President Obama Rescinds U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On April 14th President Barack Obama rescinded the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and so notified the Congress. This post will review that decision and its background. [1]

As discussed in a prior post, on December 17, 2014, President Obama asked Secretary of State John Kerry to undertake a review of whether the U.S. should rescind this designation while another post reviewed the statutory framework for this process: review and recommendation by the Department of State followed by a decision by the president and notification of such a decision to the Congress with such a decision to become effective 45 days after that notification. Yet another post set forth the reasons why this blogger believes that such past designations of Cuba have been unjustified, absurd, ridiculous.

 State Department’s Recommendation

Secretary of State’s Press Statement.

On April 14, 2015, Secretary Kerry publicly announced that the State Department had recommended that the President rescind the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” His press release stated that last week the “Department submitted a report to the White House recommending, based on the facts and the statutory standard, that President Obama rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

“This recommendation,” the Statement continued, “reflects the Department’s assessment that Cuba meets the criteria established by Congress for rescission . . . . whether Cuba provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months, and whether Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” This conclusion was based, in part, upon “corroborative assurances received from the Government of Cuba.”

Nevertheless, according to the Secretary’s statement, “the United States has had, and continues to have, significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, [but] these concerns and disagreements fall outside of the criteria for designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.”

Department’s Background Briefing.

At a special briefing on April 14th, a senior State Department official noted, “the Cubans have for a long time shown us many, many, many speeches by their leaders, both Fidel and Raul, in which they have rejected terrorism; many instances, in fact, of terrorist acts that they have decried publicly, I think the latest probably being the Charlie Hebdo incident in France. But certainly, there are lots of incidents that they can point to. And in terms of commitments for the future, they point to both statements by their leadership and ratifications of international treaties, and the assurances that they gave us.”

Another senior official stated, ”the assurances they provide were fairly wide-ranging and fairly high-level. . . . [T]hey addressed the key elements that we know in the past have been a factor. [T]hey also addressed the pledge or the assurances that they will no longer support acts of terrorism in the future.”

One of the officials in response to a journalist question said, “The statutes . . . provide that no rescission can be made if within 45 days after the receipt of the report from the President the Congress enacts a joint resolution on the issue prohibiting the rescission. The President, of course, can veto any such joint resolution and Congress then, of course, can further act to override the veto. . . . Congress has the right to act.”

 President Obama’s Decision

That same day (April 14) a White House press release stated the President had “submitted to Congress the statutorily required report and certifications indicating the Administration’s intent to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation.”

This presidential decision was based upon the previously mentioned State Department recommendation that was based on its “careful review of Cuba’s record, which was informed by the Intelligence Community, as well as assurances provided by the Cuban government.”

This press release also stated, “As the President has said, we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.  That determination is based on the statutory standard – and the facts – and those facts have led the President to declare his intention to rescind Cuba’s State Sponsor of Terrorism designation.  More broadly, the [U.S.] will continue to support our interests and values through engagement with the Cuban government and people.”

  • The actual presidential message to Congress was even shorter. It stated, “Pursuant to the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and consistent with section 6(j)(4)(B) of the Export Administration Act of 1979, Public Law 96-72, as amended (50 U.S.C. App. 2405(j)), and as continued in effect by Executive Order 13222 of August 17, 2001, I hereby certify, with respect to the rescission of the determination of March 1,
    1982, regarding Cuba that:(i) the Government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6-month period; and

    (ii) the Government of Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.

This certification shall also satisfy the provisions of section 620A(c)(2) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, Public Law 87-195, as amended (22 U.S.C. 2371(c)), and section 40(f)(1)(B) of the Arms Export Control Act, PublicLaw 90-629, as amended (22 U.S.C. 2780(f)).”

