State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom

On June 21, 2019, the U.S. State Department released its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom in every other country in the world in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-292). The Report’s stated focus is describing other government’s “policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.” [1]

Here is an overview of that report and a subsequent post will discuss its report on Cuban religious freedom.

Overview

The initial draft of the report for each country is prepared by the U.S. Embassy in that country “based on information from government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, media, and others.”

That draft then is reviewed and modified by the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. based on additional information from “consultations with foreign government officials, domestic and foreign religious groups, domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations, multilateral and other international and regional organizations, journalists, academic experts, community leaders, and other relevant U.S. government institutions.”

The Department says its “guiding principle is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible.  Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis in original.)

Appropriately annexed to the Report were the texts of the following documents on this subject:

  • [U.N. General Assembly]Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 18 (1948) (“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.”) (App. A);
  • [U.N. General Assembly Resolution (1966)] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, App. B): Art. 18(1)(“ Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.” Art 18(2)(“ No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” Art. 18(3)(“ Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Art. 20(2)(“ Any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”)
  • [U.N. General Assembly] Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief [Nov. 25, 1981](App. C)(reiteration of above Covenant with additional provisions).
  • Religious Freedom Commitments and Obligations From Regional Bodies and Instruments (European Union: Charter of Fundamental Rights; Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Helsinki Final Act; (App. D); OSCE, Vienna Concluding Document; OSCE, Copenhagen Concluding Document; African Union, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Organization of American States (OAS), American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man; OAS, American Convention on Human Rights).
  • Department of State Training Related to the International Religious Freedom Act—2018 (App. E).
  • Department of Homeland Security and the International Religious Freedom Act (App. F);
  • Overview of U.S. Refugee Policy (App. G).

“Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) & ”Special Watch List”[2]

 Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State (by presidential delegation) is required to designate as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) “each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

In addition, under the Frank R. Wolf International Freedom Act of 2016, the Secretary (by presidential delegation) is required to designate a country to the Special Watch List if it does not meet “all of the CPC criteria but engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom.”

As of November 28, 2018, the Secretary designated as CPCs Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In addition, the Secretary designated Comoros and Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List.

The just released 2018 Report apparently does not have a separate section on CPCs, but an examination of its Country Reports for those just listed as CPCs reveals that all continue in that status. In addition, Comoros and Uzbekistan continue on the Special Watch List with the addition of Russia.

 Ambassador Sam Brownback’s Role and Remarks

This report was prepared under the direction of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback,[3] with guidance from officials in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

At the launch of this report, Ambassador Brownback provided a Special Briefing.[4] He started with this alarming comment, “The fight against religious freedom is mounting. There was a report that 80 percent of people live in places where religious freedom is under attack, yet most of the world organizes their life around a set of religious beliefs.”

As a result, he said, the U.S. is working to “see the iron curtain of religious persecution come down; until governments no longer detain and torture people for simply being of a particular faith or associated with it; until people are no longer charged and prosecuted on specious charges of blasphemy; until the world no longer believes it can get away with persecuting anyone of any faith without consequences.”

The Ambassador then had critical comments about this freedom in Iran, China, Eritrea, Turkey and Nicaragua.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s Remarks[5]

Also at the launch of this report, Secretary of State Pompeo made remarks. He noted that Uzbekistan had made improvements and no longer was a “Country of Particular Concern.” Also complimented for specific improvements on this subject were Pakistan and Turkey. But the Secretary specifically criticized Iran, Russia, Burma and China. Finally he noted that the Department in mid-July will be hosting the second annual Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.

Conclusion

As noted above, a future post will examine how the above background was applied to the report about Cuban religious freedom.

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[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019) This blog has commented on religious freedom in the “International Religious Freedom” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical (RELIGION).

[2] State Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions: IRF Report and Countries of Particular Concern (circa Nov. 28, 2018).

[3] Ambassador Brownback, a Republican, is a former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture (1986-93), U.S. Representative (1995-96), U.S. Senator (1996-2011) and Governor (2011-18). (Sam Brownback, Wikipedia.)

[4] State Dep’t, Special Briefing: Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (June 21, 2019).

[5] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Release of the 2018 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019)

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaders of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Criticize U.S. Government for Alleged Failure To Promote Religious Freedom

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.”

The Criticism

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.”

Analysis

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.”

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Structure and Composition

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as an independent U.S. government body that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.  On December 16, 2011, the Commission’s life was extended by Congress through 2018 after a series of brief extensions had kept it in existence after its previous authorization expired in September 2011.

Its latest annual report on this subject and its views on Cuban religious freedom have been critiqued in prior posts. Now we look at the structure and composition of the Commission.

Under the statute, the Commission is to be composed of nine “distinguished [U.S. citizens] noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights and international law.”

The nine are to be appointed as follows: three by the U.S. President; three by the U.S. Senate’s President pro tempore and three by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Each of the sets of the congressional appointees is to be upon two recommendations from the leader of the political party that does not control the White House and one recommendation from the leader of the President’s political party. Currently there is one vacancy on the Commission.

Rev. William Shaw
Rev. William Shaw
Eric P. Schwartz
Eric P. Schwartz

 

The current Presidential appointees are Rev. William Shaw and Eric P. Schwartz. Shaw is a Baptist Pastor and Immediate Past President of the National Baptist Convention; he serves as a Vice Chair of the Commission. Schwartz is the Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He previously was a senior official of the State Department, the National Security Council, the U.N. and the U.S. Congress.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett
Dr. Katrina            Lantos Swett

The appointee upon recommendation of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights in honor of her father, Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. She also is a professor of human rights and American foreign policy at Tufts University and serves as the Commission’s Chair.

Sam Gejdenson
Sam Gejdenson

 

Sam Gejdenson is the appointee upon recommendation of Nancy Peloisi, House Minority Leader. He is a former Democratic Congressman, the first child of Holocaust survivors to serve in Congress and a leader in human rights, democracy and global engagement.

 

Mary Ann Glendon
Mary Ann Glendon
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appointees upon recommendations by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are  Mary Ann Glendon and  the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Professor Glendon also serves as a Vice Chair of the Commission.[1]  Dr. Jasser is a physician and the President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy whose parents fled oppression in Syria.

Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams
Dr. Robert P. George
Dr. Robert P. George

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appointees upon recommendation of House Minority Leader Eric Cantor are Elliott Abrams and Dr. Robert P. George. Abrams is a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a former senior official in the George W. Bush and Reagan Administrations.[2] Dr. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and a distinguished appointee to various U.S. and UNESCO bodies.

Suzan Johnson Cook
Suzan Johnson Cook

These Commissioners are joined by the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (ex officio and nonvoting). That currently is Suzan D. Johnson Cook.


[1]  Professor Glendon’s book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is an excellent account of the international development of the Declaration and the important role played by Mrs. Roosevelt in that endeavor.

[2] In 1991 upon his guilty plea Abrams was convicted on two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal, but in December 1992 he was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. In 1997 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit publicly censured Abrams, an attorney, for giving false testimony on three occasions to Congress.