My colleagues and I on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are working together across party lines to push for the full deployment of the tools provided by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to pressure regimes that are gross offenders against religious liberty to ease up on the individuals, minorities, and sometimes even majorities whom they are persecuting. My Democratic colleague and dear friend Katrina Lantos Swett and I made the case this week in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post:
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.
The complete op-ed is available here.