Reactions to the Decision

Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Dick Durbin (Dem., IL) and Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD) were among those officials who offered immediate support of the decision. Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a private group that promotes democracy in the hemisphere, said: “Taking Cuba off the list of terrorist states is a sensible, and long-overdue step. Whatever U.S. and Cuban differences, the Cuban government has not been a supporter of terrorism.  Taking Cuba off the list will remove an unnecessary irritant in the relationship, and perhaps allow us to discuss the real differences we do have in a more serious way. It should help pave the way for normal diplomatic relations.” The same sentiment came from another U.S. NGO focusing on Latin America, the Latin American Working Group.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top diplomat for U.S. Affairs, endorsed the decision. She said, “The Cuban government recognizes the just decision taken by the President of the [U.S.] to eliminate Cuba from a list on which it never should have been included, especially considering that our country has been the victim of hundreds of acts of terrorism that have cost 3,478 lives and disabled 2,099 Cuban citizens. As the Cuban government has reiterated on multiple occasions, Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism in all their forms and manifestations, as well as any action that is intended to instigate, support, finance or conceal terrorist acts.”

Not surprisingly long time Cuban-American opponents of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement criticized this decision: U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtine (Rep., FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL).

Rubio’s opposition undercuts his just-announced presidential campaign assertion that the “time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century.” In contrast, he said, “too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century. They are busy looking backward. . . . They look for solutions in yesterday.” Sorry, Senator Rubio, your ideas and solutions for U.S.-Cuba relations “are stuck in the twentieth century . . . in yesterday.” Stop looking backward!

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[1] This post is based upon the sources which are hyperlinked in this post along with the following: Archibold & Davis, Obama Endorses Removing Cuba From Terrorism List, N.Y. Times (April 14, 2015); Reuters, Obama Tells Congress He Plans to Remove Cuba From Terrorism List, N.Y. Times (April 14, 2015), Reuters, Cuba Gave U.S. Assurances It Will Not Support Terrorism in Future: U.S. Officials, N.Y. Times (April 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, Obama to Remove Cuba From State Sponsor of Terror List, N.Y. Times (April 14, 2015); DeJong, Obama removes Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Wash. Post (April 14, 2015); Tharoor, After 33 years, the U.S. dropped its claim that Cuba sponsors terrorism. Here’s what it means, Wash. Post (Apr. 14, 2015); Barack Obama announces intent to remove Cuba from list of state sponsors of terrorism, Granma (April 14, 2015); Wash. Office on Latin America, Press Release: White House Announces Cuba’s Removal from ‘State Sponsors of Terror List (April 14, 2015); Latin American Working Group, Statement about Cuba’s removal from list (April 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cubans Hail Removal From US List of State Terrorism Sponsors, N.Y. Times (April 15, 2015). The actual State Department recommendation could not be found on the Internet, but when it is so available, another blog post will review that document

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Senator Klobuchar Introduces Bill To End Embargo of Cuba

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

On February 12, 2015, Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced S.491: Freedom to Export to Cuba Act. Its five cosponsors are Senators Richard Durbin (Dem., IL). Mike Enzi (Rep., WY),  Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Debbie Stabenow (Dem, MI). The bill was referred to the Senate’s   (a) Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and (b) Foreign Relations Committees.

                        Comments on S.491

Senator Klobuchar’s press release said the bill would eliminate the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and thereby pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods. The legislation repeals key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, but does not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government. [1]

This press release also stated, “It’s time to the turn the page on our Cuba policy. Fifty years of the embargo have not secured our interests in Cuba and have disadvantaged American businesses by restricting commerce with a market of 11 million people just 90 miles from our shores. There are many issues in our relationship with Cuba that must be addressed, but this legislation to lift the embargo will begin to open up new opportunities for American companies, boost job creation and exports, and help improve the quality of life for the Cuban people.” [2]

She subsequently told a Minnesota newspaper, “There’s been a sea change in terms of how people are thinking about Cuba. I think it’s really important to get people from the Midwest involved. Our interests are different than some of the other people traditionally involved in this issue. … We come at it from a production perspective, from the perspective of wanting to sell things there.” [3]

Klobuchar’s bill was endorsed by the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba. Its Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk of Cargill Incorporated, said, “We appreciate Sen. Klobuchar’s leadership to advance this bipartisan bill, modernize U.S. policy toward Cuba and boost opportunities for American agriculture. Ending the embargo will enable our agriculture sector to work in partnership with Cuba and the Cuban people, develop a meaningful trading relationship and create jobs across many sectors of our own economy.”

