Nov 19, 2018

The 2018 Annual Report of USCIRF is mapping out the world’s worst violators of freedom of religion

The release of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Annual Report is always awaited with great expectation. With an exceptional status in U.S. politics, their policy prescriptions, reports and briefings are usually met with close attention by national and international legislators. The recommendations by the USCIRF are likely to impact largely on international relations and politics. By highlighting the world’s primary violators of freedom of religion, the annual report of USCIRF is an important tool in defining systematic human rights violating countries. It additionally provides governments with a list of issues to address when engaging in bilateral or multilateral agreements.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created to monitor the universal right to freedom of religion abroad. The USCIF monitors and documents violations globally and makes policy recommendations to the U.S. President, Secretary of State and Congress. After doing extensive research, the USCIRF highlights the countries which they perceive to be the primary violators of freedom of religion worldwide. The violations of each country are then thoroughly investigated and appropriate recommendations are given on possible available actions to be taken. Measures recommended include negotiating agreements, imposing sanctions, condemnation, or the issuing of waivers. The countries are then divided into Tier 1 and Tier 2, depending on the severity of their violations.

The Tier 1 consists of the ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPCs.) They are defined as countries who engage in or tolerates particular severe religious freedom violations, meaning those that are systematic, ongoing and egregious. Having most recently in December 2017 designated 10 countries (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), the 2018 annual report further adds 6 countries to the tier 1 (Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam).

The annual report is once again targeting China for its violations towards religious minorities in the country. It outlines how China is known to have a record of systematic harassment, detainment, organ harvesting, and psychiatric and other medical experimentation, and torture of religious minorities, dissidents and political activists. The report puts special emphasis on the Muslim Uyghur population of the “Autonomous Province” Xinjiang as being severely affected by the repressive Chinese policies. Around one million people are detained in internment camps where parents and children are separated from each other. The Uyghurs are surveilled through facial and iris recognition technology, DNA registers, voice pattern sampling, GPS tracking and phone monitoring. Additionally, through discriminatory profiling, Uyghurs freedom of movement is severely restricted. Their language, as well as cultural and religious practices are limited or forbidden and even Islamic names are banned under the pretence of being “extreme”. Finally, China has made clear efforts of limiting activists and representatives legal and legitimate right to speak out and has pressured foreign governments and international institution to comply with their suppression.

USCIF also elaborates on how China continues its strategy of antagonism and hostility towards Tibet and the Dalai Lama. They control their education, construction of temples, and severely restrict religious gatherings both in Tibet and abroad. Monks and nuns who deny to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge loyalty to Beijing have been removed from their monasteries, imprisoned and tortured. Throughout 2017, China has severely increased their presence at Buddhist religious sites and 4,700 structures, including homes, has been destroyed evicting more than 4,800 monks and nuns.

The report also mentions how China has intensified efforts to prevent the operation of protestant and catholic churches. Besides from pressuring unregistered churches to register as “evil cults”, China is putting pressure on the Vatican to cut all ties to Taiwan.

Iran has once again also been appointed to the Tier 1. In the past year, freedom of religion has continued to deteriorate in Iran. The government of Iran severely discriminate against religious minorities, and Iran’s penal code, moharebeh (enmity against god) and sabb al-nabi (insulting the prophet) are capital crimes often used politically and arbitrarily. Although there were positive expectations following the appointment of president Rouhani in 2017, little or no change ensued. Protests against the regime has been met with blackouts of social media, violent crackdowns and mass incarcerations. Although other religious minorities are being particularly persecuted, the significantly conservative and politicised interpretation of Shia Islam by the Iranian regime, is broadly harming.

The Christian Assyrian minority living in Iran has experienced severe limitations to their religious practices, with restriction on the (re)construction of churches, as well as distributions of Anti-Christian material among their communities. Assyrians living in Syria have been displaced, they have faced extensive surveillance and persecution based on their religious beliefs. The collective action of the Assad regime, elements of the armed opposition, as well as U.S.-designated terrorist groups, means that Syria is again designated to the Tier 1. Attacks on civilians, executions, kidnappings are just some of the atrocities targeting religious minorities in Syria.

Russia has shown no signs of wavering from their repressive policies of arbitrary arrests, fines, enforced disappearances and extensive prison sentences under the pretext of combating extremism. This is why Russia has also been designated as a CPC. Muslim Tatars in Russian occupied Crimea are severely persecuted through harassment, intimidation, and small-scale terror. Although repression is primarily politically motivated, it simultaneously targets the religious activities and institutions of the Crimean Tatars. Leaders have been forced into exile, six fell victims to politically motivated assassinations, eighteen have been disappeared, and several of the many people detained have experienced torture through beatings and electroshocks.

Vietnam has also reached Tier 1. While hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2017, Vietnam had the opportunity of demonstrating commitment to human rights. Instead, the government amplified their abuses on dissenting voices and religious minorities, cracking down on freedom of assembly, expression and association nationwide. There are reports of intensified harassment, arrests, imprisonment and torture of peaceful activists. The police have been documented to regularly hire thugs to violently target groups and individuals for their faith and/or ethnicity, such as the Hmong or the Khmer-Krom. The Khmer-Krom are one of the groups that are discriminated against both because of the religion and their ethnic identity. Their ability to practice their belief, as well as engaging in their cultural practices, including the teaching of the Khmer language, has been severely repressed. Additionally, land has been confiscated and structures have been demolished as a strategy of control.

The USCIRF Annual Report has additionally added Pakistan to the Tier 1 primarily for its failure to protect minorities from religiously motivated violence and a lack of representation of minorities in politics.  

The Tier 2 highlights twelve countries, which engage in or tolerate serious violations characterised by at least one of the elements of the systematic, ongoing and egregious CPC standards. The twelve countries on the list are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.

India is especially target for their discriminatory and violent actions against non-Hindus. Indonesia has been put on the list for continued use of religion as a pretext for discrimination to advance a political agenda. In Laos the government is continuously suspicious over certain ethnicities and restricts religious practices of the Hmong among others.  

The USCIRF annual report highlights the severity of the many violations being committed in the aforementioned countries. The necessity for action is imminent and the importance of international pressure cannot be stressed enough. There is no excuse for ignoring atrocities being committed. It is therefore of utmost importance that we remind our political leaders of the internationally recognised principles which secure the right of religious minorities around the world.

UNPO welcomes a report which provides great attention to many of the worlds persecuted minorities. However, there are still many, among which many UNPO members, who have been overlooked by the 2018 annual report. UNPO therefore direct the attention of USCIRF to the many religious minorities who are overlooked and we offer our support for future investigations.

The full report can be read here

Picture Courtesy of @Pixabay