International Religious Freedom Summit Fails to Mask Trump’s Scorn for Human Rights
International Religious Freedom Summit Fails to Mask Trump’s Scorn for Human Rights

From degrading disabled people, women, LGBT individuals, and other minorities to the forsaking of the United Nation Human Rights Council, and from separating migrant families to the coddling of authoritarians and racists, this presidency consistently ridicules human rights. It follows that the State Department’s first international conference to Advance Religious Freedom might trigger a collective cognitive dissonance. The event, billed as gathering mainly “like-minded” foreign counterparts, intended to reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce “real, positive change.” But a closer look suggests that in the case of religious freedom, the current administration is only perpetuating a longer history of ambivalence, and that this fundamental right, despite a high-profile summit, is no less a victim of President Trump’s antipathy towards human rights.

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA, signaled the first formal effort to incorporate religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy. IRFA required the president to designate and act against “Countries of Particular Concern”—those states engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Since then, only 14 countries of nearly 200 have ever been designated as CPCs. Moreover, this list has remained mostly static over time. Of the current ten CPC-designated countries, Burma, China, Iran and Sudan were added to the original list issued in 1999. Another four countries—Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan—were added early in the last decade. Only two countries—Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—recently joined the CPC list in 2014 and 2016 respectively. This extreme selectivity is laid bare when juxtaposed with the consistently higher number of countries recommended for CPC status by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan watchdog created by IRFA. Earlier this year, for example, USCIRF recommended that six additional countries be designated as CPCs: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

More telling than the few designated CPCs, is the consistent unwillingness to act against them. IRFA affords a menu of actions to signal displeasure with foreign governments violating religious freedom. But no president has authorized new, IRFA-based sanctions, except against Eritrea. Rather, existing sanctions have been “double-hatted” to satisfy IRFA’s requirements. Even then, nearly half of the current CPCs have evaded sanctions through indefinite presidential waivers invoked to safeguard “important” national interests. Consequently, Saudi Arabia, whose government the State Department acknowledges “does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion,” has never been subject to sanction under IRFA.

In response to these and other shortcomings, Congress successfully enacted amendments to IRFA in the waning days of President Obama’s second term. But negotiation and implementation of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, named after Rep. Frank Wolf who spearheaded IRFA’s original passage, reveals as much about Congress’ ambivalence promoting international religious freedom as it does President Trump’s. The original Wolf Act as introduced sought to elevate the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom from bureaucratic anonymity and into the Secretary of State’s office. The amendments also directed the president to appoint an adviser on international religious freedom to the National Security Council (NSC) and to create new NSC committees that would ensure significant policy input roles for the advisor and the Ambassador at Large. Further, they restricted the president’s ability to indefinitely waive sanctions against designated CPCs and guaranteed minimum funding for programs promoting international religious freedom. Finally, the original amendments took aim at groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida, by proposing a mechanism that would enable IRFA to scrutinize nonstate actors and require presidential sanctions against those found to be violating religious freedom.

Negotiations over two years left the above provisions either diluted or omitted. Thus, while Congress secured some needed enhancements for IRFA, its final amendments declined to relocate the Ambassador at Large and its associated office, ruled out mandatory additions to the NSC, omitted meaningful limitations on the president’s waiver ability, and eliminated minimum funding for religious freedom promotion. In addition, not only was IRFA’s new ability to scrutinize “nonstate actors” significantly restricted, but it also relinquished obligating the president to act against them where designated as an “entity of particular concern” (EPC).

Turning back to the current administration, its implementation of an upgraded IRFA evidences no meaningful interest in advancing international religious freedom. President Trump chose to leave the post of Ambassador at Large vacant until his controversial nomination of Sam Brownback in July 2017. Brownback’s polarized confirmation process required an additional six-month delay and necessitated a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence in the Senate. Beyond this sluggish start, the administration has opted to maintain the same CPC designationas, same sanctions, and same waivers as the previous administration.

More telling still, the Trump administration has failed to embrace any of IRFA’s recent enhancements or taken the initiative to unilaterally implement important changes that were ultimately dropped from the final version of the Wolf Act. For example. the administration declined the opportunity to sanction the nonstate actors added to its EPC list announced in March 2018. Further, it ignored Congress’ invitation under IRFA to use the president’s National Security Strategy to articulate that promotion of the right to freedom of religion is a strategy that “protects other, related human rights, and advances democracy outside the United States.” Likewise, the president’s budget for 2019 allocates no funds to the promotion of international religious freedom activities.

The administration also has taken no executive action to elevate the status of international religious freedom within the State Department’s bureaucracy. Thus, the Ambassador at Large and Office of International Religious are still buried within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) under the oversight of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Nor has President Trump appointed NSC staff dedicated to international religious freedom or created committees intended to incorporate religious freedom into policy decision-making, as suggested by Congress. Finally, the president has left IRFA’s new “Special Watch List” to idle. By electing to add only Pakistan to the list, the administration effectively shrugged off Congress’ intention that the list serve as a mechanism for earlier and more purposeful engagement with countries violating religious freedom but falling short of the CPC standard. In contrast, USCIRF recently added 12 countries to its own Tier 2 list, which identifies those countries tolerating or engaging in serious religious freedom violations characterized by at least one element of the higher CPC standard.

Faced with this track record of indifference, human rights advocates and victims of violations of freedom of religion should not mistake an international gathering as a serious commitment to promoting freedom of religion or belief. If this administration was sincere about “push[ing] back against persecution and ensur[ing] greater respect for religious freedom for all,” it could easily substantiate this commitment by implementing its existing IRFA obligations. The absence of such action confirms that religious freedom is unlikely to be an outlier in the president’s policy of scorn for human rights.

Robert C. Blitt is a Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law, in Knoxville, Tennessee. He teaches courses on constitutional law, international law, and human rights law. His scholarship is available through SSRN. From 2004-2006, Blitt served as international law specialist for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.


Suggested citation: Robert C. Blitt, Trump Administration’s Continued Scorn for Human Rights, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 26, 2018,

This article was prepared for publication by Ben Cohen, a JURIST Section Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at

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