Obama Administration Has Not Designated a Single Violator Under Int’l Religious Freedom Act

April 28, 2011 - 6:20 AM

Pakistani Christians protest persecution

Pakistani Christians protest after hundreds of Muslims burned and looted Christian homes in the city of Gorja in an August 2009 rampage sparked by allegations that a Quran had been defaced (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) –Despite the strong urging of Washington’s religious rights watchdog, the Obama administration has not designated a single “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations since taking office 27 months ago.

The last time any country was designated as a CPC was on January 16, 2009 – four days before President Bush left office. On that day, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named as CPCs eight countries – Burma, China,, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. All had been designated previously.

Despite the Obama administration’s inaction, those eight still stand, although some actions resulting from the designations have expired.

Designation takes place under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), legislation aimed at making the promotion of religious freedom around the world part of U.S. foreign policy.

The law requires the president to take specific actions against CPCs – countries defined as “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violators of religious freedom. They include sanctions and diplomatic demarches, although the punitive actions may also be waived.

Soon after the legislation came into effect, the Clinton administration in 1999 designated Burma, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan as CPCs.

President George W. Bush’s administration then added North Korea in 2001, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea in 2004, and Uzbekistan in 2006. It removed Iraq and Vietnam from the list in 2004 and 2006 respectively.

IRFA established an international religious freedom office within the State Department, headed by an ambassador-at-large. It also set up an independent, bipartisan expert advisory body, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The USCIRF wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2010, urging action on CPC designations, and again last January, several days after the two-year anniversary of the last designation – but to no avail.

In its annual report released on Thursday, the USCIRF again urged the administration to issue CPC designations quickly. Because of the two-year gap, it noted, actions that had been levied against some of the CPCs had expired.

“The Obama administration continues to rely on the prior administration’s designations but hopefully will make new designations and apply meaningful actions very soon in order to underscore America’s resolve in bolstering the freedom of religion or belief around the world,” said USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo.

The Commission has long been troubled by the way administrations have used – or not used – the tools provided for by the IRFA.

Although Saudi Arabia is widely viewed as a particularly severe violator of religious freedom, an indefinite waiver prevents the imposition of sanctions or other action as a consequence of its designation. Uzbekistan has also been covered by renewable 180-day waivers.

“As a result of these waivers, the United States has not implemented any policy response to the particularly severe violations of religious freedom in either country,” the Commission said in the report.

Even in the cases of CPCs where waivers are not in place, administrations have generally relied on pre-existing sanctions, imposed for other reasons. Of the eight current CPCs, Eritrea alone is subjected to IRFA sanctions specifically for religious freedom violations.

As a result, the Commission says there is little incentive for CPC-designated governments to improve their conduct.

“For these mechanisms to have any real impact on promoting religious freedom, the designation of an egregious religious freedom violator as a CPC must be followed by the implementation of a clear, direct, and specific Presidential action,” said the report.

The Commission more broadly voiced concern about the priority given to religious freedom issues.

“The promotion and protection of religious freedom is underutilized in U.S. foreign policy,” it said.

“This has been the case in both Democratic and Republican administrations, which is unfortunate, as IRFA provides the U.S. government with unique capabilities to address some of the most pressing foreign policy challenges the United States faces today.’

“The U.S. government is working to encourage respect for human rights around the world, while at the same time engaging in conflicts where actors are motivated by ideas advancing violent religious extremism,” it continued.

“In light of this, promoting religious freedom can help policymakers achieve crucial foreign policy goals, given that many egregious limitations on freedom of religious practice not only constitute human rights abuses but also can impact national security.”

Egypt spotlighted

In this year’s report the USCIRF supports the continuing designation of the eight current CPCs, but also wants the addition of a further six countries, including Egypt for the first time.

“In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year’s report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities,” said Leo.

“Since President [Hosni] Mubarak’s resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government’s bringing the perpetrators to justice.”

The report also noted that Egyptian authorities had “not responded adequately to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.”

Iraqi church

Iraqi policemen stand guard outside a church in Baghdad, in December 2010 (AP Photo)

The other five countries which the Commission wants the administration to designate as CPCs are Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Vietnam.

Both Iraq and Vietnam are former CPCs. The Bush administration delisted Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, but the USCIRF in 2008 called for its CPC designation to be restored, arguing that Baghdad was not doing enough “to address the alarming plight of Iraq’s Christian and other religious minority communities.”

The Bush administration also withdrew Vietnam’s designation in 2006, citing improvements in the protection of religious freedom there – a decision opposed at the time, and since, by the USCIRF and other groups concerned about religious freedom in Vietnam.

Apart from its CPC recommendations, the USCIRF placed 11 countries on a watchlist “for violations of religious freedom that do not meet the CPC threshold but require very close attention.” They are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

Ambassador-at-large

Among other concerns raised by the USCIRF in its report are those relating to the appointment of an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.

It took 18 months for the Obama administration to nominate someone to the post, a delay the prompted concerns about the priority being given to promoting religious freedom.

Last June 16 – 513 days after taking office – Obama nominated Suzan Johnson Cook, a prominent Baptist pastor from the Bronx, to the post.

Some questions were raised about a lack of experience in international religious freedom or foreign policy issues. (Her predecessors were former World Vision chief Robert Seiple and John Hanford, a religious freedom advocate who as a staffer for Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana played a key role in authoring the IRFA.)

Cook’s nomination stalled in the Senate and expired in December. The White House renominated her in early February and the Senate on April 14 confirmed the nomination.

The USCIRF in its report did not comment on the new ambassador-at-large’s suitability, but did note that “an important policy position” had been left vacant for more than two years.

It also questioned the ambassador-at-large’s position in the State Department hierarchy.

Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador-at-large for religious freedom

Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, the administration’s nominee for the post of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, addresses a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in March 2011 (Image: Foreign Relations Committee)

While other ambassadors-at-large – such as those dealing with global women’s issues and counterterrorism – are located in the secretary of state’s office and have direct access to the secretary of state, the religious freedom envoy is situated in the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), and falls under the assistant secretary heading that department, currently Michael Posner.

The same situation prevailed under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

“Congress intended the Ambassador-at-Large to be a ‘principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad,’ but USCIRF is concerned that the position is not adequately placed within the State Department hierarchy,” the report said.

It urged the Obama administration to ensure that the person holding the position has direct access to the president and secretary of state.

Asked during her nomination hearing last month about the perceived downgrading of the role in the State Department, Cook said, “I don’t see the position as lowered.”

Describing the staff at the DRL Bureau as a team “who are really on their game,” she said that, if confirmed, she would “join that team and we would elevate again religious freedom to the highest level possible.”