The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2021 Annual Report assesses religious freedom violations and progress during calendar year 2020 in 26 countries and makes independent recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress for U.S. policy.
USCIRF bases these recommendations on its statutory mandate and the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international documents. USCIRF’s mandate and annual reports are different from, and complementary to, the mandate and annual reports of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
The key findings, recommendations and analyses in this report are based on research by USCIRF, including travel, hearings, meetings and briefings, and are approved by a majority vote of Commissioners, with each Commissioner, under the statute, having the option to include a statement with his or her own individual views. During the first two months of 2020, Commissioners and/or staff visited Azerbaijan, Laos, Malaysia, and Sudan to assess religious freedom conditions. For the rest of the year and in early 2021, USCIRF did not travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) defines Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) as countries where the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. The statute, as amended by the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 (Frank Wolf Act), defines the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom.
Under IRFA, particularly severe violations of religious freedom means “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations,” including violations such as: (A) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charges; (C) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (D) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons. Although the statute does not specifically define “severe” violations of religious freedom, in making SWL recommendations, USCIRF interprets it to mean violations that meet two of the elements of IRFA’s “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious” standard.
The fact that a country is not covered in this report does not mean that religious freedom issues do not exist there, or that concerns discussed in previous annual reports have improved. It indicates only that USCIRF did not conclude that the conditions in the particular reporting year meet the statutory CPC or SWL standards.
The Frank Wolf Act requires the U.S. government to identify nonstate actors engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom and designate them as EPCs. The law defines a nonstate actor as “a nonsovereign entity that exercises significant political power and territorial control; is outside the control of a sovereign government; and often employs violence in pursuit of its objectives.”
The State Department should redesignate 7 entities it designated as EPCs in December 2020: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and the Taliban.
The fact that a nonstate group is not recommended for EPC designation does not mean that it does not engage in religious freedom violations. There are numerous nonstate groups that commit particularly severe religious freedom violations but do not meet the Frank Wolf Act’s standard for designation as EPCs because, for example, they do not exercise significant political power and territorial control.
In this report, USCIRF is not recommending SWL placement for three countries—Bahrain, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Sudan—that were among its SWL recommendations in the 2020 Annual Report and in prior years. USCIRF has concluded that, although religious freedom concerns remain in all three countries, conditions during calendar year 2020 did not meet the high threshold required to recommend SWL status.
What is more, the 2021 Annual Report includes two new sections. One new section highlighting key USCIRF recommendations that the U.S. government has implemented since USCIRF’s previous annual report, and another section addressing human rights violations perpetrated based on the coercive enforcement of interpretations of religion.