U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting  

On September 23, 2019, the U.N. General Assembly held a High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage that aimed to accelerate progress toward universal health coverage for everyone around the world, which would include access to health care services, medicines and vaccines in accordance with the U.N.’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, under which all countries have committed to try to achieve universal health coverage by 2030.[1]

At this High-Level Meeting, Alex Azar, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, read a joint statement on behalf of the following 19 countries representing more than 1.3 billion people: the United States of America plus Africa (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan), Eastern Europe/North Asia (Belarus, Russia), Europe (Hungary, Poland), Latin America (Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti) and  Middle East (Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen).

The U.S. Joint Statement[2]

“We believe that health of women, men, children and adolescents supports and improves the overall health of our families and communities, and that the family is the foundational institution of society and thus should be supported and strengthened.”

“We commend the United Nations and the Member States on the significant work done on the Universal Health Coverage Political Declaration,[3] and for the high priority placed on expanding access to health care.”

“We therefore urge Member States to join us in focusing on the important work of expanding health and opportunities for all people, and especially those in situations of risk and/or vulnerability.”

“To make the most meaningful progress without delay or dissension, we respectfully call upon Member States to join us in concentrating on topics that unite rather than divide on the critical issues surrounding access to health care.”

We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensus and which can be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies.” (Emphasis added.)

Such terms do not adequately take into account the key role of the family in health and education, nor the sovereign right of nations to implement health policies according to their national context. There is no international right to an abortion and these terms should not be used to promote pro-abortion policies and measures.” (Emphasis added.)

Further, we only support sex education that appreciates the protective role of the family in this education and does not condone harmful sexual risks for young people.”  (Emphasis added.)

“We therefore request that the U.N., including U.N. agencies, focus on concrete efforts that enjoy broad consensus among member states. To that end, only documents that have been adopted by all Member States should be cited in U.N. resolutions.” (Emphasis added.)

“To this end, we also understand the important role the Sustainable Development Goals play in assisting countries realize their own path to universal health coverage, in accordance with national policies and legislation.”

“We strongly support the highest attainable health outcomes for women, men, children, and adolescents holistically and throughout their lives.”

We support equal access to health care, which includes, but is not limited to reproductive concerns, maternal health, voluntary and informed family planning, HIV, elimination of violence against women and girls, and empowerment to reach the highest standard of health.” (Emphasis added.)

“We support programs to improve the health, life, dignity, and well-being of women, men, children, and families, and we will continue to be their stalwart defender.”

“Let us focus on concrete issues and challenges to accelerate access to health for all.”

“To this end, international solidarity has a key role to play, in order to the build broad consensus by member states.”

Preceding U.S. Letter Urging Support of the Joint Statement[4]

Prior to this High-Level Meeting, Secretary Azar and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reportedly sent a letter to at least some of the other U.N. members that were to attend this High-Level Meeting encouraging them to sign this joint statement opposing “harmful UN policies, especially at the World Health Organization, that promote sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “ensuring that every sovereign state has the ability to determine the best way to protect the unborn and defend the family as the foundational unity of society vital to children thriving and leading healthy lives.”

This letter reportedly also said, “We remain gravely concerned that aggressive efforts to reinterpret international instruments to create a new international right to abortion and to promote international policies that weaken the family have advanced through some United Nations forums.” Evidence of this [effort] is found in references throughout many multilateral global health policy documents to interpret ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health’ and ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ to diminish the role of parents in the most sensitive and personal family-oriented issues. The latter has been asserted to mean promotion of abortion, including pressuring countries to abandon religious principles and cultural norms enshrined in law that protect unborn life.”

Other U.S. Challenges to U.N. Documents

This U.S. letter and the Joint Statement are consistent with prior efforts by the Trump Administration to delete and remove language from various U.N. agreements. Here are examples of this effort: (a) this April intense lobbying by U.S. officials resulted in the removal of references to sexual and reproductive health from a UN security council resolution on combatting rape in conflict; and (b) the U.S.previously attempted to water down language and remove the word “gender” from UN documents.

On September 24 Secretary Azar remained at the U.N. to attend President Trump’s address to the General Assembly and to meet with other governments representatives. He also was interviewed on Tony Perkins’ “Washington Watch” radio program  [5]

Opposition to U.S. Joint Statement[6]

The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Trade, Sigrid Kaag, spoke out in a competing joint statement issued on behalf of 58 countries. Although it did not mention the U.S. Joint Statement or use the word “abortion,” her joint statement clearly opposed the U.S. position. Her main points were the following: (1) “We strongly believe that SRHR [Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights] is an integral part of Universal Health Coverage and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. (2) “Investing in SRHR has proven to be affordable, cost-effective, and cost saving.” (3) “Gender-related barriers to accessing UHC [Universal Health Care] must be addressed, including by direct involvement of women, adolescents and marginalized groups in policy and program design.” (4) “Investing in comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in UHC is necessary to address the needs of women, girls, adolescents and people in the most marginalized situations who need these the most.”

Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation tweeted that the action was “unbelievable news” and that “women’s rights must be protected at all times.” Another objector was Françoise Girard, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, who said that “sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, and are enshrined in UN agreements for almost 25 years now” and that “the Trump administration’s position is extreme and its repeated attempts to strip women, girls, and gender- diverse people of their rights at the United Nations have failed.”

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said the Pompeo-Azar letter “shows how they are trying to erode international consensus and roll back the clock for women and girls. It’s not just abortion that they care about, they care about women’s ability to exercise autonomy over their bodies and about denying them critical access to the services they need.” That Pompeo and Azur both signed the letter suggests an escalation of the US strategy to undermine policy statements, she added.

Keifer Buckingham, senior policy adviser for international public health at the Open Society Foundations, said that rather than an escalation, “it could be them just putting out in public what they have been doing in private.” She said the US was effectively sending a message of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”, which could have funding implications.

Other civil society and women’s rights groups expressed alarm at the efforts and accused the U.S. of aligning with countries like Saudi Arabia and Sudan with poor human rights records and, also, of putting unfair pressure on poor countries that depend on U.S. aid.

Support for U.S. Joint Statement[7]

On the other side of this controversy were anti-abortion groups that praised the statement as a sign of the administration’s “strong pro-life leadership on the world stage.” For example, the group Susan B. Anthony (SBA ) List issued a statement, saying, “From day one, President Trump has worked to restore respect for life as a foundational American value, not only in our domestic policies, but in our international relations as well.”

Conclusion

This speech by Secretary Azar, the preceding letter and the U.S. lobbying for other nations’ support against abortion and reproductive health can be seen as confirmation of fears that the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights that was announced this June was designed to put a gloss of respectability on efforts to attack women’s rights and to appeal to the Administration’s base of very conservative religious supporters.[8]

As noted in other posts, this U.S. Commission emphasizes the July 4, 1776, U.S. Declaration of Independence’s statement “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the Commission ignores that phrase’s indications that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are “among” certain unalienable rights; i.e., there are other such rights. Moreover, the Commission ignores the very next sentence of that Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, this Declaration recognizes that these recited rights need to be “secured” by subsequent legislation that will have details not specified in this Declaration. (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, the U.S.-promoted Joint Statement’s requiring all 193 U.N. members to adopt a U.N. document or treaty as a precondition for them to be used in other U.N. documents would give every one of those members a veto right on the subsequent use of those documents or treaties. Is there any such document or treaty that has such unanimous approval? (That is exceedingly unlikely.) It also is  antithetical to the provisions of such treaties requiring a certain number of ratifications in order for the treaties to go into effect for the parties to the treaties. In short, this provision of the Joint Statement would totally prevent progress on these and many other issues.[9]

In short, the U.S. positions expressed in the U.N. speech by Secretary Azar were most unfortunate.

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[1] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Represents the United States During UNGA High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Care Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, uhc 2030.

[2] U.S. HHS Dep’t, [Secretary Azar], Remarks on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 23, 2019); Howard, U.S. wants the U.N. to oppose terms such as “reproductive health and rights” in policies, CNN (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] The Political Declaration stated that the High-Level Meeting will have “a dedicated focus for the first time on universal health coverage . . . and [a strong recommitment] to achieve universal health coverage by 2030” with 83 numbered paragraphs of specific actions towards that goal. (U.N. Gen. Ass’bly, Political Declaration on the High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (Sept. 10, 2019).)

[4] Cha, U.S. joins 19 nations, including Saudi Arabia and Russia: ‘There is no international right to an abortion, Wash. Post (Sept. 24, 2019); Ford, Leaked letter suggests US is rallying UN members to oppose abortion, Guardian (Sept. 23, 2019).

[5] HHS Dep’t, Secretary Azar Attends Presidential Address at UNGA, Furthers U.S. Partnerships on Health through Bilateral Meetings (Sept. 24, 2019).

[6] Netherlands Ministry Foreign Affairs, Joint Statement on SRHR in UHC (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] SBA List, Pro-Life Groups Praise Trump Admin’s Defense of Life at the UN (Sept. 24, 2019).

[8] See posts to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights.

[9]  See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES).

