Obama Weak on Religious Freedom? USCIRF Chair, Experts Call for Renewed Effort

Dr. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, takes a question from the audience at the Young America's Foundation's National Conservative Student Conference, Washington, D.C., August 3, 2012.
Dr. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, takes a question from the audience at the Young America's Foundation's National Conservative Student Conference, Washington, D.C., August 3, 2012. | (Photo: The Christian Post/Napp Nazworth)

In a bipartisan op-ed in the Washington Post, Robert P. George, Republican chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and Democratic Vice Chair Katrina Lantos Swett, urged the Obama administration to renew its concern about six countries with serious religious freedom problems.

"Although religious freedom is a pivotal human right, critical to national security and global stability, key provisions of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act are being neglected," George and Swett wrote on Tuesday. This 1998 law, which set up USCIRF, requires the State Department to review and designate "Countries of Particular Concern," or CPCs, where religious freedom is being violated, so the U.S. government can take possible diplomatic or economic steps.

"Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders," George and Swett continued. Since the designation only lasts two years, countries designated CPCs in August 2011 must be reviewed and classified by the end of this month.

The op-ed listed six countries up for reclassification: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan. Without new designations, the sanctions against these countries will also expire, leaving their violations of religious freedom unpunished.

"This particular administration seems far less concerned about religious freedom issues than have previous ones," said Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and author of more than 20 books on religion and politics, to The Christian Post in a Friday interview. He noted the delay in a response to the attacks on Christian churches and other sites last week, in "what some experts in Egypt are saying is the largest Pogrom against Christians in Egypt since the 14th Century."

Marshall explained the reasons why the Obama administration might decide not to renew the designations. In some cases, calling a country a CPC has little effect, so the incentive to do so is small. On the other hand, denouncing a country as a violator of religious freedom may soil diplomacy with that country. If the rewards are small and the costs great, it may seem foolish to renew a CPC designation.

Nevertheless, the scholar sees hope for change in some of these countries. He reported "a real change toward democracy" in Burma, partly as a result of U.S. sanctions – an improvement which will likely continue if the designation is renewed, he argued.

Eritrea shows promise as well, Marshall claimed. Since it is a very poor, weak country, run by a "highly repressive regime," any suggestions by the United States could help it substantially. China, as well, due to its national pride, may make some efforts to disprove the stigma of a CPC.

While Marshall saw little hope for Iran, North Korea, and Sudan, his colleague, Nina Shea, a 30-year international human rights lawyer and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, was more optimistic. "I think there would be results in all of them, if there was acceptance of CPC analysis and then the proper policy to follow through," she told CP.

Shea pointed to the case of South Sudan as proof that CPC designations make a tremendous difference. "Sudan was the first country that we recommended CPC status for," she recalled, harkening back to her 13 years on USCIRF. The government in northern Sudan imposed Sharia law on the southern part against non-Muslims, she explained. When the south rebelled, the north crushed them with "genocidal levels of persecution." 2 million southerners died, and 5 million were driven into exile.

President Bush appointed former Senator John Danforth as a special envoy to Sudan, and using "a series of sanctions – carrots and sticks," he brokered a peace deal in 2005. The peace agreement ended with a referendum in 2011, which set up an independent country in the south.

According to the State Department's annual Religious Freedom Report for 2012, "there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice," in South Sudan. Shea admitted that South Sudan still experiences tragic tribal disputes and similar problems to other underdeveloped African countries, but argued that CPC designation and the following sanctions proved a "spectacular success."

Nevertheless, she condemned the current foreign policy focus of the administration. "I think we've gone back to realpolitik – we care about defense and trade, but not human rights, which has been a mainstay of our foreign policy since the Carter period," she said.

While George and Swett praised the administration for developing a working group on religion and foreign policy, as well as a new faith-based office, Marshall thinks that these efforts may actually end up detracting from the administration's focus on international religious freedom issues. He warned that the State Department "may take religious freedom less seriously" because there is a separate office for it.

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