Date: October 26, 2020
WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today commemorates International Religious Freedom (IRF) Day, October 27, 2020, marking the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). IRFA sought to make religious freedom a priority in U.S. foreign policy in a variety of ways, including by creating governmental institutions including USCIRF and the State Department’s IRF Office, requiring monitoring and reporting on religious freedom violations, and establishing consequences for the worst violators.
“For more than two decades, USCIRF has worked tirelessly to ensure that advancing religious freedom remains a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. An essential component of our mandate under IRFA is to provide policy recommendation to the U.S. government to ensure it upholds its historic commitment to religious freedom. We have been pleased to the see the implementation of several of our recommendations recently, including the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, and the appointment of the first-ever Special Adviser to the President on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council (NSC) staff,” said Chair Gayle Manchin.
To advance religious freedom, IRFA creates a framework that requires that strong action be taken against countries and other actors that violate religious freedom. As part of this framework, the President, who has delegated this power to the Secretary of State, is required to designate the world’s worst violators of religious freedom as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) or place these violators on its Special Watch List (SWL). The Administration is also statutorily required to take action in response to the violations.
“We strongly commend this Administration’s prioritization of religious freedom. Sudan and Uzbekistan, two long-term CPC-designated countries, have recently made significant progress in advancing religious freedom and are no longer designated as CPCs by the State Department. This progress has been driven in part by the use of IRFA’s policy tools coupled with the Administration’s and USCIRF’s sustained engagement. To encourage positive change in other countries, we urge the State Department to implement our recommendations in designating CPCs and placing countries on the SWL,” said Vice Chair Tony Perkins.
IRFA also seeks to ensure that there are consequences for individual violators of religious freedom, providing for visa bans on foreign officials who egregiously violate religious freedom. In addition to IRFA’s provisions, U.S. law provides several other accountability tools, including the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, that allow the Administration to deny visas to and block the U.S.-based assets of foreigners involved in corruption or human rights abuses, including violations of religious freedom.
“We have been encouraged by the recent use of targeted sanctions against Iranian officials responsible for severe religious freedom violations. These sanctions send the strong message that the U.S. government is committed to ensuring accountability for violations of our most fundamental right. Going forward, we hope to see the increased use of targeted sanctions, including against perpetrators of religious freedom violations in Burma, Eritrea, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan,” said Chair Gayle Manchin.
Earlier this year USCIRF released its 2020 Annual Report, the 21st since the Commission’s creation. In the Report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department designate Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam as CPCs and place Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Sudan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan on the SWL. The Annual Report includes a section assessing the U.S. government’s implementation of IRFA and providing recommendations to improve the U.S. government’s engagement on religious freedom, including discontinuing the repeated imposition of preexisting sanctions or waivers for CPC-designated countries and instead taking unique and targeted actions in response to religious freedom violations.