 

 

 

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom   

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic,  or ongoing, or egregious.”[1]

Commission’s Key Findings About Cuba[2]

According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:

  • “The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
  • “Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
  • “The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
  • “While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
  • “The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
  • “Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
  • “In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”

Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government[3]

The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:

  1. “Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
  2. “Press the Cuban government to:
  • “Stop harassment of religious leaders;
  • End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
  • End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
  • Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
  • Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
  • Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
  • Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
  • Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
  1. “Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
  2. “Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
  3. “Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
  4. “Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

Conclusion

On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world.[4] Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.

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[1] U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain,  Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).

[2]  2018 Annual Report at 148-53.

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018).

 

U.N. Human Rights Council’s Sparring Over Cuban Human Rights

This September the U.N. Human Rights Council  in Geneva, Switzerland has encountered two items relating to Cuba: (a)  a Council reprimand of Cuba for its alleged punishing some of its citizens for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights and (b) Cuba’s human rights record.

The Council’s Reprimand

On September 20 the U.N. Human Rights Council reprimanded Cuba by putting it on a list of 29 states that have “punished people, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the UN on human rights.”  Such reprisals and intimidation include travel bans, asset-freezing, detention and torture.[1]

The  29 states on the list are Algeria, Bahrain, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela. (The nine in bold along with 38 other U.N. members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly to serve on the Council.)

The report said the  following about Cuba:

“On 18 October 2016, some mandate holders raised with the [Cuban] Government allegations of harassment and reprisals against human rights defenders and members of the Cubalex Legal Information Center for their cooperation with the United Nations in the field of human rights (see A/HRC/34/75, CUB 3/2016). The allegations were mainly in relation to advocates’ cooperation with the Human Rights Council, its special procedures and the universal periodic review mechanism, and took the form of stop and questioning at the airport and harassment by immigration agents. Additionally, on 23 September 2016, the offices of Cubalex Legal Information Center were raided (CUB 3/2016).” (Report, Section V.B.5.)[2]

The Council’s Assistant Secretary-General, Andrew Gilmour, said, “There is something grotesque and entirely contrary to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, and particularly this Council, that people get punished, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the U.N. on human rights,”

Complaint about Cuba’s Human Rights

On September 19, under the Council’s Agenda Item 4: “Human Rights Situations Requiring Council Attention,” a U.S. diplomat expressed U.S.’ deep concern about the human rights situation in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Russia, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, (North Korea), China, DPRK (North Korea), Hong Kong, Belarus, Turkey, Venezuela and Cuba. (Emphasis added.)[3]

The diplomat’s statement about Cuba was very short: “We urge Cuba to release political prisoners and cease the harassment of civil society groups.” (Emphasis in original.)

The U.S. statement about Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, was longer. It said, “We condemn the Maduro regime’s repressive actions to violate human rights including by suppressing dissent and peaceful protests in Venezuela.  We call on it to dissolve the illegitimate Constituent Assembly and restore Venezuela’s democratic institutions; hold free, fair, and credible elections as soon as possible; and provide humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people.” (Emphasis in original.)

Cuba’s Response.

The same day (September 19), Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the Council, Ambassador Pedro L. Pedroso Cuesta, made the following longer response:[4]

  • “Is it politicization, double standards and selectivity, [all] bad practices, that will end up prevailing in the work of the Human Rights Council? Many of us hope not.”
  • “However, what we have heard in the debate of this theme, as well as in others last week, suggests that some promote that this is the way to go by this body.”
  • “Several countries continue to seek to stand as paradigms for the promotion and protection of human rights and use this and other agenda items to criticize other countries, while xenophobia, racism and intolerance increase in their own territories to a highly worrying level.”
  • “How can one think they are seriously concerned about human rights situations in countries of the South, when they promote wars and interventions against them, and then ignore or keep their hands off the suffering they caused with these actions to citizens whose rights are supposedly sought to improve?”
  • “Why do they oppose implementing the right to development and thereby improve the situation of millions of people living in poverty?”
  • “Cuba rejects manipulation for political ends and double standards in the treatment of human rights. The accusations against my country made by the [U.S.] representative, as well as unfounded, are inconsistent with the need to promote an objective, non-politicized and non-discriminatory debate on human rights issues.”
  • “I must also draw attention to the fact that such statement, centered on the alleged violations of others, aims at ignoring all human rights violations occurring in its territory, and the deep international concern caused by the language of exclusion that appears in that country.”
  • “We demand the cessation of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed on Cuba for more than 55 years. The measures of June 16 to reinvigorate this blockade are doomed to failure, and will not achieve their purpose of weakening the Revolution or bending the Cuban people.”
  • “We reiterate our solidarity with the Venezuelan Government and people and call for an end to all interference in the internal affairs of that country. We demand respect for the legitimate right of the Venezuelan people to continue building the social model that drives the Bolivarian Revolution.”
  • “Let us not let the failure of the defunct Commission on Human Rights repeat itself in the Council. It is our duty to work for cooperation and respectful dialogue to prevail, and politicization, selectivity and double standards disappear once and for all.”

