As the new year dawned, the U.S. State Department issued its annual “Countries of Particular Concern” designations, calling out a dozen countries for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Once again, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan find themselves on the list, alongside Myanmar, China, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
And once again, in addition to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two Central Asian countries have been granted waivers that essentially set aside possible sanctions arising from the CPC designation.
In response to State’s designations, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal body that monitors the status of freedom of religion abroad and makes policy recommendations to the government, called for a Congressional hearing. While the main thrust of USCIRF’s “disappointment” with State’s designations is its lack of designating Nigeria or India, as recommended, the commission also takes issues with State’s setting aside of the USCIRF recommendation that countries such as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan no longer be granted waivers.
USCIRF’s very existence is tied to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which provides a menu of punitive sanctions options for violators of religious freedoms. The legislation, however, also provides for an administration to eschew any sanctions by requesting a waiver. Each year, USCIRF issues a report with its recommendations and later that year (or, in this case, early in the next) State issues its designations, and requested waivers.
In a statement, USCIRF Chair Cooper and Vice Chair Davie said, “USCIRF formally requests a detailed justification by the State Department as to why our policy recommendations were not fully implemented, including lifting the waivers.”
Tajikistan has been designated as a CPC since 2016 and Turkmenistan since 2014; both countries have always been granted waivers and thus never sanctioned on account of their religious freedom violations. But as USCIRF Commissioner Eric Ueland explained to The Diplomat, “Aside from citing the statutory language that allows waivers based on ‘the important national interest of the United States’ the State Department has not provided the specific reasons for the four waivers, but they should do so immediately.”
The waivers, Ueland said, reduce the effectiveness of the IRFA. They take the bite out of the designation.
“IRFA provides a menu of policy options to respond to such countries, without which they have little to no incentive for meaningful reform,” Ueland said. “This is especially true for governments like those of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, which are seemingly less concerned than some others with negative international perception of their human rights practices.”
In essence: Naming and shaming doesn’t work on the shameless.
“When the State Department designates these countries but imposes waivers, this is an indication that the administration is prioritizing other aspects of bilateral relations, despite its own high standards for designating violators,” Ueland said.
In its 2023 annual report, USCIRF specifically recommended that the Biden administration review its policies toward the four countries designated but granted waivers in order to “make policy changes for meaningful consequences and encourage positive change.”
Ueland says the U.S. government, through CPC designations and the ensuing sanctions, can pressure countries into meaningful action on religious freedom issues. He pointed to Uzbekistan as an example in this regard, both of the possible changes under pressure and the backsliding that may occur without it.
“After repeated CPC designations, the post-2016 government [in Uzbekistan] began to make some positive changes in an effort to get off the CPC list,” Ueland explained.
Uzbekistan had been designated as a CPC from 2006 to 2018 when it was removed by the U.S. State Department and placed on the Special Watch List, from which it was removed in 2020. USCIRF recommended CPC designation for Uzbekistan until 2020 and has continued to recommend its inclusion on the Special Watch List in the years since.
“Although USCIRF has applauded Uzbekistan’s reforms, we have maintained our recommendation that Uzbekistan be included on the Special Watch List because our assessment is that the government continues to commit severe religious freedom violations and has left many fundamental concerns unaddressed,” Ueland noted.
He went on to comment, “Unfortunately, Uzbekistan is now experiencing a backsliding on its positive reforms, including a resurgence of raids on minority religious groups, undue fines, arrests, and imprisonments of Muslims for their peaceful religious activity and expression, and the targeting of Uzbeks abroad who fled religious persecution at home.”
“However, without an official designation from the State Department, Uzbekistan clearly has little incentive to intensely engage – as it did before – to ameliorate the religious freedom situation.”
Like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan had always been granted a waiver from sanctions. The new administration of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, however, did place a heavy emphasis on improving the country’s global image early in its tenure – particularly honing in on lifting Tashkent’s ranking in various human rights focused indexes. This effort yielded some success, but as Ueland pointed out, there has been backsliding in recent years.
When asked by The Diplomat what kind of sanctions Tajikistan and Turkmenistan might be subject to, were they not to be granted waivers, Ueland noted that USCIRF has “recommended that the U.S. government limit security assistance to those governments and impose Global Magnitsky sanctions on the specific government officials and entities responsible for particularly severe religious freedom violations.”