More Problems With The U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom

In the past two decades, the state of international religious freedom has worsened.

There is no question that in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, vulnerable religious communities are facing threats to their very survival or serious problems of discrimination. In situations such as these, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) should be able to play a constructive role making policy recommendations that would help protect vulnerable communities and support efforts to advance religious freedom. That’s why Congress created it. But as I complete my four years as an Obama appointee to this Commission, I must acknowledge that we have not been effective in carrying out our mission. 

The sad truth is that, by any objective measure, the state of international religious freedom has worsened in the almost two decades since Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), which created USCIRF. Recognizing this, during the past four years, I have challenged my colleagues to ask are why we have not been able to a difference and what could we do become more effective.

In too many instances, we have failed to distinguish between actual violations of religious freedom and... struggles for political power.

I believe that part of the reason we have not had more of an impact is because of how we have interpreted our mandate. Instead of serving as a bipartisan group of experts making informed recommendations to the Administration and Congress, we have been satisfied with acting more like a Congressionally-funded NGO using press releases and op-eds to “name and shame” countries that violate religious freedom.

The legislation that created USCIRF states that we should comment on the Department of State’s (DOS) annual Religious Freedom and Human Rights Reports and then make recommendations to the Administration and Congress. Instead, we spend the better part of each year writing and editing our own report—never actually considering the work of the DOS. This is a grave mistake since the DOS invests significant resources in preparing their report and has a greater on-the-ground capacity than we do. Absent the resources of the DOS, the Commission’s staff is forced to write their drafts based largely on secondary sources, accounts from advocacy groups, or the results of a three or four day trips some Commissioners make to a few of the countries on which we report. After receiving the draft, Commissioners are then asked to review and comment on chapters dealing with countries, about many of which we know very little. This process is broken and should be reexamined.

There are still other concerns I have expressed to my fellow Commissioners. In too many instances, we have failed to distinguish between actual violations of religious freedom and sectarian, regional, or tribal struggles for political power. Too often, we have engaged in reductionist analysis—seeing everything as a nail, because the only tool we wield is a hammer. In failing to understand the complexity and non-religious underpinnings of conflicts, like those in Nigeria, Iraq, or the Central African Republic, our analysis and recommendations miss the mark. Religion, per se, is not the cause of tension in those countries and, therefore, proposing religious freedom is not the solution.  

Some have expanded this reductionism to extreme and even absurd lengths, claiming that if, as they maintain, religious freedom is “the first freedom,” then all else flows from it. They correctly observe a correlation between religious freedom and prosperity and democracy in some countries, but then mistakenly attribute the latter to the former. In fact, a more convincing case can be made that prosperity and democracy are the prerequisites for religious freedom.

“Naming and shaming” has a role to play in confronting violators of human rights. But in order to have an impact, the party that “names and shames” has to have credibility with the party being accused. Unfortunately, this fact has never been recognized or appreciated by many of my colleagues. As a result, our condemnations oftentimes not only fall on deaf ears, they may even make a bad situation worse. This issue of credibility is especially important now that we have an Administration that includes individuals who hold shockingly Islamophobic views. If we are to be credible, we need less hubris and more humility.    

For these reasons, I have challenged my colleagues to develop a more focused approach that involves making an in-depth study of the conditions in a few targeted countries where we feel we can make a difference so that we might provide creative problem-solving ideas where improvements in religious freedom can be made. Such a strategy would involve: convening hearings (something we have the power to do, but have rarely done); engaging former US diplomats and regional experts to advise us on circumstances in each country and what changes are possible in each instance; and examining how each country’s civil society may be effectively engaged and how we might involve US civil society groups (with roots in countries of concern) as advocates for change and promoters of religious freedom. Should such a strategy be followed I believe we would add value to our advocacy efforts and be able to provide the Administration and Congress with informed recommendations that might make a difference. 

Unfortunately, new Congressional legislation passed last year does not propose a new strategy. Instead, it only doubles down on the failed approaches of the past. More money, more staff, more reporting, and new mandates will not make change. They will only add to an already dysfunctional and unproductive situation.

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