For the first time since 2001, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that Afghanistan be designated by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). “With the Taliban’s return to power, religious freedom conditions in Afghanistan, and the overall human rights situation, significantly deteriorated in 2021,” the commission’s report noted.
Afghanistan joins 14 other countries where, USCIRF finds, governments engage or tolerate “particularly severe” violations of religious freedoms. A further dozen countries are recommended in the report to be added to the “special watch list,” denoting “severe” violations of religious freedom.
Of the 27 countries named to the two groups, 13 sit within The Diplomat’s coverage area: Afghanistan, China, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam (italics denote those on the special watch list). Most are repeat offenders, appearing in past lists of recommended CPCs.
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Restrictions on religious freedom around the world take many forms. In China, there’s the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims, which a number of countries have deemed a genocide; in Myanmar, social media has increasingly been used to stoke violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslim Rohingya. In India, it’s discrimination in matters of citizenship and vigilante mobs incited to violence over rumors of eating beef or slaughtering cows. In Turkmenistan, it’s the closing of mosques during holidays on account of the COVID-19 pandemic (which the country denies any cases of), while state holidays celebrating the national horse and national dog continue unaffected.
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USCIRF’s mandate is to make recommendations, but the State Department does not always designate the countries USCIRF recommends.
For example, in April 2021 (as it had in April 2020 for the first time) USCIRF recommended that India be designated as a CPC, but when the State Department made its designations in November 2021, India was not among the countries placed on the CPC or the special watch list.
Designation is supposed to entail sanctions, but waivers can be granted. Waivers were more common than not in the case of Central Asian states, as I’ve covered previously. In the report (as in past versions), USCIRF noted that it had long called on U.S. administrations “to discontinue the practice of relying on waivers or existing sanctions in response to CPC designations.” Of the 10 countries the State Department designated in 2021, existing sanctions were reimposed on six and the remaining four (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) were granted waivers — “as required in the ‘important national interest of the United States.’”
We’ll have to wait and see which countries the State Department ultimately designates and if there’s any change in tactics due to the end of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. The U.S. war effort in Afghanistan was largely viewed as the “important national interest” that protected countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan from sanctions on account of their CPC designation. It also arguably kept Afghanistan off both the CPC list and from among the recommended states, on account of the violations of religious freedoms coming from militant groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State. With the Taliban back in power, and the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) carrying out attacks targeting Shia Hazaras, it will not be a surprise to see Afghanistan designated later this year.
India is a different matter. Although USCIRF has recommended again that India be designated a CPC, it seems unlikely that the Biden administration will do so given the precarious international tightrope which India walks. India is both a U.S. partner in the Quad, alongside the U.S., Japan and Australia, while also notably refraining from condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Naming and shaming, let alone sanctioning, India with regard to violations of religious freedom would not endear New Delhi to Washington.