October marks 25 years since Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. A groundbreaking piece of legislation for its day, the Act mandated the protection and promotion of religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority. It created ambassadors, a special commission, and new reports, all backed by the threat of sanctions. Because of congressional leadership, the United States has saved lives and spurred the reform of oppressive systems. Yet despite these good and important efforts, persecution continues. To ensure effectiveness and relevance in the 21st century, the Act’s anniversary is an opportunity to reinvigorate and recommit to its goals of religious freedom for all.
Despite all that’s going on in the world and in Congress, the legislative branch has a crucial role to play to ensure the executive branch follows the law.
The Act’s founders understood the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right and a unique part of the American story. Religious freedom enables individuals to peacefully follow their beliefs and practice their faith without coercion or restrictions from governmental or societal forces. We know the positive impact of religious freedom, as it underpins democratic and inclusive societies, providing rights for all regardless of beliefs while defending space for inquiry, debate, and freedom of conscience among diverse communities. Such openness is in our interests, as it can help prevent the spread of violent ideologies and protect religious minorities. Pressing for religious freedom is an American distinctive in our diplomacy, something no other nation does to the same extent or with the same reach.
Yet despite the importance of religious freedom, it is a right under siege in many places worldwide. For instance, the Act created the “country of particular concern” (CPC) designation to give the United States a way to encourage reforms through the possibility of diplomatic consequences. While it has made a difference in some contexts, persecution is a stubborn phenomenon to address. For proof of this, the State Department has officially named Burma, China, and Iran as CPCs every year since the first designations in 1999, and yet repression there and elsewhere continues.
Restrictions on religious freedom are a widespread challenge, the scope of which the Pew Research Center has meticulously documented over the past decade. According to their findings, almost two out of every three people on earth live in environments that restrict the free practice of faith. In other words, the specific norms dictated by the government or society confine their ability to worship, pray, and inquire freely. The challenge is immense.
On the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, Congress should consider how to bolster the Act and ensure the effectiveness of U.S. advocacy. With the world on fire and millions suffering, we cannot stand still and hope tools created in the last century can increase effectiveness in the next century. Major overhauls are not needed, but rather new ideas to update approaches and an intensification of commitment. Such efforts need to be public, networked, and consequential.
Public diplomacy remains an invaluable tool, allowing the United States to shine a light and press for change. Public statements of concern by high-ranking officials like the president, secretary of state, and members of Congress can bring attention to persecution. Yes, raising concerns may complicate bilateral relations, but defending human rights reflects our values as a nation. And practically, does the United States want to be partners with governments that repress the peaceful practice of religion? The average American voter likely does not, so speaking up represents our principles and interests, as we want U.S. partners and allies to respect fundamental rights.
Similarly, public reports by the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are a cost-effective way to put oppressors on notice while giving solace to the oppressed. They have become the gold standard for non-biased and comprehensive reporting on religious freedom abroad. From my time in government, I know foreign officials read these reports, as do frontline advocates and oppressed religious groups. They are a low-cost and effective tool of advocacy.
Along with public advocacy, we can maximize U.S. efforts by networking with like-minded governments and partnering with religious leaders and civil society groups. Despite our size and strength, the problem of persecution stretches beyond the ability of the United States to fix it alone. And while it’s in our interest to promote religious freedom, it isn’t America’s sole responsibility. All members of the United Nations have pledged to uphold these values. While world events often demonstrate a troubling lack of commitment to the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the norms provide an irreplaceable benchmark to measure state action and to rally support.
New government and civil society networks are emerging, spanning ideological differences around advancing religious freedom for all. These networks are relatively young but demonstrate the potential for joint advocacy across religious, political, and geographic differences. American leadership and support can further expand and strengthen them, allowing allies to reinforce U.S. efforts in the fight against religious persecution. The upcoming governmental and civil society summit in Prague provides a timely venue for further advances.
Lastly, consequences must follow when abuses occur. Speaking out is crucial, but if not followed up with consequential action, the words ring hollow, reducing U.S. credibility and hollowing out the core purpose of the Act. Congress gave the executive branch a powerful tool with the CPC designation. In the past 24 years, the State Department has designated 15 countries as CPCs, with 2022 being the highest number of designations at 12. I saw during my diplomatic work that when the State Department attached the threat of consequences with the designation, conditions improved in places like Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. While these places are far from perfect, progress was made because consequences backed the CPC designation.
However, policymakers of both parties consistently undercut this tool, as most CPC countries receive a waiver of any action, which immediately signals little threat to bilateral relations. While waivers are permitted by the Act and can be appropriate when giving a country time for reform, too often, they are employed to avoid conflict and to meet the bare congressional requirements. Exploitation of the waiver option abandons the persecuted and kills U.S. credibility. Accordingly, it is essential that Republicans and Democrats in Congress use their oversight role to ensure executive branch compliance with the Act and respond when actions fall short.
In conclusion, the United States should be proud of its leadership in promoting religious freedom for all. It reflects well on who we are as a people. However, 25 years later, we need to recommit. Defending international religious freedom is not just a matter of protecting individual freedoms; religious freedom is a crucial pillar of global peace, stability, and human rights. When people of all faiths and beliefs can freely practice and express themselves without fear of persecution, it protects individuals from harm, fosters tolerance, and helps create a more secure world. Such an outcome reflects American values and interests.
Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.