Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy

Updated June 29, 2020
Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy
AAL for IRF heads the Office on International Religious
For decades, U.S. policymakers have sought to promote
Freedom (IRF Office). Per IRFA, the AAL integrates IRF
religious freedom abroad, reflecting both support for human
policies into U.S. foreign policy efforts and is to participate
rights in U.S. foreign policy as well as the particular
in any interagency processes in which the promotion of IRF
emphasis on freedom of religion in U.S. domestic law and
“can advance United States national security interests.” The
political culture. Protection of religious freedom is also
AAL and the IRF Office lead the drafting of the annual
affirmed in international law through the United Nations
international religious freedom report and advise the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International
Secretary of State on U.S. policy actions in response to
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other
religious freedom violations. Sam Brownback, confirmed
instruments. Congress has been an advocate for
by the Senate in January 2018, serves as the current AAL.
international religious freedom issues and has sought to
Other senior State Department positions related to religious
ensure continued support for religious freedom as a focus of
freedom include the congressionally mandated positions of
U.S. foreign policy, most prominently through passage of
Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-
the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).
Semitism (currently held by Elan S. Carr) and Special
Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and
Legislative Background
South/Central Asia (situated in the IRF Office, and
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (P.L.
currently held by Knox Thames).
105-292) is the foundational legislation for U.S.

international religious freedom (IRF) policy. Recognizing
In June 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the
religious freedom as a “universal human right,” IRFA
State Department was “elevating” the IRF Office and the
created various government mechanisms aimed at
Office of the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating
cementing IRF as a foreign policy priority of the United
anti-Semitism by designating that these offices report
States. Most significantly, the law
directly to the Under Secretary of State for Civilian
 created an Office on International Religious Freedom
Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. The offices had
within the State Department headed by an Ambassador
previously been situated within the Bureau of Democracy,
at Large (AAL) for IRF;
Human Rights, and Labor. Pursuant to IRFA, the AAL for
 required that the Secretary of State issue an annual
IRF continues to report to the Secretary of State.
report on the status of religious freedom around the
IRF Adviser on the National Security Council

IRFA amended the National Security Act of 1947 to
mandated that the President identify “countries of
add a sense of Congress provision that there should
particular concern” (CPCs) and prescribed punitive
be an adviser on IRF issues on the National Security
actions in response to violations of religious freedom,
Council (NSC) staff. In February 2020, news reporting
subject to presidential waiver authority;

indicated that the White House had appointed an
created the independent U.S. Commission on
individual to the NSC staff to focus on IRF issues. The
International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); and

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to
had recommended the filling of a position in line with
make inadmissible into the United States foreign
IRFA and applauded the reported appointment in a
government officials who have committed particularly
press statement.
severe religious freedom violations.
International Religious Freedom
Congress has subsequently strengthened IRFA via
amendment, notably through the Frank R. Wolf
International Religious Freedom Act (Wolf IRFA; P.L.
The IRF report, which is statutorily required by May 1 each
114-281), which became law in December 2016. The major
year, covers developments in each foreign country during
provisions of the law
the prior calendar year and includes information on the

status of religious freedom, violations of religious freedom,
called for the AAL for IRF to have a greater role within
and relevant U.S. policies. The IRF report is the official
interagency policy processes and to report directly to the
U.S. government account of religious freedom conditions
Secretary of State;

abroad, and is a primary information source for the
mandated designation of a “special watch list” of
Secretary of State’s “country of particular concern”
countries with severe violations of religious freedom but
designations. The report covering calendar year 2019 was
that did not meet CPC criteria; and

submitted to Congress on June 10, 2020, and is available on
mandated designation of nonstate entities of particular
the Department of State website.
concern (EPCs).
The State Department’s Role
The State Department leads the federal government’s
efforts to promote international religious freedom. The

