USCIRF Welcomes State Department’s IRF Report and Urges Action

Aug 12, 2016


August 12, 2016


WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Religious freedom is under attack today in many nations around the world, harming individuals and threatening the stability of societies worldwide. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) welcomes the attention given to this vital right in the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom (IRF) Report, released on August 10. Covering 2015, the report comprehensively documents religious freedom violations in almost 200 countries, features the cases of thousands imprisoned because of their religion or belief, and highlights non-state actors’ egregious abuses.  USCIRF is pleased to see that this year’s report gives additional attention to the pernicious consequences of blasphemy laws.

“About 74% of the world’s population are living in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom, according to David Saperstein, the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom.  This large number reinforces the importance of religious freedom and the task we have before us,” said USCIRF Chair Thomas Reese, S.J. “We at USCIRF applaud the State Department for the excellent work that went into this report and its efforts to encourage countries around the world to adopt policies that respect this fundamental right. The U.S. government can help ensure positive change.  Let’s not miss this opportunity to strengthen our commitments with effective actions.”

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) requires the State Department annually to issue an IRF Report and, based on that report, designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) those governments that “engage in or tolerate” systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom and take action to encourage improvements in those countries.  Earlier this year, the Department designated 10 nations as CPCs under IRFA: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  USCIRF agrees with these designations, and recommends that the State Department:

  • Designate as CPCs seven additional countries – Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam:  Pakistan’s government, for example, clearly meets IRFA’s CPC standard, but has never been so designated. Religiously-discriminatory constitutional provisions and laws, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, result in prosecutions and imprisonments. Religious minority communities, including Shi’a and Ahmadiyya Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, experience chronic sectarian and religiously-motivated violence from both terrorist organizations and individuals. The government’s failure to adequately protect targets of such violence or prosecute perpetrators has created a deep-rooted climate of impunity.
  • Follow up CPC designations with concrete actions. The State Department designated Tajikistan as a CPC for the first time in 2016, but issued a waiver on taking any action as a consequence of the designation. Waivers also are in place for Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  While permitted under IRFA, waivers leave little incentive for CPC-designated countries to make improvements; therefore, USCIRF has recommended that they should be limited to a set period of time and subject to review for renewal.
  • While permitted under IRFA, because waivers provide little incentive for CPC-designated countries to make improvements, USCIRF has recommended that they should be limited to a set period of time and subject to review for renewal.
  • Use all of IRFA’s tools: IRFA provides the Secretary of State with various options to promote religious freedom, including negotiating a binding agreement, a rarely-used tool. USCIRF has recommended that the United States seek to negotiate binding agreements with, for example, the governments of Burma and Vietnam – both countries with which U.S. relations are expanding.  Burma has been designated as a CPC since 1999.  After more than 50 years of a military-controlled government, the new Burmese government will have many priorities; it is essential for the U.S. consistently to reinforce the importance of religious freedom and human rights for all its citizens, including Rohingya Muslims and Christians.  As for Vietnam, USCIRF urges the United States to designate it as a CPC, and actively take steps to support meaningful and lasting reforms, including with respect to the proposed religion law.  A binding agreement would build on the two countries’ proven working relationship and an earlier binding agreement when Vietnam was designated as a CPC from 2004-06.    

USCIRF also welcomes the increased attention this year’s IRF Report gives to violations non-state actors have committed, which pose some of the greatest threats to religious freedom in today’s world.  Now Congress needs to do its part by expanding the CPC classification to allow for the naming of non-state actors perpetrating systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations. 

For more information, including on countries noted here and other countries USCIRF has recommended to be designated as CPCs and Tier II nations, please see USCIRF’s 2016 Annual Report.

To interview a Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at or 202-786-0615