar) and Iran as countries of particular concern in 1999. Every secretary of State has since invoked “existing ongoing restrictions” with every designation and redesignation.  

In effect, the use of waivers and existing sanctions deflects direct engagement and implies to both perpetrators and victims that the United States values this freedom only to the extent it does not interfere with other interests.  

The U.S. government issued eight Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act sanctions against individuals and entities specifically for religious freedom violations in 2021. Among those sanctioned are two Chinese officials involved in atrocities committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. 

This illustrates one targeted action the United States can take to directly address concerns. But sanctions are not the only option.  

Some action — one of the 15 laid out in legislation or a commensurate action — demonstrates America’s solidarity with victims until violations cease and conditions improve.  

IRFA legislation also requires the State Department to report to Congress the actions it has taken as well as the purpose and effectiveness of these actions. In recent years, both USCIRF and the State Department have developed more robust reporting on specific recommendations, actions taken and developments in the advancement of religious freedom through U.S. diplomatic engagement globally.  

But absent from the reporting on, and diplomatic engagement with, CPC and SWL-designated countries is a clear evaluation of the effect — positive or negative — of these actions.  

Such an evaluation would give the United States an important opportunity to hold itself accountable for its efforts. It can also better inform how designations are maintained and, ultimately, removed. 

To date, only five countries — Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam — have had CPC or SWL designations removed. USCIRF recommended Nigeria be designated as a CPC 11 consecutive times before the country first received an SWL designation in 2019 and a subsequent CPC designation in 2020. The country received no designation in 2021 from the State Department.  

But what improvements justified the removal of Nigeria’s CPC designation? USCIRF condemned the State Department’s decision. 

Prior to the removal of Nigeria’s CPC designation, the annual reports from both USCIRF and the State Department described continued religious freedom violations, including ongoing violence against Christian communities, strict application of blasphemy laws and detention of people with dissenting views in Northern states.  

The case of Nigeria illustrates why the State Department should include in its annual reporting a robust evaluation of the effectiveness of specific actions it has taken. It should also justify any designation removal by showing significant and sustained progress in the areas of concern that served as the basis for designation in the first place.  

A CPC or SWL designation, after all, is neither a symbolic gesture nor a final condemnation of a country. Rather, it is to be the basis for deliberate and effective engagement to safeguard religious freedom in countries where this right is most at risk.  

Lena Abboud is the senior manager for Research and Policy with the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute. 

Tags International Religious Freedom Act Myanmar Politics of the United States Religious persecution Uyghur Muslims

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