When the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom took testimony in Los Angeles this week on North Korea’s human rights abuses, local Korean Americans were pleased that the federal agency was showing such concern about the persecution of Christians above the 38th parallel.
In a world convulsed by ethnic tensions and religious conflicts, the commission has been busy documenting such human rights violations since it was created by Congress in 1998.
In addition to North Korea, it has looked at many other hot spots, including Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
The body, headed by Michael K. Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School, is an independent, bipartisan panel whose task is to monitor severe violations of religious freedom abroad and to advise Congress and the White House on using foreign policy to prevent such abuses.
The panel consists of nine voting members -- three appointed by the president, four by congressional leaders not of the party occupying the White House, and two by leaders of the president’s party. A nonvoting member, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, now John V. Hanford III, is a presidential appointee.
The voting members, who come from across the nation and serve without pay, are a Mormon, three Catholics, a Southern Baptist, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Jew and a Muslim. They are lawyers, religious leaders, human rights advocates and a foundation executive.
“Repressive regimes so often start with religion precisely because religion is so important to people,” Young said. “Religion threatens totalitarian regimes because it suggests that people can have an allegiance to something higher than the state.”
The panel, whose 20 staff members have a $3-million budget, studies the state of religious freedom worldwide, but not in the U.S. Annually, it recommends that the State Department designate as “countries of particular concern” those where governments have either engaged in or tolerated “systemic, ongoing and egregious” violations of religious freedom. Commissioner Richard D. Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says the panel has no difficulty reaching consensus on religious freedom abroad despite the panelists’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
Last May, the panel named 12 countries of particular concern: Myanmar, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Laos, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
For example, the commission said that freedom of religion “does not exist” in Saudi Arabia. It characterized Saudi Arabia as a “uniquely repressive case” where the government “forcefully and almost completely limits” the public practice or expression of religion to a “narrow puritanical version of Islam,” known as the Wahhabi doctrine.
The panel described Sudan as the “world’s most violent abuser” of religious freedom. Sudan’s civil war has taken more than 2 million lives since 1983, when fighting erupted between the Arab Islamic government in the north and autonomy-seeking groups in the mainly Christian and animist south.
In Turkmenistan, the commission found that only two religions, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, are officially recognized and even those are “highly restricted” by the state.
The State Department is not bound by the panel’s recommendations. Most recently, the State Department did not include on its list of countries of particular concern six countries -- India, Laos, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam -- that the commission had named.
The International Freedom of Religion Act, which also created the panel, requires the president to make a policy response toward countries designated by the State Department, ranging from diplomatic rebuke to economic sanctions.
Tom Malinowski, director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office, says he is glad the agency exists, even if its suggestions are not always adopted.
“The commission is there to name and shame,” he said. “The existence of the commission has certainly forced the State Department to take religious freedom more seriously in its diplomacy around the world.”
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), head of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, a key leader behind creation of the commission, said the panel has had an effect “on a number of situations around the world,” including the one in Sudan.
Commission officials say their recommendation led to the appointment of former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, the Missouri Republican, as the administration’s special envoy to aid peace talks in Sudan.
The panel recommended that President Bush condition his state visit to China in 2002 on an opportunity to deliver a televised live and uncensored speech to the Chinese people on religious freedom and human rights. He did.
The commission has worked with senior administration officials to ensure that the new Afghan constitution contains provisions for religious freedom in an Islamic state.
In addition, it pushed the U.S. government to use multilateral diplomacy to advance human rights in North Korea, including sponsoring a U.N. resolution condemning religious persecutions and other human rights abuses in North Korea.
Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, said that holding the public hearing on North Korea in L.A. was an important leap for the panel.
“They are starting to move from barely passing to high grades as an institution,” said Horowitz, a former law professor at the University of Mississippi. “If they continue with their present course, it’s going to be an all-star commission.”
Jay Lee, president of the Los Angeles-based Korean Congress for North Korean Human Rights, which supports human rights activists, said the commission had gone out of its way to engage local Korean Americans. “This is a very good development,” Lee said.
A deputy director of the commission met with Lee and other activists in Los Angeles a week before the hearing, which was held at UCLA on Tuesday. Five witnesses testified about what they described as a reign of terror in North Korea.
Horowitz said that perhaps the most important thing the commission can do is “to teach the American people what’s going on around the world and that there are places in the world where, if you are caught with a Bible, they kill you.”