The top officials of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom –Its Chairperson, Robert P. George, and its Vice Chairperson, Katrina Lantos Swett –recently have been entering the public forum to discuss that freedom. A prior post reviewed their recent essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion.”
Now in the Washington Post they have criticized the U.S. Government for its alleged failure to comply with the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (“the Act“). They assert that the statute requires all administrations to conduct annual reviews and designations of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations.’” Unfortunately, they continue, “neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders.”
Now, the Commission leaders say, “a key deadline for action [is] arriving this month, [and] it is time to confront this unwise failure to act.”As a result, they ask Congress to press the executive branch “to apply the International Religious Freedom Act fully and the country designation process decisively.”
George and Swett apparently refer to section 402 (b)(1) (A) of the Act, which states:
- “Not later than September 1 of each year, the President shall review the status of religious freedom in each foreign country to determine whether the government of that country has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom in that country during the preceding 12 months or since the date of the last review of that country under this subparagraph, whichever period is longer. The President shall designate each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated violations described in this subparagraph as a country of particular concern for religious freedom.”
Guidance on this requirement is provided in section 402(b)(1)(B) of the Act, which says that such presidential review “shall be based upon information contained in the latest [State Department} Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the [State Department’s] Annual Report [on International Religious Freedom], and on any other evidence available and shall take into account any findings or recommendations by the [U.S.] Commission [on International Religious Freedom] with respect to the foreign country.”
Given these statutory provisions, I think George and Swett erroneously say that various administrations have failed to comply with section 402 (b)(1)(A) of the Act. That provision, as I read it, invests the president with the exclusive authority to make the determination of whether another country has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” In so doing, the president determination shall be based on any available evidence, including said reports by the State Department and the Commission.
Moreover, Ms. Swett undercut her and Mr. George’s criticism when she acknowledged the Commission has limited authority when compared with the U.S. Department of State and implicitly the U.S. President.
In an interview about whether or not the U.S. should grant a visa to an Indian politician, she said, “The State Department has a more difficult job than we do because they are balancing American security interests, American commercial interests, American cultural interests, American exchange interests, a whole range of diplomatic interests, and one of the things that they are putting into that mix is the defense of our fundamental values, human rights and religious freedom and other such things. Because of its much larger portfolio the State Department cannot be as single-minded as we are.”