Expert finds Clinton's religious freedom report not backed by action

Hillary Clinton discusses the 2011 International Religious Freedom report on July 30, 2012 in Washington, D.C.
Hillary Clinton discusses the 2011 International Religious Freedom report on July 30, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

.- While a new report from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uses strong rhetoric to back religious liberty, a former diplomat says more action needs to be taken to turn those words into reality.

Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, told CNA that although the report offers a "comprehensive catalogue of violations of religious freedom," it stops short of addressing them in a concrete and meaningful way.

Released on July 30, the congressionally-mandated International Religious Freedom Report examines the status of religious liberty in 199 countries and territories around the world during 2011.

The report outlines disturbing trends in religious freedom violations around the world, taking the form of violent extremism, growing blasphemy laws and an increase in anti-Semitism.

It lists eight countries – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan – as "Countries of Particular Concern." These countries are the same eight that received this designation last year.

In announcing the findings of the report, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said that the U.S. has been working to voice concerns about these situations and to sponsor tolerance programs aimed at youth, as well as to impose sanctions on countries that fail to respect their citizens.

Countries such as Egypt, which are currently in a period of transition, have "a wonderful opportunity" to include respect for religious freedom in their new constitution, she said.

Aware of promises by Egyptian leaders to respect minorities, America is "looking at them to protect religious minorities and all citizens and adhere to the universal human rights," she explained.

The U.S. has also "raised the religious freedom issue" with China, the ambassador said.

Although the situation in the country is "complicated," she said that the U.S. is continuing to "press the government" of China and emphasized that conversations with the nation's leaders are ongoing.

In an address on the findings of the report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that there are significant reasons for concern in countries around the globe.

Religious freedom is critical, she emphasized, not only for its own sake, but also for the existence of a secure and stable democracy, as well as for economic and political progress.

"This is a bedrock priority of our foreign policy," she said.

Clinton said that the report "sends a signal to the worst offenders that the world is watching."

It allows the U.S. to more successfully target the countries and aid the individuals that are in greatest need of help, she added.

But while Farr said the language used by Clinton to support religious freedom was "very good," he added that the words do not translate into policies.

Formerly serving in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1990s, Farr became the first director of the department's international religious freedom office.

He explained that the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandates the annual report, requires that it tell what policies the U.S. is using "to advance religious freedom in a given country."

But the policy section of the report instead gives "a laundry list of unconnected meetings and 'dialogues,' or repetitions of senior US officials having 'raised the issue' or 'discussed' it with host country officials," he said.

While these meetings and discussions are not bad, he noted, they are not enough on their own to be effective.

Farr explained that "in most countries, there is very little evidence of a unified US strategy to advance religious freedom."

Rather, he said, "there is a grab bag of unrelated items whose purpose is to show movement, at least on a rhetorical level."

For example, he explained, "for a nation like Egypt, whose stability is so vital to our interests," one might expect to see the report give "a comprehensive strategy of policy programs and concrete initiatives designed to convince the Egyptians that their own interests require them to advance religious freedom."

Rather, one finds a list of discussions, dialogues and unrelated programs. While these programs may be good, he said, "they do not represent the kind of foreign policy strategy that takes the advancement of religious freedom as a serious issue of security, stability and success."

What the U.S. should be doing, Farr argued, is giving the religious freedom ambassador the tools "to develop strategies in key countries.

"She should be given increased authority and resources," he stressed. "Currently her office and function are isolated and under funded."

When this changes, he said, the world will know that the Secretary of State is serious about her statements and willing to "put policy weight" behind her strong rhetoric.

Tags: Religious freedom