More Problems With The U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom

Source: Huffington Post

There is no question that in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, vulnerable religious communities are facing threats to their very survival or serious problems of discrimination. In situations such as these, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) should be able to play a constructive role making policy recommendations that would help protect vulnerable communities and support efforts to advance religious freedom. That’s why Congress created it. But as I complete my four years as an Obama appointee to this Commission, I must acknowledge that we have not been effective in carrying out our mission.

The sad truth is that, by any objective measure, the state of international religious freedom has worsened in the almost two decades since Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), which created USCIRF. Recognizing this, during the past four years, I have challenged my colleagues to ask are why we have not been able to a difference and what could we do become more effective.

In too many instances, we have failed to distinguish between actual violations of religious freedom and… struggles for political power.

I believe that part of the reason we have not had more of an impact is because of how we have interpreted our mandate. Instead of serving as a bipartisan group of experts making informed recommendations to the Administration and Congress, we have been satisfied with acting more like a Congressionally-funded NGO using press releases and op-eds to “name and shame” countries that violate religious freedom.

The legislation that created USCIRF states that we should comment on the Department of State’s (DOS) annual Religious Freedom and Human Rights Reports and then make recommendations to the Administration and Congress. Instead, we spend the better part of each year writing and editing our own report—never actually considering the work of the DOS. This is a grave mistake since the DOS invests significant resources in preparing their report and has a greater on-the-ground capacity than we do. Absent the resources of the DOS, the Commission’s staff is forced to write their drafts based largely on secondary sources, accounts from advocacy groups, or the results of a three or four day trips some Commissioners make to a few of the countries on which we report. After receiving the draft, Commissioners are then asked to review and comment on chapters dealing with countries, about many of which we know very little. This process is broken and should be reexamined.

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