Designating Countries of Particular Concern: Religious Freedom within the US Foreign Policy Agenda

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By Judith Oliver – Later this week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom will issue its annual report.  The Commission’s mandate is to use the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) as a platform from which to track religious persecution around the world and make policy recommendations to the Executive branch and Congress.  The Commission was created to ensure “that the President and the Congress receive independent recommendations and, where necessary, criticism of American policy that does not promote international religious freedom.”[1] 

The focus on religious liberty as an important part of the foreign policy agenda wasn’t apparent until a decade ago when Congress passed the IRFA.  At the time, legislation sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) sought “to establish an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring [and] to provide for the imposition of sanctions against countries engaged in a pattern of religious persecution.”[2] Their proposed bill was not concerned to a great degree with protecting all forms of religious expression. It appeared to specifically target Islamic or Communist regimes where Christians were in the minority and perhaps suffered persecution.  The IRFA was a compromise.  Congress passed the Act, but created the Commission at the same time to guarantee political independence.

The IRFA mandated the establishment of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.  The office is directed by an Ambassador-at-Large and is responsible for promoting religious freedom as a normal tenet of diplomatic activities.  The State Department issues its own Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.  The report identifies those countries that restrict or curtail religious freedom and labels the most egregious violators Countries of Particular Concern, or CPCs.  Violations are defined as acts that go against the tenets laid out in such international instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.    

The Commission labeled eleven countries CPCs in their 2007 annual report.  These include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.  There are eight more on the Commission’s “Watch List,” countries where religious freedom is curtailed: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, and Nigeria.  There is no expectation of drastic changes to this list in the upcoming 2008 report.     

The State Department further designated eight of these countries as CPCs:  Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.  CPC designation makes certain relationships more difficult.  Saudi Arabia and China are strategic partners and Uzbekistan has provided material support to the U.S. in the War on Terror.  Asking for cooperation and then offering a rebuke on the status of their free expression of religious belief is a diplomatic dance that becomes more intricate as time progresses.        

Troubling developments in the CPCs and elsewhere point to growing concern over the protection of religious freedom. Vladimir Putin has moved recently to align his authoritative regime with the Russian Orthodox Church to the exclusion of all other denominations.  Protestant denominations which proliferated there after the break-up of the Soviet Union are now labeled ‘sects’ and specifically required to register, or their ability to gather and worship is forbidden. 

The western perspective sees religion as a consideration in China’s relationship with Tibet as well.  China recently signaled its intention to speak to envoys of the Dalai Lama about the situation in Tibet.  This proposal appears to be a result of China’s intention to address the protests that have accompanied the Olympic torch relay.  There is little optimism that the meeting will occur, or lead to a breakthrough if it does.  

The US should follow through on specific actions available once it designates a country a CPC.   These run the gamut from private criticism of the status of religious freedom, to sanctions.  It would not only promote US reputation and standing as the most vocal proponent and advocate for the right to freedom of religion worldwide, it would allow the US to find common ground with citizens elsewhere by recognizing and taking a stand against persecution.  

[1]Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, May 1, 2007, p. 7.
[2] Gunn, T. Jeremy. “When Our Allies Persecute,” Religion in the News, Vol. 4, No. 3, (Fall 2001): 30.    

Judith Oliver is a Congressional Fellow with the Security for a New Century program at the Stimson Center.

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