They were late out of the starting gate, missing the deadline in November for naming the top violators of religious freedom. But the U.S. State Department today announced that on December 22, 2017 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the CPC designations. In spite of having some sanctions lifted, Sudan makes the list, as usual.
According to a press release on January 4, 2018, Secretary Tillerson re-designated the following as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. He also placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom. There are definitely other countries that should be on this list, but it is a good start.
The annual designation of Countries of Particular Concern is one of the valuable provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), signed into law in 1998. IRFA was a watershed for U.S. foreign policy, officially incorporating concern for global religious freedom within U.S. diplomacy. In it the Secretary of State annually designates as CPC’s governments that have “actively engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The State Department is mandated by this law to designate CPC countries no later than 90 days after it releases its annual International Religious Freedom Report (another legacy of IRFA). The Special Watch List is a new provision, created by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016.
The State Department’s press release explains:
The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity. These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries. We recognize that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; we welcome these initiatives and look forward to continued dialogue. The United States remains committed to working with governments, civil society organizations, and religious leaders to advance religious freedom around the world.
It is interesting and welcome to note that in spite of the U.S. decision to permanently lift certain sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Sudan that were lifted conditionally by President Obama, Sudan remains (rightfully so) a Country of Particular Concern.
There’s no doubt that Sudan fits the bill as “actively” engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. Religious freedom and secular democracy would promote peace, stability, and prosperity – not only for the marginalized and oppressed people in Sudan, but throughout the region. It is encouraging that the State Department did not allow Sudan’s favorable, sanction-lifted condition to color its view of the regime as a persecutor of religious minorities.
There’s also no doubt that Pakistan belongs on the violators of religious freedom Special Watch List. . . or even the CPC. Many members of Congress and human rights groups do not believe the State Department has gone far enough on Pakistan. They are not sure that the Special Watch List designation is enough to pressure the Pakistani government to make more serious efforts to rid the country of its egregious blasphemy laws. And Pakistan has tolerated the brutal actions of Islamic extremists against religious minorities for far too long.
In any case, as with all previous Administrations since IRFA came on the scene, the real test will be to see what the State Department will do to back up these designations with actions.