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Expand the List of Sanctioned Religious Freedom Violators

This op-ed originally appeared in Washington Examiner, on July 20, 2020.

By USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin and USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins

In Iraq, the 50th Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces has been involved in extortion, illegal arrests, kidnappings, and detention of individuals without warrants, often targeting Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities returning to the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar. Rayan al-Kildani, the ruthless leader of this militia who operates under the guidance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was videotaped brutally cutting off the ear of a detainee.

In Burma, over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled northern Rakhine state to Bangladesh after Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017 that included mass killings, gang rape, and wide spread arson. The United Nations has called for the Burmese Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for leading the military to commit such horrendous crimes.

Besides both being responsible for abhorrent bloodshed, a commonality between al-Kildani and Hlaing is that they were both sanctioned under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and the related 2017 executive order, E.O. 13818.

The Global Magnitsky Act allows financial sanctions and visa restrictions to be imposed on a designated individual for corruption or human rights abuses. As of December 2019, 198 individuals had been sanctioned under Global Magnitsky, but only 16 – less than 10% – of these sanctions have directly related to religious freedom abuses.

Alongside Global Magnitsky, the U.S. government has used other tools to impose consequences on violators of religious freedom.

The State Department increasingly uses Section 7031(c) of the annual appropriations law, which requires the secretary of state to make foreign officials and their immediate family members ineligible for U.S. entry if there is credible evidence that such individuals have been involved in “a gross violation of human rights.” Over 100 of these designations were announced publicly last year, although, only a small number were related to religious freedom. Notable designations for gross violations of human rights connected to the freedom of religion or belief included the former director of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) for alleged torture and two Russian officials for their involvement in the arrest and torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where we serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, details in its 2020 Annual Report religious freedom conditions globally and provides recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. We note the imposition of sanctions and visa restrictions in response to attacks on religious freedom and commend the U.S. government for its strong action in those cases. However, the number of sanctions imposed in 2019 are few in comparison to the scale of serious religious violations that occurred globally. Our report alone cites 29 countries where governments or societal actors severely violate religious freedom.

President Trump has stated that “protecting religious freedom is one of [his] highest priorities.” To match this commitment, we urge the U.S. government to more vigorously use the targeted accountability tools available to punish individuals and agencies directly responsible for the severe religious freedom violations detailed in our report.

In our report, we note contexts where asset freezes and visa bans on individual officials, agencies, and military units can stem continued religious persecution, including in India, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and Russia.

We also name specific individuals that should held accountable, such as Caridad Diego, the head of Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs who has personally led her office’s campaign of harassment against religious life on the island, as well as Chen Quanguo, China’s Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary who created the blueprint for the dystopian surveillance state that has led to 1.8 million Uighur and other Muslims being placed in concertation camps.

The Administration has a wide range of tools to impose consequences for human rights violators. This is why we call on Congress to evaluate the policy tools available for targeted human rights-related sanctions and consider giving the State Department authority to impose individual visa bans for gross human rights violations through new legislation. Congress should also define the authority’s relationship to Global Magnitsky sanctions to aid the Administration in implementing the most appropriate and impactful tool among a menu of options. These options help ensure that each targeted sanction imposes a consequential punishment on the individual violator, who may personally benefit from their access to the U.S. financial system or send their children to school in the United States.

We hope that in 2020 others will join al-Kildani and Hlaing on the list of individuals and entities sanctioned for severe religious freedom violations. The imposition of a more aggressive targeted sanctions regime would go a long way in deterring religious freedom violators, bringing accountability to the perpetrators, and ultimately creating a world where all are free to practice their faith.