Internal Senate Political Concerns

As previously mentioned S.491 was referred to two committees: the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, each of which presents problems for successful passage of the bill. [4]

The Banking Committee has 12 Republican and 10 Democratic members. Its Chair is Richard Shelby (Rep., AL) while its Ranking Member is Sherrod Brown (Dem., OH). With two and maybe three exceptions, my initial impression is that the Republican majority will be opposed to the bill while the Democrats will support the bill. The two exceptions are Republican Jerry Moran (KS), who supports ending the embargo, and Democrat Robert Menendez (NJ), who opposes such action. The other possible exception is Republican Bob Corker (TN), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and who issued a noncommittal statement about the December 17th rapprochement.[5]

The Foreign Relations Committee has 10 Republican and nine Democratic members. Its Chair is the previously mentioned Bob Corker (Rep., TN) and its Ranking Member is Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ). With three and maybe four exceptions, my initial impression is that the Republican majority, including Marco Rubio (FL), a Cuban-American who strongly and repeatedly opposes reconciliation, will oppose the bill while the Democratic minority will support the measure. The exceptions are Republicans Jeff Flake (AZ) and Rand Paul (KY), who have supported ending the embargo, and Democrat Menendez, a Cuban-American who vehemently opposes reconciliation with Cuba, including ending the embargo. The possible exception is Chair Corker, who has issued a noncommittal statement on the rapprochement. Thus, it is conceivable that there could be a 10-9  (or even a 11-8) vote approving the bill in committee. But if it does not also get out of the Banking Committee, that probably means very little.

These internal Senate political considerations prompted Klobuchar to acknowledge to the Minnesota newspaper that the Foreign Relations Committee’s obstacles for the bill “are clearly something to be reckoned with … but it doesn’t mean that two people [Senators Rubio and Menendez] can stop the whole thing.” She added that the legislation could come up through the Banking. Housing and Urban Affairs Committee or be passed in piecemeal fashion through other bills.

Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, who is a cosponsor of a companion bill (H.R.403) in the House of Representatives, also talked to the Minnesota newspaper about the political difficulties of passing such measures. Indeed, he called the odds of lifting the embargo this year as “thin” due to the political sway of the older generation of Cuban-Americans in certain congressional districts.

Peterson thought the elimination of the embargo will “help [Minnesota farmers] a little bit” by increasing demand and, therefore, farm prices, “but it’s marginal in the whole scheme of things.”

Conclusion

I thank and congratulate Senator Klobuchar for introducing this important bill and the six other senators for cosponsoring the bill. 

I conclude by adding the following three reasons for ending the embargo that I have not seen elsewhere:

1. Without the embargo, the U.S. would not face the annual fall nearly unanimous condemnation of the embargo by the U.N. General Assembly.

2. The elimination of the embargo might assist the U.S. in combatting the increasing Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America.

3. Cuba repeatedly has claimed that the embargo has caused damage to its economy, and at last Fall’s U.N. General Assembly meeting Cuba asserted the total damages were $1.1 trillion. That obviously is a very large amount of money. I am confident that in any litigation or arbitration over such a claim the U.S. would mount a thorough critique and arguments to rebut the claim, including evidence and argument that any alleged damages were caused by Cuban ineptitude and that the major premise of the argument (the illegality of the embargo under international law) was unfounded. Nevertheless, as is true in any disputed claim like this, there can be no 100% guarantee that the claim will be rejected in its entirety. Thus, this damage claim must be recognized as a contingent liability of the U.S., and ending the embargo will minimize the amount of that liability.

