National and International Issues

Use of International Religious Freedom Act as an Instrument of Foreign Policy

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) recommended the State Department to name Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in December 2018. 
The two U.S. officials that put forward the case of Pakistan and recommended to the State Department to place the country on Country of Particular Concern (CPC) list were Mike Pompeo and Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. Interestingly, both the leaders belong to the Evangelical Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party. It is worth mentioning that the Evangelical Christians have always shown their concern about the plight of Christians around the globe but the mainstream Evangelicals stress on engagement and peaceful coexistence. 
The USCIRF expressed in its various reports from the year 2001 till 2018 that despite the constitutional guarantees, oppression of religious minorities on many occasions goes unnoticed by the state of Pakistan. In addition, the poor response to sectarian and religion motivated violence and the government’s failure to protect religious minorities, its Islamic laws promulgated in previous decades, and the role of madrassas in ideological indoctrination, were highlighted in these reports. However, the U.S. government has not put Pakistan on the Country of Particular Concern (CPC) list in the past as being on the list can invite penalties like sanctions against the violator country and, therefore, has largely avoided the issues related to Pakistan as it is an important country in the region. 


One cannot deny the fact that in any society, religious freedom is sine qua non for other freedoms and that stands true in the case of Pakistan as well. However, owing to its history of relationship with the neighbouring countries and the global environment of violent extremism, the combination of internal and external factors contributing to religious extremism and the national security cannot be ignored.


It is for the first time that the U.S. has put Pakistan on the blacklist for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom” as the U.S. puts it. With the recent announcement of putting Pakistan on the blacklist, the State Department, however, for the U.S. national interests, has decided to exempt Pakistan from sanctions. On the face of it, the decision of placing Pakistan on the blacklist is beyond comprehension. It is because the decision came at a time when Pakistan took measures to show its commitment to address and counter religious extremism and discrimination against religious minorities. Two examples in this regard are significant: the acquittal of Asia Bibi who was on death row for blasphemy charges and the arrest of Khadim Hussain Rizvi for inciting hatred against religious minorities. Moreover, the persistent efforts of the government to curb religious extremism include military operations which have been proving successful. It can be safely said that the national resolve to fight religious extremism and terrorism is unflinching.
One cannot deny the fact that in any society, religious freedom is sine qua non for other freedoms and that stands true in the case of Pakistan as well. However, owing to its history of relationship with the neighbouring countries and the global environment of violent extremism, the combination of internal and external factors contributing to religious extremism and the national security cannot be ignored. 
Unfortunately, freedom of expression, thought, and religion is disturbingly being curtailed in many countries, both Muslim and Western, around the globe. In societies there always persist threats to the life and property of innocent people, including religious minorities. 
Various quarters in the West and the Muslim world term the U.S.’ behaviour as hypocritical, increasing doubts about lack of trust in the U.S. and the fair implementation of IRFA. As evident, the current administration has implemented policies that unambiguously victimize Muslims in the U.S. The irony, thus, is the U.S. that considers itself as the protector of rights of individuals and penalizes other countries that it deems in violation of these rights has grossly failed to tackle the acts of violence against minority faiths in its own dominion. The U.S. has, both in the past and at present, failed to address these issues at home, which are in violation of civil and political rights and clearly show the duplicity of the U.S. Human Rights Watch reported that “international human rights treaties, such as, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Mine Ban Treaty, Convention on Cluster Munitions, Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, have yet to be ratified and only two, CEDAW and CRC have been signed by the U.S.”


Various quarters in the West and the Muslim world term the U.S.’ behaviour as hypocritical which increases doubts about lack of trust in the U.S. and the fair implementation of IRFA. As evident, the current administration has implemented policies that unambiguously victimize Muslims in the U.S. The irony, thus, is the U.S. that consider itself as the protector of rights of individuals and penalizes other countries it deems in violation of these rights has grossly failed to tackle the acts of violence against minority faiths in its own dominion.


Pakistan is passing through challenging times. Extremism and terrorism are the major threats at present to its national security. Due to its strategic location, Pakistan holds significance not only to the region but to the U.S. as well. The importance of Pakistan as an ally to the U.S. is derived from its role in countering terrorism post 9/11 and the current role it is playing in the Afghanistan peace process. The critique of U.S. foreign policy terms this decision as provocative for it is not an ideal time to encircle Pakistan if the U.S. is serious in seeking Pakistan’s assistance to bring Taliban to the negotiating table. It may be the reason why U.S. waived off the sanctions that were raised against Pakistan after it was dubbed as a CPC.
Since 9/11 Pakistan has had to deal with not only a wave of terrorism, but religious intolerance and extremism towards minority groups has also increased. It is also important to note that the status of religious minorities in Pakistan and violence perpetrated against them is seen in the prism of religious freedom. The case in point demands serious attention as U.S. itself has been blamed of having double standards regarding the application of International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to address discrimination against minority faiths in any country. 
Hence, it can be argued that the U.S. has been rightly blamed for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries in the name of freedom and liberty. The U.S. is increasingly determined to find ways to force Pakistan to do more and has been using pressure tactics one way or the other.


The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at University of Peshawar, Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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