In 1998, the U.S. took an important step in promoting religious freedom as a foreign policy objective with the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRF Act). Designed to “strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion,” the law authorized “actions in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries.”
The act also requires that that Secretary of State identify “countries of particular concern,” a designation reserved for nation’s guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The classification is used for countries that have committed “particularly severe 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 denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons. Nations so designated are subject to further actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States.
Earlier this month, the State Department released this year’s list. The countries of particular concern are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and — for the first time — Tajikistan.
At a press briefing, the State Department acknowledged that in accordance with the IRF Act, presidential actions have been implemented for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan.
However, an amendment to the act allows the president to waive punitive measures against a concerned country if he or she believes it is necessary to advance other foreign policy interests. This year a presidential waiver was given to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan following “determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority.”
In a response to the release, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — a commission created and authorized by the IRF Act — expressed concern about the waivers and the countries that were not named.
“USCIRF welcomes the designation of these ten countries,” said Robert P. George, USCIRF’s Chairman. “The [country of particular concern] designation shines a spotlight on the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ violations of the freedom of religion or belief that are taking place in these nations. However, the Secretary also waived imposing any consequences on Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The CPC designation brings with it a unique toolbox of policy options to effectively promote religious freedom, and USCIRF encourages the Administration to use these tools.”
While commending the addition of Tajikistan, the USCIRF concluded that the country of particular concern list should be expanded to include seven other countries (Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam) and urged that waivers be limited to a set period of time and subject to review for renewal.