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[1] On January 15th the Congressional Research Service issued CRS Report 4388: “Cuba Sanctions: Legislative Restrictions Limiting the Normalization of Relations” In a 15-page table it “lists the various provisions of laws comprising economic sanctions on Cuba, including key laws that are the statutory basis of the embargo, and provides —on the authority to lift or waive these restrictions.”

[2] Similar press releases were issued by Senators Durbin and Leahy.

[3]  Sherry, Sen. Klobuchar leads effort in U.S. Senate to life Cuba trade embargo, StarTribune (Feb. 13, 2015).

[4] The THOMAS legislative service of the Library of Congress late on February 12th said the bill was referred to both of these committees, but on February 13th it said it was only referred to the Banking Committee. Since the embargo clearly relates to foreign relations, I assume the latter THOMAS version is incorrect.

[5] Research-backed comments and corrections on the positions regarding Cuba by the members of these committees are solicited and welcome.

U.S. Congressional Meetings in Havana

A prior post reported about the planned meetings in Havana of a delegation of congressional Democrats led by Senator Patrick Leahy. Now we have news of what happened on their three-day trip.

Leahy in cuba

Here is a photo of the delegation in Havana (left to right): Representative Chris Van Hollen, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Representative Peter Welch and Senator Patrick Leahy. (Senator Richard Durbin is the other member of the delegation.)

On Saturday, January 17th, they “met with officials from Cuba’s Culture Ministry in order to discuss possible Cuban participation in the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, a summer celebration of traditional art and culture on Washington’s National Mall.

On Sunday, January 18th, they met with more than a dozen dissidents including critics of the 18-month-old secret negotiations that led to last month’s announcement. All but two of them expressed support for the opening.

One of these two, Antonio Rodiles, said it “was a friendly meeting, they heard the different positions, but the senators are very much in favor of Obama’s measures and want to hear that we agree.” Rodiles, however, criticized the Obama administration for failing to win enough guarantees of reform from the Cuban government. “I said the process [of negotiating the U.S.-Cuba accords] took place without transparency or taking the full range of opinions into account.”

Another dissident, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission, a Cuban non-governmental organization tracking political detentions, said that the Cubans at the meeting “had delivered a list of 24 long-term prisoners whom they wanted to see released in addition to the 53 on the Obama administration’s list.”

US-Cuba mtg

On Monday, January 19th, the U.S. delegation met “for several hours with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, who told the legislators that Cuba welcomed President Obama’s loosening of the U.S. trade embargo, which would permit more travel to Cuba and economic links including exports of telecommunications equipment and wholesale goods for use by the country’s small private sector.” According to Leahy, Rodriguez is “open to every issue from trade to communications. He talked about the travel back and forth, medical issues. Name an issue, he’s involved.” (To the right is a photo of this meeting.)

Also participating in this meeting were Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, and Cuba’ chief diplomat at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas, the latter of whom visited Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church last October.

The U.S. legislators also had hoped to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro, but that did not happen apparently because the Americans had met with Cuban dissidents on Sunday.

 

 

 

 

 

This Week’s U.S.-Cuba Meetings in Havana

The U.S. and Cuba are holding two sets of meetings in Havana this week. One involves U.S. Senators and Representatives. The other is a conference of diplomats of the two counties.

Meetings of U.S. Legislators

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) [1] has organized a trip to Havana, January 17-19, with Democratic colleagues from the Senate–Richard Durbin (IL) [2], Debbie Stabenow (MI) [3] and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) [4]—and the House of Representatives, Chris Van Hollen (MD) [5] and Peter Welch (VT). [6]

This trip is designed to seek clarity from Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, to develop a sense of what Cuba and the U.S. are prepared to do to make a constructive relationship possible, to impress upon Cuban leaders the importance of concrete results and positive momentum and to convey a sense of Americans’ expectations and congressional perceptions.

