THE BLOG

The Case of the Disappearing Religious Freedom Report

04/17/2011 10:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2011
  • Joseph K. Grieboski CEO, Just Consulting; Co-Chair, State Department Task Force on Religion and International Development and Humanitarian Assistance

On Friday (April 8), the United States Department of State released its annual international human rights report.

In her remarks releasing the report, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated:

Here at the State Department, human rights is a priority 365 days a year. It is part of the mission of each of our ambassadors. It is on my agenda or on Under Secretary Otero's or anyone else's who meets with foreign leaders. And it is a core element of the Obama Administration's foreign policy, because it actually is in line with our values, our interests and our security. History has shown that governments that respect their people's rights do tend, over time, to be more stable, more peaceful and ultimately more prosperous.

Unfortunately, both the report itself and the Administration's track record on human rights directly contradict Secretary Clinton's remarks.

Section 102 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, unanimously passed by Congress to advance the right to freedom of religion and belief, calls on the Ambassador at Large for international religious freedom to "assist the Secretary of State in preparing those portions of the Human Rights Reports that relate to freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination based on religion and those portions of other information provided Congress under sections 116 and 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151m, 2304) that relate to the right to freedom of religion."

In the absence of an Ambassador at Large, as is currently the case (see my previous post, "Why America Needs an Ambassador for Religious Liberty"), this role falls to the staff of the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department.

Section 102 (b) of IRFA goes on to state that the Secretary of State "shall prepare and transmit to Congress an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom."

It is my understanding that "supplement" does not mean "replace." However, over the years the State Department has indeed made that interpretation, consistently reducing the coverage of religious freedom in the annual human rights report and limiting reporting on the issue to the annual religious freedom report.

From China to Sudan, Russia to Eritrea, Algeria to Saudi Arabia, North Korea to France, the human rights report on each country in the world released on Friday has the following line under the section entitled, Freedom of Religion:

"For a complete discussion of religious freedom, please see the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/g/drl/irf/rpt."

The annual human rights report does not even bother to make mention of the issue. It simply refers the reader to the 2010 religious freedom report that was released in November 2010 and only covers events up to June 30, 2010. This apparently is what Secretary Clinton meant when she said, "this report represents a year of sustained truth-telling by one of the largest organizations documenting human rights conditions in the world, the United States State Department."

The State Department's abdication on reporting on religious freedom in the human rights report and sending people to the religious freedom report is compounded by the fact that the State Department intends to change the religious freedom report so that it covers the calendar year. At this moment, the State Department is compiling a religious freedom report for the second half of 2010, which should be released in June. The report will now cover the calendar year -- and this one will report on matters from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2010.

As a colleague commented to me, "the IRF Act mandates a separate report supplementing the most recent [human rights] report by providing additional detailed information on international religious freedom issues. It also establishes a September 1 deadline for the report. Sounds like yet another downgrading of religious freedom issues by State."

As the issue of religious liberty appears to become more and more of a lost cause to the Obama Administration, the issue takes on a critically important role in the world. From the regime changes underway in Egypt and Tunisia, to the ongoing crackdown of religious believers in China, to the horrid depravity committed against religious believers in Eritrea, to the devolving rights of religious believers in Russia and Venezuela, the impact of religious discrimination and persecution has a direct impact on so many other interrelated issues, not the least of which is counter-terrorism and national security.

By not updating the annual human rights report with new information and trends of interest, the State Department clearly demonstrates that the issue is of no concern or interest to them. This is an enormously dangerous signal to be sending, especially at a time when the world is in such transition and abuses can easily occur and systems changes can harm fundamental rights of individuals if the Department does not stay active and engaged on the issue.

Unfortunately, by not updating and incorporating religious freedom in the Annual Human Rights report, the State Department failed at what Secretary Clinton said was its very purpose: "And we hope that this report will give comfort to the activists, will shine a spotlight on the abuses, and convince those in government that there are other and better ways."