U.S. Appears to Have Little Interest in Promoting Religious Freedom Abroad

ICC Note: In this opinion editorial authored by two chairmen of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom the United States’ lagging commitment to international religious freedom is explained. By law the presidential administration is required to designate certain nations as “Countries of Particular Concern” if they egregiously violate the religious freedom of their citizens. The designation carries with it the implication that sanctions, including economic sanctions, may follow until changes are made. The designation has encouraged countries like Vietnam to make positive changes in how it treats religious minorities, including Christians, but has often been forgotten by presidential administrations.

8/21/2013 United States (USCIRF) – Although religious freedom is a pivotal human right, critical to national security and global stability, key provisions of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act are being neglected years after its passage. A number of studies demonstrates the link between freedom of religion and societal well-being, while its absence correlates closely with instability and violent religious extremism, including terrorism. Many governments, including those topping the U.S. foreign policy and security agendas, perpetrate or tolerate acts of religious repression, such as arbitrary detention, torture and murder.

The International Religious Freedom Act provides vital tools, including identifying and sanctioning the world’s worst violators. But over many years and different administrations, the executive branch has not employed them fully or in a timely manner. With a key deadline for action arriving this month, it is time to confront this unwise failure to act.

When the act was passed in 1998, it made the promotion of religious freedom an official U.S. foreign policy priority and established at the State Department an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The legislation also created a bipartisan and independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, to monitor this right worldwide and make policy recommendations to Congress, the secretary of state and the president.

Congress gave the legislation real teeth through a groundbreaking enforcement mechanism: requiring annual administration review and designation of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations.

While the law provides the administration with flexibility in how it will pressure those countries, the review and designation process is not discretionary. The law requires it. Whatever one’s view of appropriate sanctions for violators, there can be little disagreement on the imperative of bearing witness to abuses.

Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders. The Bush administration issued several designations in its first term but let the process fall off track in its second. The Obama administration issued designations only once during its first term, in August 2011.

The result? Violators such as Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam are escaping the accountability that the International Religious Freedom Act is meant to provide.

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