The Flawed Implementation of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998: A European Perspective

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION: UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Religious freedom has always been at the core of American life and public policy. As the first freedom enumerated in the Bill of Rights, religious freedom is a cornerstone of American liberty.1 Due to the importance of this liberty, religion has had a constant presence in U.S. foreign policy debates for the last fifty years.2 Just before the Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stressed the importance of religious liberty for all and identified guaranteeing this freedom as a compelling reason for Americans to join the struggle for freedom in Europe.3 Many of the United States' concepts of religious freedom are also reflected in international law.4 Although the United States has a relatively modest record of ratifying international human rights treaties, it not surprisingly ratified three key international documents relating to religious freedom.5 The United States was also one of the original supporters of the resolution that created the Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion and Belief.6 Despite this apparent commitment to religious freedom, however, the United States' recent efforts to protect such freedom abroad have fallen short, as illustrated by the compromised and ultimately problematic implementation of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA)7. While IRFA sets out to protect international religious freedom, its enforcement is undermined by the United States' other foreign policy interests, such as the war on terrorism, and a decidedly unilateral approach to the achievement of religious liberty around the globe.

This article contains five parts. Part II outlines the United States' foreign policy commitments to international religious freedom and details the precedents of IRFA. Part III analyzes IRFA's purpose and how it currently functions, describing each annual report since the first in 1999. The purpose of examining each report is to clearly establish that actions taken under IRFA are triggered by the United States' strategic and/or economic interests that do not typically correspond to severe violations of religious freedom occurring abroad. Part IV builds on this analysis and discusses the major flaws of IRFA that critics have identified, focusing heavily on the tendency of the United States to act unilaterally in its desire to promote worldwide religious liberty. Part V concludes the article by suggesting changes to rectify the bias and flaws in IRFA, which changes would subsequently enable the United States to fulfill its laudable goal of furthering religious freedom around the world.

II. BACKGROUND: THE ORIGINS OF IRFA AND ITS FRAMEWORK FOR U.S. INVOLVEMENT ABROAD

The Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad was established in November 1996.8 The advisory committee was empowered with responsibility to

call attention to problems of religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom, and religious intolerance abroad and advise on how to end them; and to provide information on how to bring about reconciliation in areas of conflict, especially conflicts where religion is a factor, and promote respect for human rights so that religious freedom can be fully enjoyed.9

The advisory committee brought together twenty distinguished religious leaders and academics in an effort to address the diverse perspectives within the American religious community.10 During its first year, the committee focused on defining specific issues regarding religious freedom that needed to be addressed, elicited input from a wide range of experts, and prepared an interim report that outlined needed policies to promote the protection of religious freedom around the world by the United States government and multilateral organizations.11 According to the preliminary interim recommendations, one of the aims of U. …