The other side of religious freedom

Pakistan has again joined the exclusive club of states designated by the US as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). Following a determination to this effect last year, Secretary Antony Blinken also ‘designated’ China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and a few others as CPC for having engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom last week. Countries like Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua have been placed on a Special Watch List. Simultaneously, a list of Entities of Particular Concern (EPC) has been announced that includes, among others, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS and the Taliban. The pattern suggests that a country’s name remains in either of the lists unless it ‘behaves’ and follows suit. In the recent past, Sudan and Uzbekistan played smart, followed suit and wriggled out of this quagmire. These two fortunate countries are now enjoying ‘religious freedom’ just as any Scandinavian country.
The countries and entities qualifying to be in the Watch List must be violating religious freedom sporadically and inconsistently. To be a CPC, a country must violate religious freedom systematically and egregiously. Sounding confident, Secretary Blinken has vowed to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses. There would be consequences if they don’t comply. The list of actions against the violators ranges from diplomatic measures such as demarches, public condemnations and the cancellation of meetings to punitive actions such as foreign assistance restrictions, trade restrictions, or loan prohibitions.
Promoting religious freedom abroad with particular reference to human rights is admittedly an important part of US Foreign Policy. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) is the foundational legislation for America’s international religious freedom policy. Designating any country or entity as CPC or EPC or putting any country in the Watch List is the sole prerogative of the US. In order to ensure compliance and efficiency, several official bodies have been put in place including the Office on International Religious Freedom, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and a ‘Ministerial’. As an additional responsibility, the Office has been tasked to advance US foreign policy on anti-Semitism, including the development and implementation of policies and projects to support efforts to combat anti-Semitism.
Centered on promoting religious freedom, the Act directs that the right to believe or not believe should be as one’s conscience leads, and one should be able to live out one’s beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear. Based on reports submitted by American Embassies abroad, the Secretary of State, each year, identifies governments and non-state actors before according suitable designations.