Remarks by USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett, 2013 Annual Report, National Endowment for Democracy

May 7, 2013

USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett gave the following remarks at a conference, cosponsored by USCIRF and the National Endowment for Democracy on May 7, 2013


Thank you for that kind introduction.

It truly is a pleasure to join you today at the National Endowment for Democracy as we discuss USCIRF's findings and recommendations in our 2013 Annual Report, which we released just last week.

For most of us who currently serve as USCIRF commissioners, the reporting year actually was our first year on the Commission.  

It also coincided with my time as USCIR Chair, which is about to end since it is a one-year position.   While I no longer will be USCIRF's Chair, I look forward to continuing as a USCIRF Commissioner.   

The past year has been both a joy and a challenge, as my esteemed colleagues and I have labored together with our able staff in confronting the realities of a changing global landscape and its implications for freedom. 

In recent years, our staff has had the pleasure of working with NED's World Movement of Democracy to help build vibrant, open, and law- abiding societies.   Today's event is further evidence of the blossoming relationship between our two organizations.

And let me commend your organization for doing a splendid job supporting freedom for the past three decades.  During this time, we have all seen wondrous changes that have touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people.  When the Berlin Wall came down, when the Iron Curtain was rent, when the Soviet Union dissolved, we witnessed a historic triumph of freedom.

But since that amazing time, the fight for liberty has become a bit more challenging.  This is especially the case regarding freedom of religion or belief.

Indeed, most of the world's people live in countries where religious freedom is protected poorly -- if at all.  And as we see in our annual report, the state of religious freedom abroad has not improved over the past year, but remains problematic.

Today, I'm going to talk about the findings in our report. I will also talk about the role of violent religious extremism in perpetrating and triggering much of the religious freedom abuses we see today. And I will discuss solutions - concrete recommendations on how our country can help others to counter extremism by expanding freedom.

  Tier 1 and Tier 2 Countries

As part of our report, we recommend that the State Department re-designate the following eight nations as "countries of particular concern” or CPCs, marking them as among the worst religious freedom violators:

  1. Burma
  2. China
  3. Eritrea
  4. Iran
  5. North Korea
  6. Saudi Arabia
  7. Sudan
  8. Uzbekistan 

We find that seven other states also meet the CPC threshold and should be designated:  

  1. Egypt
  2. Iraq
  3. Nigeria
  4. Pakistan
  5. Tajikistan
  6. Turkmenistan
  7. Vietnam

This year, we've placed eight countries on our Tier 2 List, which replaces our Watch List designation:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Azerbaijan
  3. Cuba
  4. India
  5. Indonesia
  6. Kazakhstan
  7. Laos
  8. Russia 

We found that the abuses are serious enough to meet at least one of three criteria, but not all, of the "systematic, ongoing, and egregious” CPC benchmark language as specified by the IRFA Act of 1998.  These abuses are affecting billions of our fellow human beings.

From Rohingya Muslims in Burma to Coptic Christians in Egypt; from Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Protestant house church members and Falun Gong in China to Baha'is in Iran; from Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan to Muslims in Muslim-majority nations like Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan and in non-Muslim nations like Russia, when the right of religious freedom is violated, real people suffer.

And this suffering is occurring in far too many countries.

In Burma, despite political reforms, sectarian violence and severe abuses against ethnic minority Christians and Muslims continue with impunity.

In Egypt, despite some progress after Mubarak, the government has repeatedly failed to protect religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, from violence, while prosecuting and jailing people for "defamation” of religion.   In addition, Egypt's new constitution includes problematic provisions relating to religious freedom.

In China, conditions continue to deteriorate, particularly for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.  To stem the growth of independent Catholic and Protestant groups, the government arrested leaders and shut churches down.  Members of Falun Gong, as well as those of other groups deemed "evil cults,” face long jail terms, forced renunciations of faith, and torture in detention.    

In Nigeria, protection of religious freedom continued to falter, as the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked Christians, as well as fellow Muslims opposing them, and inflamed tensions between Christians and Muslims. 

Nigeria's government has repeatedly failed to prosecute perpetrators of religiously-related violence that has killed more than 14,000 Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim, fostering a climate of impunity.

In Pakistan, as historic elections approach, religious freedom abuses have risen dramatically due to chronic sectarian violence targeting Shi'i Muslims. 

The government's continued failure to protect Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus, along with its repressive blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadi laws, have fueled religious freedom abuses and vigilante violence.

In Russia, conditions continue to worsen, as the government uses extremism laws against certain Muslim groups and so-called "non-traditional” religious communities, particularly Jehovah's Witnesses, through raids, detentions, and imprisonment. In addition, massive violations continue in Chechnya.  Outside of Russia, similar repression occurs across Central Asia as well.

In Indonesia, extremist violence coupled by government arrests of individuals considered religiously deviant threatens its tradition of tolerance and pluralism.

Spotlighting Other Countries and Themes

Besides documenting abuses and formulating recommendations for Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries, our Annual Report also spotlights countries and regions in which current trends are worth monitoring - Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela and Western Europe.

And this year's report also addresses several themes relating to religious freedom.  

These themes range from legal retreat from religious freedom in post-communist countries to severe religious freedom violations by non-state actors.

And let me add that recently, USCIRF released a separate report on religious freedom conditions in Syria, including how our government can help Christian and Alawite minorities, as well as members of the Sunni majority.

Violent Religious Extremism and Governmental Failur

Among the themes I've just cited, the role of non-state actors leads us to the phenomenon known as violent religious extremism, in which religion is hijacked to advance radical agendas by force.

