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Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.

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Fix the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission or Fuggedaboutit

Posted: 10/04/11 04:00 PM ET

This November, if the Senate does not take action on H.R. 2867 -- the bill to reform and reauthorize the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) -- yet another chapter of our country's myopic and special-interest driven approach to U.S., and in this case, faith-based foreign policy might just come to an end.

As a co-founder of a human rights organization that seeks to give voice to scores of Hindus around the world who suffer from both religious persecution and lack of religious freedom, and one which engages the Commission, perhaps I should feel a sense of panic over the potential demise of America's only quasi-governmental religious freedom watchdog that we in the field of advocacy shorten to "YOO-SERF." But, sadly, I don't -- at least not if it is going to be reauthorized in a way that will allow it to carry on "business as usual."

Since its inception, USCIRF's approach to monitoring religious freedom has been incapable of rising above the politics, privilege and special interests from which it was borne. Back in May, I wrote here how Malaysia, Bhutan and Bangladesh, three countries with longstanding and horrendous human rights records toward religious minorities, escaped even mention in this year's USCIRF report. Sri Lanka, Fiji and even Syria were also ignored despite well-documented violations of religious freedom and the State Department consistently citing them for lack of religious freedom. In fact, a careful reading of almost every USCIRF report evidences such blind spots. Many believe that the Commission's lack of context and reliable resources, and bias or over-focus toward the persecution of Christian minorities, has lead to an inequitable monitoring of international religious freedom.

Given the origins of USCIRF, though, bias should come as no surprise. In her article, The United States' Imposition of Religious Freedom: The International Religious Freedom Act and India (India Review 2005), Prof. Laurie Cozad of the University of Mississippi's Croft Institute for International Studies documents meticulously the events that led to the creation of the USCIRF. The catalysts, she asserts, were H.Res.15 and S.Con.Res. 71, both of which "focused exclusively on 'the persecution of Christians world-wide'." From there arose the failed Wolf-Specter "Freedom from Religious Persecution Act," which also focused on Christian persecution and aligned with its earlier avatars' exclusive concern for Christians.

Sadly, to many the interest seemed not so much about human rights advocacy, but about creating an institutionalized license for evangelical outfits driven to gain converts around the globe. At the Foundation, we have coined the term "predatory proselytization" to describe the tactics of many of these groups, where vulnerable populations (read poorest of the poor) are targeted for conversion through coercive means such as access to jobs, health care or education -- access, of course, depending on accepting as Savior the "right God." It wasn't until some congressional staffers wisened up to the P.C. problem with these earlier attempts and "broadened the focus from the persecution of Christians to the persecution of all religious groups" that the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which established the USCIRF, passed.

Indeed, we have a history and track record which both seem to stray from the promise of America being a beacon of religious liberty for all -- meaning that we as a people will fight equally for freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. So, how do we fix it? While the Senate considers reauthorization, it should insist on major reform. H.R. 2867 has some fixes, including term limits and a reduction of the number of Commissioners from nine to five. These "reforms" will certainly make it more difficult to hide the Commission's lack of religious diversity and the temptation of "lifers" on the Commission to continue pushing their pet causes. But additional reforms, including mandating the religious diversity of the Commission and greater transparency, are necessary if we want a Commission that lives up to not only the pluralistic ideals of the legislation's plain language, but also to the principle of religious liberty upon which the United States was founded.

Mandate Religious Diversity

Of the commissioners to date, there has been only one Hindu Commissioner (currently there is no Hindu representation), one Muslim Commissioner, one Jewish Commissioner and one Baha'i Commissioner. There has always been five to six Christian Commissioners at any given time. The Commissioners are supposed to be objective in their deliberations and findings and are, by law, "selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law." It is undeniable, however, that each of the Commissioners also brings perspectives and concerns from their respective faith communities that, in turn, influence the Commission's focus, knowledge, understanding and contextual insight to historical, religious and socio-political realities of many of the regions monitored.

An explicit mandate requiring religious diversity of both the Commission and staff which better reflects the religious make-up of global populations is necessary in any reauthorization of USCIRF. I firmly believe this will better ensure that the rights of all religious minorities have an equal chance of being acknowledged and monitored.

Mandate Transparency

USCIRF is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so meetings, internal communications and proceedings are private. According to Cozad, this allows commissioners to focus on special interests, and their work is thus vulnerable to charges of bias and arbitrariness. An explicit mandate that would bring certain information under the Freedom of Information Act is necessary for transparency and curbing the perception of bias. Making publicly available information -- including media sources, individual country reports, experts and/or NGOs consulted or invited to testify by USCIRF, and any testimony from such experts and/or NGOs -- would potentially limit arbitrariness, bias or inequity found throughout USCIRF recommendations.

Though the institution may have been founded on skewed interests, it doesn't mean it can't be renovated. Comprehensive reform including the fewer commissioners and term limits as suggested by H.R. 2867, in addition to mandated religious diversity of Commissioners and greater transparency, will do much to allay USCIRF's flaws. Time is short, and Sept. 30 is just around the corner. But in the interest of religious freedom for all who suffer human rights abuses regardless of religion, I vote to fix it or fuggedaboutit.