They intend to meet with Cuban government officials, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, representatives of Cuba’s civil society, personnel at the U.S. Interests Section and ambassadors to Cuba from Mexico, Spain, Norway and Colombia.

Diplomatic Meeting

 Diplomats of the two countries will hold talks in Havana’s Convention Palace on January 21 and 22, 2015.

  1. Migration Issues

Under the countries’ Migration Accords of 1995, they have migration talks every six months, and this will be the focus of the first day’s session. They will assess progress under this Accord and other agreements and actions taken by both parties to tackle illegal migration and trafficking in migrants. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South America and Cuba. The Cuban delegation will be led by the Director General of the North American Division of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro.

Alex Smith
Alex Smith
Josefina Vidal
Josefina Vidal
Roberta Jacobson
Roberta Jacobson

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Restoration of Diplomatic Relations

The January 22 session will be devoted to the process of restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, including opening of embassies. The head of the U.S. delegation will be Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, while Josefina Vidal Ferreiro again will be in charge of the Cuban delegation.

Jacobson has said that this “process of restoring diplomatic relations is relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, but the parties have to agree on the process for such restoration. This can be done via an exchange of letters or of notes; it does not require a formal treaty or agreement. The U.S. also will need to terminate its 53-year agreement with the Swiss Government as our protecting power [in Cuba], and the same for the Cubans [in the U.S.]; that will be done as soon as possible, whereupon the U.S. would post a new sign “Embassy of the United States of America” on the building currently housing its mission.[7] A list of all of the U.S. diplomatic officers would be declared directly to the Cuban Government.

U.S. Interests Section
U.S. Interests Section

What the current U.S. Interests Section does, and what the Embassy will do, Jacobson said, “is critically important for Americans and Cubans alike. It includes providing uncensored internet access for many people who visit those internet terminals and processing requests for visas for thousands of Cubans every year (nonimmigrant visas for many thousands and immigrant visas for 20,000 Cubans a year). U.S. diplomats also check on whether people who are returned to Cuba under our migration accords are harassed by the Cuban government.

Having led the migration talks in 2011, when Jacobson was the principal deputy assistant secretary, she said human rights are always part of the migration-talks agenda and will be again. One issue is whether Cuba is harassing people who apply for refugee status at our Interests Section. Another issue is how people are treated when they return to Cuba after they’ve attempted to leave. We often will talk about freedom to leave Cuba; that is different since Cuba now permits most of its citizens to leave without exit visas.

Conclusion

I expect and pray that these meetings will advance the further reconciliation of the two countries. We await the reported results of the meetings.

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[1] On December 17, 2014 Senator Leahy was on the U.S. plane that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. Afterwards, the Senator said, “By taking further steps to change a policy that is a relic of the Cold War, that has achieved none of its goals, and that has isolated the United States, President [Obama] has wisely charted a new course that serves our national interests in this hemisphere and the world.  Our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals.” On January 8, 2015, Senator Leahy and seven other senators offered a Senate resolution commending Pope Francis for his leadership in helping to secure the release of Alan Gross and for working with the governments of the [U.S.] and Cuba to achieve a more positive relationship.

[2] On December 17, 2014, Senator Durbin also was on the U.S. plant that went to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. His subsequent statement expressed support for President Obama’s moves towards reconciliation with Cuba. Senator Durbin was a co-sponsor of the previously mentioned Senate resolution commending Pope Francis.

[3] On December 17th Senator Stabenow announced her support of President Obama’s changes of policies regarding Cuba.

[4] On December 17th Senator Whitehouse issued a statement applauding the changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

[5] On December 17th Congressman Van Hollen also was on the U.S. plane bringing Alan Gross home and gave thanks for his release and for the “vision of a new day in the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

[6] Representative Welch on December 17th applauded President Obama’s “bold leadership” and the “new era of openness and cooperation” with Cuba.

