Frequently Asked Questions: IRF Report and Countries of Particular Concern
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. When we strive to advance religious freedom, we are simply urging other nations to join with us in upholding a high but universal standard. In addition, respect for religious freedom and tolerance of the practices and beliefs of people of all faiths lie at the heart of the American identity and constitute some of main principles on which this country was founded. The United States has continued to attract new citizens from all over the world for this very reason. No country has a perfect record of religious freedom, including the United States, and we can all endeavor to reach a higher standard. We support the right of all countries to speak out when human rights, including religious freedom, are abused.
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: 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” country ?
A: The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 amends the IRFA to provide the U.S. Government new tools, resources, and responsibilities to advance and promote international religious freedom. It requires the President to designate a “Special Watch List” of countries deemed not to meet all of the CPC criteria but who engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. This authority was delegated to the Secretary of State. 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 22, 2017, the Secretary of State re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as CPCs. The Secretary also designated Pakistan a Special Watch List Country.