Q: Why does the United States have a responsibility to publish an annual report on International Religious Freedom?
A: Religious freedom is a universally acknowledged right enshrined in numerous international covenants and declarations such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Helsinki Accords, and others. Religious freedom also lies at the heart of American Identity and is the bedrock principle on which this country was founded. The United States recognizes religious freedom as an inalienable right and is therefore committed to its preservation and advancement for all.
The first step in advancing international religious freedom is to shine a light on its abuse, including the persecution and discrimination of religious groups. The U.S. believes it our responsibility to provide information regarding the status of religious freedom worldwide so that the international community can identify and implement solutions to address challenges to religious freedom. We support the right of all countries to speak out against human rights abuses worldwide, including threats to religious freedom.
Q: Under what authority does the Department of State produce its annual report on International Religious Freedom and designate “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs)?
A: Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 that established the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. The IRFA requires the preparation and transmittal to Congress of an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom detailing the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, violations of religious freedom by foreign governments, and United States’ actions and policies in support of religious freedom. Separately, the IRFA also requires that each year the President designate as a “Country of Particular Concern” each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.
Q: What does being designated a “Country of Particular Concern” mean and how is it decided which countries to designate?
A: “Country of Particular Concern” is a designation by the Secretary of State of a nation engaged in severe violations of religious freedom under IRFA. The IRFA requires an annual review of the status of religious freedom worldwide and the designation of countries that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom” during the reporting period. The IRFA defines particularly severe violations of religious freedom as systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons. The President’s authority to designate CPCs has been delegated to the Secretary of State. In those cases where the Secretary of State designates a CPC, Congress is notified, and where non-economic policy options designed to bring about cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.
Q: What is a “Special Watch List” (SWL) country?
A: A “Special Watch List” country is one that is deemed not to meet all of the CPC criteria but engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom. This country category was established in the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 which amended the IRFA to provide the U.S. Government new tools, resources, and responsibilities to advance and promote international religious freedom. The Secretary of State, under authority delegated by the President, designates a Special Watch List. The Secretary takes into consideration all of the information available in conducting his review, and he has the ultimate responsibility for interpreting the legal standard for SWL designation.
Q: What are the currently designated CPCs and SWL countries?
A: On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as CPCs. The Secretary also designated Comoros, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Russia as Special Watch List countries.