Religious Freedom Abroad: The USCIRF 2013 Annual Report

By Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.

On April 30, 2013, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an advisory body created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 to monitor religious freedom abroad, released its 2013 Annual Report. The Report comments on the status of religious freedom globally and identifies those nations with the worst record of religious freedom abuses.

The Report recommends that the U.S. Secretary of State re-designate eight nations as “countries of particular concern” or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. USCIRF finds that seven other countries meet the CPC threshold and should be so designated: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

According to Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF’s Chair, “The Annual Report ultimately is about people and how their governments treat them. Violations affect members of diverse religious communities around the world, be they Rohinghya Muslims in Burma, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong in China, Baha’is in Iran, Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan, or Muslims in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan and in non-Muslim nations like Russia. We recommend that the White House adopt a whole-of-government strategy to guide U.S. religious freedom promotion and that Secretary of State Kerry promptly designate CPCs, before currently designated actions expire later this year.”

Many of the CPCs demonstrate a poor record of protecting religious minorities, especially strands of Christians and Muslims. In Egypt, for example, now undergoing a sometimes violent political transition, the government has failed or been slow to protect Coptic Christians for violent attacks. Both Muslims and Christians are frequently targeted in Burma, China, Iran, Sudan, Iraq, and Pakistan. In Nigeria, Christian and Muslim factions in the government continue to fight each other and regularly carry out pogroms against each other.

“Many of these countries top the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and religion is a core component in their makeup. Successful U.S. foreign policy recognizes the critical role religious freedom plays in each of these nations and prioritizes accordingly. Religious freedom is both a pivotal human right under international law and a key factor that helps determine whether a nation experiences stability or chaos,” said Lantos Swett.

USCIRF also announced that eight nations were placed on its Tier 2 List for 2013: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia. USCIRF found the violations these nations commit are especially severe, and meet at least one criterion, but not all, of the Commission’s three-fold “systematic, ongoing, egregious” CPC standard by which Tier 1 nations are identified. The USCIRF report also highlights the status of religious freedom in nations that do not meet the Tier 1 (CPC) or Tier 2 threshold. These include Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela and Western Europe.

Since its creation in 1998, the USCIRF has been controversial, both at home and abroad. At home, criticism typically focuses on the charge that the US should be more willing to assist CPC nations to improve their record rather than just putting them on a “blacklist” for the world to see. Abroad, nations have frequently criticized the US for its attitude of “arrogance” in thinking that it is superior to other sovereign nations and entitled to criticize them for religious freedom abuses when the US hardly has a spotless record itself. Nevertheless, after 15 years of activity, there is little doubt that the USCIRF reports have often motivated CPC nations to improve their religious freedom records. USCIRF’s work has also exposed serious religious freedom abuses that should be brought to the world’s attention.