Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 85, 6 May 2020

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom places India, Russia, Vietnam on watchlist
Aarathi Srinivasan

In the news

On 28 April, the report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) designated India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam as the "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) in terms of poor religious freedom and intolerance. These nine countries have joined Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan who were previously identified by the Commission in December 2019 as the countries with severe violations of religious freedoms. 

The recommendation of the Commission to place India as a country of particular concern is due to the existing protest and concerns over the citizenship bills and the National Register of Citizens in the country. This is the first time since 2004 that India has been placed in this category, alongside countries like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Besides recommending 15 countries on the State Department's Special Watch List (SWL) for severe violations, the annual report also identified six non-state actors as "entities of particular concern" (EPCs) for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations. The report appreciated the improved situations concerning religious freedoms in Sudan and Uzbekistan, recommending it under the SWL (a lesser category) than CPC. 

Issues at large

Recommendations to the State Department and Congress are provided after examining each country which has been designated, in either of the categories mentioned above, which includes the use of targeted sanctions, diplomatic engagement to address public policy concerns while respecting religious freedoms.

The Commission's report may have only a limited outreach to the above institutions but can be used by the latter if they want to pursue a political course. Besides discussions in Congress, for example, will attract the international community, NGOs and media.

While the Commission may not have any legal standing on the countries on which it has made a note/recommendation, the report would be used as a baseline to critique the governments in these countries. The report categorises the countries into CPC/SWL/EPC based on the events that have occurred, highlighting key trends and developments in religious freedoms globally during the reporting period.

Following the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) if a government engages in or tolerates "particularly severe" violations of religious freedom, they are categorised into CPC. Countries in which the government engages in or tolerates "severe" violations of religious freedom, they are designated as SWL. The amended IRFA also requires the US government to identify non-state actors engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom and designate them as EPC.

The recommendations of the report against the designated countries include stringent actions to be taken against those individual government agencies/officials that, in their assessment, are responsible for the violation of religious freedoms. The recommended actions include targeted sanctions by freezing those individuals' assets and/ or barring their entry into the US.

It also recommends strengthening the engagement between the US diplomats and host government officials and key stakeholders, and fund efforts to train foreign officials on how to use surveillance technology to address legitimate public policy concerns while respecting religious freedom and related rights. These measures, if implemented, account for interference in the internal affairs of the country, restricting a government agency/official to do their duty to society.

In perspective

Countries placed in the lowest category evidently become more vulnerable to adverse reactions from other countries. It leads to the deterioration of its global image. However, the report ignores the reality behind the key findings of a particular country.


Aarathi Srinivasan is a Research Intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). The author is pursuing a Masters in International Studies from Stella Maris College, Chennai. 

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