As mentioned in a previous post, U.S. Vice President MIke Pence at the U.N. Security Council Meeting  on September 20 complained about Cuba and certain other countries being members of the U.N. Human Rights Council in light of what he said was its oppression and repression, a charge rejected by Cuba at that same meeting and by Cuba’s Foreign Minister at the General Assembly on September 22.   https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/09/24/u-s-cuba-relations-discussed-in-u-n-proceedings/

Conclusion

These developments at the Council do not involve the potential imposition of sanctions of any kind on Cuba. Instead they are, I believe, verbal sparring on an international stage. (If I am missing some potential sanctions, please advise in a comment to this post.)

I have not seen any Cuban response to the Council’s reprimand. In any event, Cuba as soon as possible should end any harassment of Cubalex Legal Information Center and any of its officers and employees.

Any reforms of the Human Rights Council would seem to lie with the General Assembly, which I assume would only do so after significant study, analysis and voting, and I am unaware of any such study being proposed or conducted.

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[1] U.N. Human Rts. Council, Report of the Secretary-General: Cooperation with the United Nations, Its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (# A/HRC/36/31, Sept. 15, 2017)(Advance unedited version); U.N. Human Rts Council, Oral presentation by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights of the Report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights (No. 36/31 Sept. 20, 2017); U.N. Human Rts Council, Report highlights rising reprisals against human rights defenders cooperating with the UN (Sept. 20, 2017); Reuters, Record Number of States Punishing Human Rights Activism: U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 20, 2017).

[2] See earlier post to dwkcommentaries: Cuban Police Search and Seize Property of Independent Legal Center (Oct. 7, 2016) (CUBALEX is the Center in question); More Cuban Arrests of Dissidents ( Dec. 2, 2016) (arrest of Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, who is ‎affiliated with Cubalex).

[3] U.S. Mission Geneva, Statement by the United States of America (Sept. 19, 2017).

[4] Cuba rejects manipulation of human rights issue in Geneva, Granma (Sept. 21, 2017).

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

USDeptStateseal

On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Annual Report 2014   

Comm'n Intl Religious Free                                                

On April 30, 2014, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its Annual Report 2014, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 (“the Act”).[1]

Introduction

The Commission relies upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[2] (P. 9.)

The Report stressed the importance of this freedom. It says this right “protects the freedom of religious communities, as groups, to engage in worship and other collective activities. It also protects every individual’s right to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief, as well as the freedom to manifest such a religion or belief, subject only to the narrow limitations specified under international law.” (P. 9.)

This right is important, says the Commission, “because it enables people to follow what their conscience dictates. . . . People are entitled to religious freedom by virtue of their humanity.” Therefore, there can be no “coercion or compulsion in these matters.” (P. 2.)

Moreover, whenever this freedom is abused, “societal well-being would suffer” as well as democracy and other human rights and economic productivity. So too “peace and security may become more elusive.” In short, according to the commission, “the defense of religious freedom is both a humanitarian imperative and a practical necessity.” (P. 3.)

General Recommendations

The Commission recommended that the U.S. do the following with respect to this freedom:

  • develop and implement a religious freedom strategy;
  • demonstrate the importance of religious freedom , including the designation of “countries of particular concern ” identified by the Commission;
  • reinvigorate and create new tools under the Act;
  • expand training, programming and public diplomacy about the subject;
  • expand multilateral efforts on the subject; and
  • protect asylum-seekers from being returned to countries where they face persecution for religious reasons. (Pp. 7-8.)

“Countries of Particular Concern” (Tier 1 Countries)

Under its authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. (P. 5.)

The latest report recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight countries as Tier 1 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In addition, the Report recommends that the following additional eight countries also be so designated by the State Department: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. (P. 5.)

Tier 2 Countries

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met. (P. 5.)

The latest Report designated the following nine countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Russia and Turkey.[3] (P. 5.)

Other Countries

The latest Report also discussed seven other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka) and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. (P. 5.)

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will critique the Report regarding that country.