[7] The U.S. building, which was completed in 1953, was designed in the Modernist-Brutalist style by the architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz, which also designed the United Nations headquarters building in New York City. The former is a long, six-story concrete and glass building located directly on the Malecon overlooking the Bay of Havana. The building was not used by U.S. personnel between 1961 and 1977. U.S. diplomats returned to Havana in 1977, and the building was transformed into the United States Interests Section in Havana. Renovations were subsequently completed on the complex in 1997.

 

 

 

 

113th Congress Takes Actions on International Religious Freedom

In its waning days the 113th Congress has taken at least three actions regarding international religious freedom.

 New U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom

David N. Saperstein
David N. Saperstein

On December 12th the U.S. Senate by a vote of 62 to 35 confirmed President Obama’s nomination of David N. Saperstein, a prominent Reform rabbi, to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in charge of countering religious persecution around the world.

Saperstein was a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011. He also was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (the Commission) from 1999 to 2001 and its Chair (1999-2000). For 40 years, Mr. Saperstein has been director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, lobbying on a wide range of civil rights and social justice issues.

At a confirmation hearing in September, Mr. Saperstein spoke out against religious discrimination in Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria, among other countries. “Even in Western Europe,” he said, “we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Semitic discourse and violence against Jewish communities.”

The Senate Republican Policy Committee noted that Mr. Saperstein had criticized a ruling in June in which the Supreme Court said that some corporations could deny contraception coverage to their female workers on religious grounds. He expressed dismay at the ruling, which was hailed by conservatives as a victory for religious liberty, and he supported legislation to override the decision, in an effort to protect women’s health.

Amendment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 [1]

On August 8, 2014, H.R. 4028 became Public Law No.: 113-154. It amended the “Findings” section (Section 2(a)(4)) of the 1998 statute to add three words (“desecration of cemeteries”) so that it reads as follows:

  • “The right to freedom of religion is under renewed and, in some cases, increasing assault in many countries around the world. More than one-half of the world’s population lives under regimes that severely restrict or prohibit the freedom of their citizens to study, believe, observe, and freely practice the religious faith of their choice. Religious believers and communities suffer both government-sponsored and government-tolerated violations of their rights to religious freedom. Among the many forms of such violations are state-sponsored slander campaigns, confiscations of property, desecration of cemeteries, surveillance by security police, including by special divisions of “religious police”, severe prohibitions against construction and repair of places of worship, denial of the right to assemble and relegation of religious communities to illegal status through arbitrary registration laws, prohibitions against the pursuit of education or public office, and prohibitions against publishing, distributing, or possessing religious literature and materials.” (Emphasis added.)

The author of this bill, Representative Grace Ming (Dem. NY), said during the House debate, “There are two related problems we seek to address through this legislation. One is the religiously motivated vandalism of cemeteries that occurs with alarming regularity. The second is the building and development over cemeteries in places where there are no communities remaining to protect and look out for the cemeteries.” She added that the bill “works to identify and preserve cemeteries, memorials, and buildings in foreign countries that are associated with the cultural heritage of Americans, and it does much work in areas of the former Soviet Union, where Jewish communities were destroyed by the Holocaust and where power subsequently passed to atheistic, communist regimes.”

Other bills in this Congress were offered to make other amendments to the statute, but they were not adopted, including a bill by Senator Marco Rubio (S. 2675) that would have imposed requirements and restrictions on presidential actions with respect to countries designated by the Commission as “of Particular Concern for Religious Freedom.” He introduced his bill the day after the State Department had issued its annual report on this freedom, and Rubio said, “While I welcome . . . [the Department’s] announcement updating CPC designations, this administration has failed to do so since 2011.” This proposed amendment “encourages the administration to take a firmer stance on religious freedom violators and codifies America’s commitment to advancing religious freedom as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.”

