When the act was passed in 1998, it made the promotion of religious freedom an official U.S. foreign policy priority and established at the State Department an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The legislation also created a bipartisan and independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, to monitor this right worldwide and make policy recommendations to Congress, the secretary of state and the president.
Congress gave the legislation real teeth through a groundbreaking enforcement mechanism: requiring annual administration review and designation of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations.
While the law provides the administration with flexibility in how it will pressure those countries, the review and designation process is not discretionary. The law requires it. Whatever one’s view of appropriate sanctions for violators, there can be little disagreement on the imperative of bearing witness to abuses.
Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders. The Bush administration issued several designations in its first term but let the process fall off track in its second. The Obama administration issued designations only once during its first term, in August 2011.
The result? Violators such as Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam are escaping the accountability that the International Religious Freedom Act is meant to provide.
Even those nations currently designated as “countries of particular concern” could escape accountability if there are no designations this month; under the law, countries remain designated until removed, but any corresponding penalties expire after two years. Without new designations, sanctions attached in 2011 to Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan will expire this month. And while those countries are subject to sanctions under other U.S. laws, allowing the International Religious Freedom Act’s sanctions authority to expire would send the disturbing message that the United States won’t implement its own law on religious freedom.
To be sure, the Obama administration has taken some positive steps. It created a State Department working group on religion and foreign policy and this month established a new faith-based office, both tasked with religious engagement.
Also this month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. As our commission has recommended, promoting religious freedom is among the three key objectives of this engagement.
Engagement should be part of any strategy for the promotion of religious freedom. But what will move gross offenders to stop persecuting individuals if not the credible threat of consequences? By letting the process of designating offenders atrophy, the United States surrenders its leverage while creating a chilling precedent for other rights. If this process is allowed to wither, what will happen to similarly designed programs such as the tiered system of the Trafficking in Persons Report, which was modeled on this approach?
The process of designating countries of particular concern works when deployed as intended — that is, not as a single bludgeon but as a targeted tool. When diplomacy is combined with the prospect or reality of such designations and attendant sanctions or other specific diplomatic and related actions, repressive governments — including Vietnam and Turkmenistan — have made meaningful changes. Moreover, countries often consider such a designation a stigma and blow to their world standing. Because a designation of concern is rightly perceived as an important factor in a country’s relationships with the United States, it can create political will for reform where none otherwise would exist.
For the sake of freedom and security, it is time to apply the International Religious Freedom Act fully and the country designation process decisively. Congress has the right and the duty to press the executive branch to do so.