This extremism not only violates the rights of others, but contributes to the destabilizing of countries.  

Since our USCIRF mandate includes encouraging Washington to hold other governments accountable for religious freedom abuses, the Commission looks at religious extremism from the lens of government actions or inactions.

When it comes to such extremism, we focus on how governments either perpetrate or tolerate religious freedom abuses.

Governments perpetrate these abuses in at least three ways.  First, some governments actually embody the extremism itself.  

Both the Iranian and Sudanese governments, for example, are run by religious extremists who violently impose their worldview on others.  As for Iran, it remains a world-class religious-freedom violator.  As for Sudan, USCIRF deemed it the world's most violent religious-freedom abuser due to its conduct during the North-South civil war of 1983-2005 when it called for jihad against the south.  Since South Sudan became independent, conditions in Sudan have deteriorated, as its leaders continue to repress their people.  While Iran and Sudan repress freedom on behalf of extremism, other governments engage in repression in the name of opposing it.  Both China and Russia, for example, repress Muslims in the name of fighting extremism in Muslim communities.

And finally, by their actions, other governments embolden extremists to commit abuses.   One example is Pakistan with its anti-Ahmadi and blasphemy laws which encourage extremists to commit violence against those they perceive as transgressing them.   These are examples of how governments can harm religious freedom in connection with their stance on extremism.  

But it is also true that governments are responsible for extremist-driven violations through their toleration of them -- that is, by their failure to prevent violence or bring justice to the responsible parties.   Such failures create and perpetuate a climate of impunity.  Egypt's failure to protect Coptic Christians and Nigeria's failure to protect both Christians and Muslims from sectarian violence are two examples of this problem.

Religious Freedom = Antidote to Religious Extremism

Thus, through sins of commission and omission, governments are responsible for religious freedom abuses within their borders, including those driven by violent religious extremism.   

Such abuses are harmful not only to human rights, but also to the stability of their societies and other countries. 

Indeed, studies show how countries that honor religious freedom enjoy greater stability, harmony, and prosperity, while those whose governments perpetrate or tolerate violations create the conditions for failed societies.

There are at least three reasons for this correlation.  First, governments that persecute or fail to protect people against religious persecution can drive them into extremist hands.  When our Commission visited Ethiopia last year, we saw disturbing signs of this danger. 

Ethiopia's recent efforts to combat extremism by forcing its Muslim community to embrace a foreign form of Islam run the risk of producing exactly what it fears - the radicalization of individuals within that community.

Second, as I noted with Pakistan, governments that enforce laws which violate religious freedom unwittingly encourage people to monitor others for signs of trespass and take violent actions against perceived transgressors.  

And third, governments that restrict religious freedom in the name of fighting religious extremist groups end up strengthening these groups by weakening their more moderate but less resilient competition.  

In Egypt, for example, President Mubarak's restrictions weakened the hand of pro-freedom movements, making it easier for the Salafists to emerge in the post-Mubarak era on a much stronger footing than their more democratic competition.

Clearly, during times of severe governmental repression, extremists are driven by their fanaticism to cut corners and break rules in order to survive.   Unlike their more democratic opponents, their fanaticism drives them to believe that all things are permissible in service to their cause.

U.S. Leadership Needed

So when it comes to violent religious extremism, it is clear that religious freedom abuses not only offend human rights, but pose a grave threat to the security and stability of countries.  

And unfortunately, this instability and violence often spills beyond national borders into neighboring countries, threatening entire regions.  As Americans living in a post-9/11 world, we of all people know what happens when violent religious extremism is exported globally as terrorism.

This is why the U.S. government must prioritize religious freedom not just as a core human right, but a global security imperative, and a vital part of any counter-extremism strategy.  Our government must recognize the pivotal role of religion in countries that top our foreign policy agenda and how limitations on religious liberty can harm entire societies.

Religious freedom has national security relevance.  Conditions favoring it can help counter extremism by undercutting the message of extremists and fostering religious diversity and minority rights.  As a fundamental right, religious freedom is a core component of a healthy society, as it encompasses other freedoms - including those of expression, association, and assembly. 

To further the religious freedom agenda, our Commission recommends the following:

  • The Obama administration should issue a National Security Strategy on supporting religious freedom abroad, combining all U.S. government activities in a "whole-of- government” effort to confront this challenge. 
  • Congress should hold hearings and embrace legislation that prioritizes religious freedom and reflects its critical importance to national security and global stability.  
  • The State Department should prioritize this pivotal freedom by pressing countries to implement reforms that will confront extremism and protect liberty. 
  • And the State Department should also make CPC designations soon, before previously designated actions expire later this year. 

Naming countries as CPCs isn't the end of engagement, but rather the beginning of a high-level process to encourage governments to improve. When combined with the prospect of sanctions, the CPC designation can create political will where none existed, moving repressive governments to undertake needed changes. 


And so, as I conclude, let me stress to all of you that despite the bleak picture we see of religious freedom abroad, progress remains possible.

If we as a country reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom by making it a permanent and integral part of our foreign policy, it can be a game-changer - both for us and for the world.  

Change will not happen overnight, but if Washington supports a truly free and vibrant marketplace of ideas, including religious ideas, I believe that in spite of many obstacles, the desire for a better life on the part of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings is going to prevail.

I believe that if truly given the chance, a critical mass of humanity will say "no” to more repression, "no” to more extremism, and "yes” to more freedom.

In accordance with our mandate, we who serve on the Commission will do our part.   It is our deepest hope that in the coming months and years, Washington will fully do its part on behalf of religious freedom.

Thank you.