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Cursing the Darkness

The question came during a meeting of the newly formed U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The Commission had been established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, and now, in its early stages, was feeling out the best way to pursue its congressional mandate. As discussion came around to the Commission’s approach, one of the commissioners posed the question, “Are we to light a candle or curse the darkness? I assume we are to curse the darkness….” No one questioned the answer. This was a critical moment, in which a corporate identity was being formed and the raison d’être of the Commission was being articulated. It was a critical moment — and cursing the darkness carried the day.

Last week, the Commission recommended to the Secretary of State that the U.S. designate 12 “countries of particular concern” under the 1998 act. Among these was the small, southeast Asian nation of Laos. The Commission’s unjustifiable decision to recommend the censure of Laos is yet another chapter in its misguided agenda that emphasizes the punishment of religious persecution over the promotion of religious freedom.

This emphasis has it roots in the Commission’s founding legislation, the contentious 1998 act — 18 months in the making — that established a State Department office and an annual report to Congress, along with a commission to provide oversight and independent recommendations to the President. The initial House version placed emphasis on punishing the offending nations. The Senate version shifted that emphasis to promoting this universal right, a shift that ultimately prevailed.

But why the quick acquiescence to “cursing the darkness” by the Commission? Very simply, the crafters of the 1998 legislation did not trust the State Department. Many believed that the department, with its host of agendas and complicated bureaucratic procedures, lacked the backbone for strong implementation. The cry heard most often during those early days was, “Not tough enough!” — a stinging criticism that would result in a $3 million-a-year watchdog known as USCIRF. The Commission would be the “stick,” making sure the softer Senate version of the legislation would continue to carry the strong theme of “punishment.”

From the beginning, then, there have been competing values, not to mention confusion. A State Department bent on promoting and an independent Commission bent on punishing produces two very different methodologies, two different approaches to implementing religious freedom abroad. One is based on quiet diplomacy; the other, public finger pointing. One works with governments; the other castigates governments from afar. One lights candles, if you will, and the other feels obligated to curse the darkness.

I have never been comfortable with the “punishing” approach. While it may appeal to our public machismo at home, it rarely moves the ball forward abroad. Sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions, have a checkered career at best, sometimes creating a negative blowback on those we are attempting to help. Only a perverse mind would delight in adding to a list of countries designated as “countries of particular concern.”

Which brings us to Laos. This summer, a group of Lao officials traveled to the United States in what was perhaps the highest-level Lao delegation visit in the last 20 years. The two week visit, prompted by a congressional invitation, was an opportunity to discuss substantive bilateral issues with U.S. government agencies and non-governmental organizations. In the course of the delegation’s visit, no issue was more discussed than that of religious freedom.

It was important that the Commission meet with the delegation. Interestingly, and unfortunately, even though the Commission previously recommended sanctions for Laos, not one of the Commission’s nine members was available for such a meeting. The best that could be done was a meeting with staff.

Less than a month after the delegation returned home, promising to begin work on resolving “religious issues” at the highest levels, we received reports that 34 religious prisoners (in this case, Christians) had been released from jail, a number that represents over 90% of all those who had been incarcerated for their faith. In a country decentralized by poor communication, massive poverty, illiteracy, and a rudimentary approach to rule of law issues, this was a huge development. There is, to be certain, a long way to go, but surely this was an opportunity to applaud significant steps along the way?

Apparently not. While the State Department responded positively to the news, the Commission’s perspective seemed to be already locked in cement. Those who could not find time to meet with the delegation, to mutually promote religious freedom, found it appropriate to hurl hand grenades from afar. Dismissing facts and one of the great success stories to emerge out of the 1998 legislation, the Commission has written to the Secretary of State that, “though recent reports indicate that most [prisoners] have since been released,” Laos deserves censure as a country that has “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

This is unconscionable. At $3 million a year, this ought to inspire a taxpayer’s revolt. More to the point, that which was conceived in error and delivered in chaos has now been consigned to irrelevancy. Unless the Commission finds some candles soon, Congress ought to turn out the lights.

Robert A. Seiple is president and founder of the Institute for Global Engagement. This column was reprinted with permission.