After leaving the post vacant for nine months, President Obama has finally nominated Rabbi David Saperstein to the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. If confirmed, Saperstein will head the Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF) at the State Department.
Rabbi Saperstein has spent the last thirty years leading the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and will be the first non-Christian to head the OIRF.
The OIRF has “the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy.” One of the key functions of this office is to issue an annual report on religious freedom worldwide which was just done on July 28, 2014. “The report contains an introduction, executive summary, and a chapter describing the status of religious freedom in each of 195 countries throughout the world.” The OIRF also engages in diplomacy to promote religious freedom and has other tools such as designating the worst violators of religious freedom as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPC). The State Department has a whole range of tools available to work with CPCs such as to create agreements to improve religious freedom or to even impose sanctions. Unfortunately, the CPC designation is greatly underused which is why Senator Rubio yesterday introduced legislation to “to strengthen the United States’ role in monitoring and responding to violations of religious freedom throughout the world” by amending the Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Obama administration as well as previous ones have not designated new CPCs in a timely manner.
Senator Rubio introduced his amendment saying:
“While I welcome today’s announcement updating CPC designations, this administration has failed to do so since 2011. By amending the International Religious Freedom Act, this legislation encourages the administration to take a firmer stance on religious freedom violators and codifies America’s commitment to advancing religious freedom as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.”
The legislation proposes to amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to ensure that:
- The United States annually reviews the status of religious freedom in every foreign country;
- The United States takes action against countries that have engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom;
- The President notifies Congressional committees of actions taken, the purpose of these actions, and their effectiveness;
- The President consults with Congress and interested parties domestically, as well as advancing the United States’ commitment to religious freedom in multilateral forums and humanitarian organizations;
- The President explains any instances in which measures are not taken towards a country designated as an abuser of religious freedom;
- A country of particular concern retains that status until the President determines and reports to Congress that the country should no longer be designated as such; and
- Punitive actions towards countries of particular concern will only be terminated upon certification by the President, in consultation with the Commission on International Religious Freedom and certification to Congress, that the government in question had ceased or taken verifiable steps to cease severe violations of freedom of religion.