link to page 2 link to page 2
Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy
Countries (and Entities) of Particular
generally either referred to sanctions already in place
against CPC countries or issued waivers instead of
IRFA mandates that the President, using information from
implementing new sanctions under IRFA. The most recent
the IRF report and other sources, designate “particularly
CPC designations and accompanying government actions
severe” religious freedom violators as “countries of
were announced in December 2019 (see Table 1).
particular concern” (CPCs) (see Figure 1). The law defines
particularly severe violations as those that are systematic,
Table 1. CPCs and U.S. Actions (Dec. 2019)
ongoing, and egregious.
Burma (Myanmar)
Referred to preexisting sanctions
Figure 1. Countries Most Often Designated as CPCs
Referred to preexisting sanctions
By Number of Times of CPC List (out of 15 lists since 1999)
Referred to preexisting sanctions
Referred to preexisting sanctions
North Korea
Referred to preexisting sanctions
Issued national interest waiver
Saudi Arabia
Issued national interest waiver
Issued national interest waiver
Issued national interest waiver
In addition, in December 2019, the State Department placed
Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, and
Uzbekistan on the special watch list. Sudan was removed
from its prior listing as a CPC “due to significant steps
taken by the civilian-led transitional government” to
address the prior government’s religious freedom
violations. This was the first time since IRFA’s enactment
that Sudan was not listed as a CPC. EPC designations were
al-Nusrah Front, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian

Peninsula, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, the Islamic
Source: U.S. State Department.
State, the Islamic State-Khorasan, and the Taliban.

The Wolf IRFA mandated an additional “special watch list”
U.S. Commission on International
of countries with severe religious freedom violations but
Religious Freedom
that do not reach the threshold of systematic, ongoing, and
IRFA established the U.S. Commission on International
egregious. In recognition of religious freedom abuses
Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal
carried out by the Islamic State and other nonstate actors,
commission tasked with monitoring IRF conditions,
Wolf IRFA also added a new requirement that the President
reviewing U.S. government policy, and making policy
designate entities of particular concern (EPCs) and, “when
recommendations. The President and House and Senate
practicable,” take actions to address severe violations of
leadership appoint USCIRF commissioners, and IRFA’s
religious freedom committed by EPCs.
provisions ensure its composition reflects recommendations

of both the majority and minority party. Commissioners are
Reflecting broader debates over human rights in U.S.
appointed to one-year or two-year terms and are to be
foreign policy, some disagreement exists over the practice
composed of distinguished individuals in fields relevant to
of officially designating countries that are the worst
religious freedom. The AAL for IRF also serves as a
religious freedom violators. Proponents argue that this
nonvoting member. USCIRF in June 2020 elected Gayle
concretely signals U.S. support for religious freedom and
Manchin as USCIRF’s Chair for 2020-2021. Legislation in
creates diplomatic pressure on these governments to
the 116th Congress (S. 2503 and H.R. 5379) would amend
improve. Critics contend that it damages bilateral relations
rules concerning the service tenure of commissioners,
and thus may hamper pursuit of other U.S. interests.
among other proposed changes, and reauthorize USCIRF
through FY2023.
Actions in Response to Religious

Freedom Violations
Pursuant to IRFA, USCIRF produces its own annual report,
IRFA prescribes a list of U.S. government actions that may
which it has utilized to analyze the executive branch’s
be exercised in response to religious freedom violations.
implementation of IRFA during the preceding year, make
Permitted actions include diplomatic measures such as
general policy recommendations, and recommend CPC,
demarches and public condemnations. For CPC countries,
special watch list, and EPC designations. USCIRF’s
sanctions of varying severity are suggested, including
recommendations for designations are typically more
suspension of foreign assistance, trade restrictions, or loan
expansive than the official designations by the State
prohibitions. However, the law provides the executive
Department. In its report covering calendar year 2019
branch significant discretion in determining which, if any,
(released in April 2020), USCIRF recommended that five
punitive actions to take. Administrations can apply
countries be added to the official CPC list in addition to
“commensurate substitute action” in lieu of IRFA’s
those already on it: India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and
suggested measures, exempt a country from new sanctions
Vietnam. USCIRF similarly recommended that an
by referring to already existing human rights-related
additional 11 countries be added to the special watch list,
sanctions against that country, or waive sanctions by citing
and that one additional entity be added to the EPC list.
U.S. national interest. In practice, Administrations have

Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy

Michael A. Weber, Analyst in Foreign Affairs

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