On December 2, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the latest serious violations of religious freedom. The annual designations are intended to be a critical tool in shaping U.S. international religious freedom policy and taking clear, concerted action to hold perpetrators accountable and promote greater respect for religious freedom where it is threatened.
As longtime State Department official Knox Thames commented, they may be “the most powerful tool in the world [the department’s] religious freedom toolbox. However, these labels will be most effective if they have a clear rationale, real consequences and are part of a road map to progress.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), the Secretary of State must name States of Particular Concern (CPC) and Entities of Particular Concern (EPC) that have “perpetrated or committed systematic, persistent and gross religious abuses. freedom.” A 2016 amendment to that law created an additional Special Watch List (SWL) category for those who do not fully meet the most egregious standards but are determined to engage in or tolerate serious violations of religious freedom.
In the 2022 rules, Blinken listed as MPKs: Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. SWL included Algeria, Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam.
While many of these findings are accurate, there are some notable exceptions. Afghanistan is not included as a CPC, despite appalling religious freedom conditions, although the Taliban itself is included as an EPC. Christian NGO Open Doors put Afghanistan at the top of its World Watch List as the worst place to be a Christian.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which advises the State Department, expressed dismay at the exclusion of Nigeria and India from the CPC or SWL designations.
India has seen increasing attacks on non-Hindus, including Muslims and Christians, as the State Department itself documented in its latest report. As two Nigerian Christian leaders described, “Nigeria is in the eye of the storm due to insecurity and persecution, where the rights of minorities, including Christians, are violated with reckless abandon.” The BBC reported that in the first five months of 2022, there were at least 23 attacks on churches in Nigeria, as well as the murder of 25-year-old college student Deborah Samuel for alleged blasphemy.
USCIRF chairman Nury Turkel said: “There is no excuse for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria or India as egregious violators of religious freedom, as each clearly meets the legal standards to be recognized as a CPC.”
The importance of clarity of reasoning for these decisions led the Senate, in its appropriations language, to require the State Department to explain to Congress the differences between the USCIRF recommendations and the State Department’s designations. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) wrote a letter to Blinken requesting the report “in light of several troubling omissions in the department’s regulations compared to USCIRF’s recommendations and the department’s reported actual conditions of religious freedom.”
This act of congressional oversight may be essential to improving the effectiveness of the religious freedom designation tool. In addition to calling for an appointment, the IRFA requires the President of the United States to take one or more actions, ranging from a private demarche to sanctions. The law allows and requires significant measures to promote religious freedom.
However, in practice, reference was most often made to pre-existing sanctions or exemption from state interests. As reported by the Congressional Research Service, this included all 10 states listed in the 2021 CPC titles.
While U.S. diplomats such as Rashad Hussain, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the Office for International Religious Freedom, play a vital role in communicating a commitment to religious freedom, the president’s failure to follow through on unequivocal actions. CPC designations would be a missed opportunity to communicate a clear priority to combating persecution and promoting religious freedom.
To make real progress, labels should only be the first step. Thames, of his government over two decades, emphasized that “these lists help, but only if they are followed by diplomacy.”
Especially for countries on the special watch list, such as Algeria, this can be part of a process to create a road map to religious freedom, not just a bluff or a tool to “name and shame”. A clear understanding of the religious freedom landscape can identify legal, political, and social issues that need to be addressed and provide the tools and resources to do so.
While addressing this dynamic requires much more than external diplomacy, U.S. efforts can play a vital role in calling out abuses and promoting greater freedom for all.
“All over the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, imprison and even kill individuals because of their beliefs,” Blinken said in a statement. “In some cases, they stifle individuals’ freedom of religion or belief to exploit opportunities for political gain. These actions sow division, undermine economic security, and threaten political stability and peace. The United States will not stand aside in the face of these abuses.”
The US has an opportunity to demonstrate by its actions that these are not just words and that it will take concrete steps to advance these rights for everyone.
Jeremy P. Barker is director of the Middle East Action Team Institute for Religious Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @jaybark7.