In its 2022 Annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that India be designated a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ (CPC), i.e., the category of governments performing most poorly on religious freedom criteria.
It has also called for “targeted sanctions” on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ or entities’ assets and/or barring their entry” into the U.S.
What is the USCIRF and how is it constituted?
- The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan body created by the International Religious Freedom Act, 1998 (IRFA) with a mandate to monitor religious freedom violations globally and make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.
- It is a congressionally created entity and not an NGO or advocacy organisation.
- It is led by nine part-time commissioners appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the House and the Senate.
- According to the IRFA, commissioners are “selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law.”
What does a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ (CPC) designation mean?
- IRFA requires the USCIRF to annually identify countries that merit a CPC designation.
- As per IRFA, CPCs are countries whose governments either engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom, which are defined as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion”.
- The other designation, for less serious violations, is Special Watch List (SWL)
Which other countries have been designated as CPCs?
- For 2022, based on religious freedom conditions in 2021, a total of 15 countries have been recommended for the CPC designation.
- They include India, Pakistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam. Countries recommended for a SWL designation include Algeria, Cuba, Nicaragua, Azerbaijan, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.
Why does USCIRF want India to be designated as a CPC?
- The USCIRF, in its annual report, states that in 2021, “religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened.”
- Noting that the “Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies —including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda — that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities,” the report observed that “the government continued to systemise its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and State levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.”
- It highlighted the use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against those documenting religious persecution and violence, detailed the creation of “hurdles against the licensure and receipt of international funding” by religious and charitable NGOs, and observed that “numerous attacks were made on religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, and their neighborhoods, businesses, homes, and houses of worship”.
- It also criticised the spate of fresh anti-conversion legislations, noting that “national, State and local governments demonised and attacked the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam.”
- Taking into account all these aspects, it concluded that India met the criteria of “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations of religious freedom and therefore deserved a CPC designation.
Are USCIRF recommendations binding on the U.S. government?
- No, they are not.
- The USCIRF typically recommends more countries for a CPC label than the State Department will designate.
- This happens because the USCIRF is concerned solely with the state of religious freedom when it makes a recommendation, but the State Department and its Office of International Freedom (IRF), although mandated by IRFA to factor in religious freedom in the framing of foreign policy, also takes into account other diplomatic, bilateral and strategic concerns before making a decision on a CPC designation.
Is this the first time India is being designated as a CPC by the USCIRF? What has been India’s reaction?
- This is the third year in a row that India has received a CPC recommendation. India has in the past pushed back against the grading, questioning the locus standi of USCIRF. In 2020, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar called the Commission an “Organisation of Particular Concern.”
What is the likely impact of the USCIRF’s recommendation?
- The U.S. State Department hasn’t acted on such recommendations so far. But India may come under greater pressure this time, given its divergence from the American position on the Ukraine war and refusal to endorse U.S.-backed resolutions against Russia at the UN.
- While the USCIRF’s suggestion of targeted sanctions may be a non-starter, its other recommendation — that the “U.S. Congress should raise religious freedom issues in the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters and congressional delegations” seems more likely to fructify.
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