Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Over the agonizing weeks since September 11, I have observed a trend in U.S. foreign policy that is of great concern: a willingness to allow religious freedom and other human rights to suffer in order to combat terrorism abroad. As the United States assembled an international coalition to fight worldwide terrorism, perennial human rights violators such as Saudi Arabia and heretofore little known Uzbekistan have jumped on board. When faced with the proposition of either “being with us or against us,” most countries have chosen the former. Yet, the price for casting our net so broadly would appear to be silence on critical human rights issues.

President Bush has consistently stated that Osama bin Laden and his thugs have “hijacked” the peaceful teachings of Islam, using it as a guise to legitimize their monstrous and perfidious acts. Mr. Bush has clearly drawn a distinction between religious fervor and militant fanatics bent on killing innocent civilians under the pretext of Islamic piety. Other top administration officials have echoed similar sentiments.

However, when the rubber really meets the road, there is a disconnect between the core American value of steadfastly promoting religious freedom and the immediate goal of creating the appearance of a global mandate. Make no mistake, I clearly support the administration’s efforts to act multilaterally and employ our allies in what will be a long struggle. However, the desire to create this global mandate, a mandate that exists with or without the involvement of pariah states, has in effect served as blinders to critical American foreign-policy goals. The rhetoric being espoused by the administration, while sounding right, is lacking in actual implementation.

A prime example of this is the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. After being delayed for almost a month, when the report was finally released, the State Department again declined to name Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam as “Countries of Particular Concern,” despite their systematic abuse of religious freedom, which is described in the report itself. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 empowers the president to utilize an array of sanctions when a country has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Governments named in this year’s report, covering the period of September 2000 to September 2001, include the People’s Republic of China, Burma, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan and the Taliban ruling in Afghanistan.

Once again, however, several notorious violators of this universally recognized human right were excluded from the list. Apparently unbeknownst to policy-makers, promoting religious freedom can achieve the goal of concretely communicating the administration’s intention to make war against terror and not Islam. For example, the report clearly cites Uzbekistan’s “abuses against many devout Muslims for their religious beliefs.” Over the past three years, thousands of nonviolent Muslims have been imprisoned for merely worshiping at unapproved mosques. As Human Rights Watch adroitly stated, “By not designating Uzbekistan a ‘Country of Particular Concern,’ the administration missed an easy opportunity to show that the war on terrorism cannot be a campaign against Islam.”

While the State Department report, mandated by Congress, does highlight other specific violations, I can think of no other reason for this abandonment of principles, other than for fear of offending our new “partners” in this war against terror. The effects of these short-term decisions are likely to reap negative long-term consequences, potentially undermining our credibility, something that cannot be quickly repaired. Furthermore, my concern is that emerging democracies, and outright dictatorships, will view this as a signal of retreat from these universally recognized and longstanding principles, such as freedom of religion.

It is not too late for the administration to take positive steps and name additional states as “Countries of Particular Concern” it can do so at any time. By abdicating our responsibility to monitor and support religious freedom, we risk losing much more than the war against terrorism our future ability to effectively and legitimately promote religious freedom and other human rights.

From my experience of two decades of congressional service and involvement in international affairs, I believe religious freedom, as Pope John Paul II stated, to be the “first freedom.” Yet, if we truly believe in this human right, we should not recede but engage our new friends on this issue. While Mr. Bush, as well as presidents before him in times of crisis, called for America to speak with one voice, it is my fear that through our inaction we are losing our voice all together.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith is co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and vice chairman of the International Relations Committee.

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