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[1] The Act § § 202, 205. The Report contains an account of the development of the Act and the 15-year history of its implementation. (Pp. 11-23.) A prior post examined the fascinating structure and composition of the Commission, and another post its report issued in 2013.

[2] See Post: International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion (Jan. 1, 2012).

[3] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Latest U.S. Reports on International Religious Freedom

Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world.[1] In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject for selected countries.[2]

It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].” [3] Instead the agencies reports rely upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.[4]

The post will review the latest State Department report on this subject for all 194 other countries in the world and the Commission’s latest report on 29 countries plus one large region (Western Europe).[5]

Latest State Department Report

USDeptStateseal

After emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, the State Department’s May 20, 2013, report “tells stories of courage and conviction, but also recounts violence, restriction, and abuse. While many nations uphold, respect, and protect religious freedom, regrettably, in many other nations, governments do not protect this basic right; subject members of religious minorities to violence; actively restrict citizens’ religious freedom through oppressive laws and regulations; stand by while members of societal groups attack their fellow citizens out of religious hatred, and fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable for their actions.”

The report continues.”The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom. These causes include impunity for violations of religious freedom and an absence of the rule of law, or uneven enforcement of existing laws; introduction of laws restricting religious freedom; societal intolerance, including anti-Semitism and lack of respect for religious diversity; and perceptions that national security and stability are best maintained by placing restrictions on and abusing religious freedom.”

Highlighted for concern by the report were “[l]aws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive. Numerous governments imposed such undue and inappropriate restrictions on religious groups and abused their members, in some cases as part of formal government law and practice.” Another concern was the “use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.” They “continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”

The report documented “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world. Of great concern were expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media.”

According to the report, “Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Government policy that denies citizens the freedom to discuss, debate, practice, and pass on their faith as they see fit also undercuts society’s ability to counter and combat the biased and warped interpretations of religion that violent extremists propagate. Societal intolerance increased in many regions during 2012.”

Finally the report said, “Governments exacerbated religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric, fomenting violence, fostering a climate of impunity, and failing to ensure the rule of law. In several instances of communal attacks on members of religious minorities and their property, police reportedly arrested the victims of such attacks, and NGOs alleged that there were instances in which police protected the attackers rather than the victims. As a result, government officials were not the only ones to commit abuses with impunity. Impunity for actions committed by individuals and groups within society was often a corollary of government impunity.”

The report also acknowledged the Department’s statutory obligation to designate “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), i.e., those countries that are considered to commit “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the Act. The term ‘‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’’ means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as: (a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (d) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

Accordingly the report re-designated the following eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.[6]

Latest Commission Report

USCommRelFree

 

Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

In its latest report, issued on April 30, 2013, the following 15 countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan (all of which had been designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department the prior year) plus Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met.

The latest report designated the following eight countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.[7]

The latest report also discussed six other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey and Venezuela and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. At first glance the monitoring of Western Europe seems anomalous, but here are the topics of concern to the Commission:

  • Restrictions on religious dress (full-face veils) in France and Belgium.
  • Failure in Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Norway and Iceland to exempt religious slaughter of animals from laws requiring prior stunning of the animals.
  • Suggestions in Germany and Norway that religious circumcisions of male children were illegal.
  • Restrictions on construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, and the lack of an official mosque in Athens, Greece.
  • “Incitement to hatred” and other laws in almost all European states that can be used to restrict expression of religious beliefs.
  • Reluctance in many European states to provide accommodation of religious objections to generally applicable laws.
  • Measures in France, Austria, Belgium and Germany against religious groups perjoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.”
  • Societal intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief such as towards Muslim women with full-face veils, Jewish people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It should also be noted that the Commission sometimes takes an adversarial position vis-à-vis the U.S. State Department. For example, on April 30, 2013, when the Commission released its latest report, its simultaneous press release recommended that the Department designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” the seven additional countries the Commission had placed in Tier 1 as noted above.

When the Department failed to do so in its May 20th report, the next day the Commission issued a press release criticizing the Department for failure to make additional CPC designations since August 2011 and to do so for the same seven additional countries.

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will compare and contrast the two reports regarding that country.

Such a comparison, in my opinion, will show that the State Department’s reports are more balanced and fair at least with respect to Cuba.


[2]  Id. § § 202, 205. The fascinating structure and composition of the Commission will be the subject of a future post.

[3]  U.S. Const., First Amend.

[5] A prior post examined the prior State Department report.

[6] The State Department report noted that it considers the recommendations of the Commission on CPCs, but that the Secretary of State makes the final decision on that issue. The Department’s report thereby implicitly rejected the Commission’s recommendation for an additional seven countries to be so designated.

[7] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”