In December 2014, too late for any legislative action this year, Reps. Joe Pitts (Rep., PA) and Anna Eshoo (Dem., CA) introduced H.R. 5878 (An Act to amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to further express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, freedom of religion or belief abroad and individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion or belief, and for other purposes). It would add non-state actors like Boko Haram in Nigeria to the group of bodies the U.S. government can sanction for violating religious freedoms. The bill will be re-introduced in the next Session of Congress.

Reauthorization of the Commission on International Religious Freedom

On December 10thth the House adopted H.R. 5816 re-authorizing the Commission essentially for only another nine months (to September 30, 2015), and on December 15th the Senate added its approval of the bill.

This action reflected the inability of the two chambers to reach agreement on the terms of a lengthier reauthorization. In this context, I was surprised by a statement about this inability from Leonard L. Leo, the Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies and a former member of the Commission (2007-2009) and its Chair (2009-2012). He said that the Commission was formed in 1998 to be a watchdog on the State Department to ensure that it would promote religious freedom.

In July the House passed a reauthorization bill (H.R. 4653) that never passed the Senate. It would have extended the Commission through September 30, 2019, essentially another five years. It also would have (a) required training of foreign service officers on “the relationship between religious freedom and security, and the role of religious freedom in United States foreign policy;” (b) encouraged the Department of State to allow Commission members and staff to have “access to classified information;” and (c) allowed the Commission interns, fellows and volunteers to be paid compensation by “sponsoring private parties” so long as there was no conflict of interest.

During the House debate on this bill, Rep. Chris Smith (Rep., NJ), said that the original statute was passed by “a somewhat supportive Congress but highly reluctant [Bill Clinton] White House.” He lamented that eight countries designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” or CPCs by the Commission had not been similarly designated by the State Department and that the Obama Administration had not enacted sanctions for such designations of other countries.

During another House debate, the one on the previously mentioned “desecration of cemeteries” bill, the same Representative Smith said at a May 22, 2014, hearing he chaired, there had been evidence of “the lack of enforcement and the lack of due diligence on the part of the administration when it comes to the International Religious Freedom Act. Not since 2011 has there been a designation of what we call country of particular concern, CPC status, or the dishonorable status that it conveys ought to be done every year. . . . [despite the Commission’s pointing out] that there are eight [other] countries that ought to be so designated, followed by eight others, including Vietnam, that needed to be added to the list, making a total of 16 countries that are then liable to sanctions.”

In the other chamber Senator Richard Durbin (Dem., Illinois) offered a reauthorization bill (S. 2711) that was not adopted by either chamber. It would have extended the Commission through September 30, 2016, but also would have required annual rotation of its chair and vice chair based on political party affiliation and restricted service in such positions to one term. It also would have required the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to be notified in advance of all Commission meetings and allowed the Ambassador to attend all meetings as a nonvoting member. Finally it would have required (a) at least six commissioners to approve any commission statement and allow dissenting statements and separate staffs for the two major political parties; and (b) the Commission’s annual report to be issued after the issuance of the annual religious freedom reports by the Department of State.

Conclusion

Congressional criticism of the State Department and the President for their alleged failure to follow every recommendation of the Commission, in my judgment, is uncalled for. I also disagree with any proposed legislation like that of Senator Rubio’s that seeks to impose legislative constraints on the president based upon the Commission’s reports.

The basic reason for this judgment was expressed well by the Commission’s current Chair, Ms. Katrina Lantos Swett, when she acknowledged the Commission has limited authority when compared with the U.S. Department of State and implicitly the U.S. President. 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.”

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[1] Detailed information about bills in Congress can be obtained at www. Congress.gov. A prior post summarized the structure and members of the Commission while others posts have discussed the international law on this subject and some of the Commission’s annual reports. Although I believe that freedom of religion is important for every individual and for nation states, I believe that the Commission’s negative views on the status of that freedom in Cuba for 2011 and 2013 are unjustified.