Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The legislation affirms America’s commitment to religious freedom, enshrined both in the United States Constitution and in numerous international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The International Religious Freedom Act (The Act) acknowledges the pressure and persecution that many around the world face because of their religious beliefs and requires the President to take a series of steps toward the protection and promotion of freedom of religion.
The Act establishes the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and instructs the President to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to head the office and advise the Secretary of State and the President on issues related to international religious freedom. The Ambassador is also responsible for providing information related to religious freedom to be included in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Human Rights Reports) and preparing a separate Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR)). The IRFR describes the status of religious freedom in every country, highlights trends and violations, and details the actions that the United States government is taking to improve freedom of religion.
The legislation also establishes the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is composed of the Ambassador and nine additional experts, three each appointed by the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Member of the USCIRF are responsible for reviewing the HRR and IRFR and for making policy recommendations to the Secretary and the President in relation to freedom of religion around the globe. The USCIRF also prepares an annual report.
The International Religious Freedom Act provides the President with a number of options to use in addressing “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), those countries that have committed or allowed the commission of particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The President is responsible for identifying the source of the violation, consulting with the government in the offending country and other governments in order to coordinate an international response, and reporting to Congress. In addressing the CPCs, the President’s options include: demarches; private or public condemnation; the denial, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges; the cancellation of a state visit; the withdrawal or limitation of humanitarian or security assistance; and the restriction of credit or loans from United States and multilateral organizations.