Posted on May 08, 2000 in Washington Watch

Last week the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom issued its first annual report detailing concerns with what it termed “threats…to religious freedom” in Sudan, China and Russia. In addition to establishing a case against these three countries, the report also included a number of policy recommendations designed to pressure the three to protect religious rights.

In issuing this report, the Commission was fulfilling its congressional mandate. The Commission was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which established “a multifaceted program for ensuring that religious freedom has a permanent and significant place in the formulation and application of U.S. foreign policy.”

In addition to the Commission, the IRFA also created the office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large. Both the State Department office and the Commission are required to issue annual reports on religious rights around the world.

This legislation was originally a brainchild of the religious fundamentalists and right wing of the Republican Party. When it was first being debated in 1997 and 1998, it was vigorously opposed by Arab Americans, most of the major U.S. Protestant denominations and by the Clinton White House.

The original proposed bill, (which was called the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act-FRPA) was quite severe. It would have created a White House office to monitor religious persecution and would have required the imposition of tough economic and political sanctions on all countries found guilty of religious persecution. When this version of the bill failed to generate sufficient support, the modified IRFA was introduced and passed. The IRFA’s Commission has the more limited function of reporting on religious rights and then recommending policy changes to the Administration.

The Arab American and American Muslim opposition to both the FRPA and the IRFA was based on the concern that the bills were not part of a serious effort to provide balanced protections to the rights of religious minorities. Rather, they saw clear signs of ideological bias in the rhetoric of the legislation’s advocates.

In its 1997 opposition to the legislation, the Administration listed a number of concerns. In testimony presented by the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, the Administration expressed the fear that the proposed legislation:

  • “is a blunt instrument that is more likely to harm, rather than aid, victims of religious persecution;

  • “runs the risk of harming vital bilateral relations with key allies and regional powers, and undercutting U.S. Government efforts to promote the very regional peace and reconciliation that can foster religious tolerance and understanding from Europe to the Middle East to South Asia.

  • “creates a confusing bureaucratic structure for dealing with religious persecution at the very time the Department of State is consolidating its authority and expending its effectiveness on these issues; and

  • “establishes a de facto hierarchy of human rights violations that would severely damage U.S. efforts–long supported by the religious community–to ensure that all aspects of civil and political rights are protected.”

The modified IFRA passed in 1998. The Commission was created in 1999 and has now issued its first report. In evaluating this report, it appears that at least some of early fears expressed by the act’s opponents were justified.

The report focuses on only three countries, and actually gives its most extensive treatment to Sudan, which is described as “the world’s most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief.”

There is no question that there are serious problems in Sudan, as well as in Russia and China (the other countries covered in the report). A long, devastating civil war has framed the entire history of Sudan’s modern independence. Atrocities, repression and famine have marked this conflict. Russia, since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been engaged in a shockingly brutal campaign against Chechnya. And China has been guilty of severe repression of a host of ideological, religious and ethnic communities, including the Falon Gong, Tibetan Buddhists and the ethnic Muslims of Xinjiang.

One of the major problems with the Commission’s report is not with the severity of the problems in the covered countries, but in the way that the Commission understands and characterizes these problems. There is a lack of clarity and objectivity in defining what constitutes violations of religious freedom and how this can be distinguished from ethnic conflict and civil war. For example, while Sudan’s conflict is presented by the Commission as principally a religious war, the conflict in Chechnya is described as “primarily political and ethnic in nature” with religion only “appearing to play a role on both sides.” The conflict in Xinjiang is also described as one resulting from the repression by Chinese authorities of a “separatist movement.”

The bias of the authors of the Commission’s report appears to cause them to force-fit the Sudan conflict into a simplistic mold, while seeing the other cases as more complex. This almost ideological fixation on Sudan undercuts the credibility of the Commission’s entire effort.

At the same time, this lack of conceptual clarity and apparent ideological bias, also seems to account for why the Commission chose to focus on the three countries in question while ignoring equally long-lasting and dangerous religious/ethnic conflicts such as: East Timor; Kashmir; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Turkish repression of Kurds.

The ideological bias and the fixation on Sudan are also evident in the recommendations for policy changes proposed by the Commission. With regard to China the Commission proposes:

  • inviting the Dalai Lama to address a joint session of Congress;

  • holding several hearings on human rights and religious freedom in China;

  • withholding normalized trade relations until China displays “substantial improvement in respect for religious freedom;” and

  • opposing holding the Olympic Games in China until there is an improvement in rights protection.

With regard to Russia, the Commission offers only a list of areas where they believe the Administration should “monitor,” “urge” or “encourage” Russian behavior.

In the Sudan case, however, the list of proposed policy changes includes rather severe measures, including:

  • the possibility of providing U.S. aid to the southern Sudanese opposition;

  • tightening economic sanctions against the government; and

  • working toward the establishment of a “no-fly zone over the entire county.

It is important to note that the Commission’s one Arab American Muslim member, Dr. Laila Al-Marayati (she was appointed by the President) issued a dissenting opinion on Sudan, which appears in the Commission’s report. Dr. Al-Maryati’s concern is that the very concerns of U.S. policy, to end the war in Sudan and protect human rights, would be undercut if the recommendations of the report were followed. As she noted “isolating Sudan as a ‘rogue state’ further hinders the United States from playing a constructive role in bringing the parties to a negotiated settlement.” Furthermore, she notes that offering aid to the SPLA, “will compromise any ability of the United States government to negotiate fairly.”

The report also came under attack from a variety of Muslim, Arab American and Christian groups who observed that it lacked balance and objectivity and displayed a double standard by ignoring other critical areas of the wold where rights are violated.

Thus far, the Administration itself has not reacted to the overall findings and recommendations of the Commission. A State Department official, however, has criticized the Commission’s approach to China, affirming that the Administration would continue to support trade with that country. At the same time, a White House official told me that they do not believe that it is appropriate to characterize the conflict in Sudan as a “religious” war.

As critics of the IRFA feared, the Commission, in its first year of work, has not contributed to the protection of religious freedom. The problem of religious rights is a serious one, but this Commission report provides no clear understanding of the nature of this problem nor does it provide a solution.

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