Not Our Job to Avoid Offending Governments, Says Religious Freedom Watchdog

By Patrick Goodenough | March 27, 2013 | 4:51am EDT

USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett addresses an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference on human rights and democracy, in Warsaw, Poland on Oct. 1, 2012. U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook sits alongside her. (Photo: U.S. Mission to OSCE/Collin Peters)

( – Uncertainty over how the State Department and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom should promote religious freedom abroad “has at times created tensions with foreign government officials,” the Government Accountability Office notes in a new report, citing Turkey and Vietnam as examples.

The State Department says it had to work to repair damage to bilateral relationships with Islamist-ruled Turkey last year and with communist Vietnam in 2006, resulting from USCIRF actions.

In response to the report, USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a letter to the GAO that the commission’s “mandate is neither to conduct diplomacy nor balance religious freedom against other U.S. national interests.”

Swett conceded that “at times, our findings draw the ire of offending governments that would prefer their shortcomings remain hidden and may result in bilateral friction,” and added that the USCIRF recognized that its role “sometimes poses a challenge for the State Department.”

The GAO report concluded that the State Department and USCIRF, an independent statutory body created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), were implementing their responsibilities under the legislation, “but need to improve interaction.”

IRFA mandated USCIRF to make recommendations to government, and also established an ambassador-at-large in the State Department to oversee its religious freedom objectives. The post is currently held by Suzan Johnson Cook.

Among several problem areas highlighted in its report, the GAO pointed to uncertainty over how State and USCIRF should work with each other.

IRFA requires the State Department to designate egregious violators of religious freedom as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), subject to sanctions or other measures designed to prod governments to improve.

USCIRF, meanwhile, is tasked to make recommendations on which countries should be designated, but the State Department has frequently ignored its advice.

Of 16 countries which USCIRF in its 2012 report said deserve CPC status, only half (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan) have been designated as such by the State Department. It overruled the commission’s advice regarding the other eight – Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

Pakistan, a particularly noteworthy case, has never been named a CPC, despite USCIRF recommendations to that effect every year since 2002 and deep concerns about its blasphemy laws.

The GAO report had little to say about Pakistan, but did refer to a kerfuffle over USCIRF’s recommendation in its 2012 report that Turkey be designated a CPC.

“Because the Ambassador-at-Large was not regularly attending USCIRF meetings at the time, State officials learned of the commissioners’ intent shortly before USCIRF published

its report,” GAO said.

“State officials explained that Turkey did not warrant CPC designation, as it had taken steps to improve religious freedom, but USCIRF proceeded with its recommendation. According to Turkish officials, USCIRF’s report contradicted State’s report and was therefore ‘null and void.’ The Ambassador-at-Large told GAO that she had to resolve the resulting tensions with the Turkish government.”

As reported at the time, USCIRF cited in its CPC recommendation “the Turkish government’s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief that affect all religious communities in Turkey, and particularly threaten the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities.”

USCIRF commissioners were split over the Turkey CPC recommendation and the State Department’s eleventh-hour attempt to sway the decision came too late.

Turkey is a close NATO ally and President Obama has warm ties with Islamist-leaning Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Vietnamese officials ‘offended’

The GAO report also recalled an earlier row, relating to Vietnam, which was first designated as a CPC in 2004.

It said Cook’s predecessor as ambassador-at-large (John Hanford) had in 2005 “negotiated an action plan with the Vietnamese government including actions that, if taken by the government, could support its case for removal from the CPC list.”

“According to State officials, Vietnam took the necessary steps and the Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] removed the country’s CPC designation in 2006. However, when USCIRF commissioners visited Vietnam later that year, according to State and Vietnamese officials, they offended the Vietnamese officials by their conduct in high-level meetings.

“State officials told us that this was damaging to some of the progress made with Vietnamese officials and necessitated efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with Vietnam,” the report stated.

In fact USCIRF continues to argue that Hanoi’s delisting was premature and to recommend that it be reversed, noting ongoing concerns.

In a letter to the GAO responding to its report – dated March 12 but released on Tuesday –Swett said the commission at all times makes clear the fact that it is distinct from the executive branch and State Department.

“USCIRF’s mandate is neither to conduct diplomacy nor balance religious freedom against other U.S. national interests,” she wrote.

“[A]t times, our findings draw the ire of offending governments that would prefer their shortcomings remain hidden and may result in bilateral friction. We recognize that USCIRF’s role sometimes poses a challenge for the State Department, but that role has been mandated by law, and – as the report notes – it also has produced opportunities for proactive diplomacy.”

Reporting anomaly

Another problem area identified by the GAO was the fact that Cook has a lower organizational status within the State Department than others of her rank.

Of the other five ambassadors-at-large at the department, two report directly to the secretary of state and three to an undersecretary. But Cook reports to the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor – even though, the report said, “according to State’s organizational structure guidelines, an Ambassador-at-Large is ranked higher than an Assistant Secretary.”

Some religious freedom campaigners have argued that the reporting anomaly sends a signal that the State Department assigns low priority to promoting religious freedom.

Swett said in her letter USCIRF has highlighted over the years areas where Congress’ intent in IRFA has not been fulfilled, including “the need for more vigorous U.S. government efforts to raise religious freedom concerns in bilateral relations, and the low placement of the Ambassador-at-Large within the State Department hierarchy.”

Concluding, she cited reports and studies showing that religious freedom violations can lead to instability and violence.

“At a time when restrictions on religious freedom are increasing and many countries are redefining the state’s relation to religion, it is critical that the United States government expand and increase its efforts to protect this fundamental freedom,” Swett wrote. “USCIRF is honored to help the U.S. government in this important endeavor.”

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