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Religious Persecution In the Global Balance

It may rightfully rank low in world security priorities

By Pat M. Holt / October 2, 1997



A Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee has approved a bill with the presumptuous title of Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997. This is an idea whose time should never come.

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The bill would impose sanctions on countries where individuals are persecuted because of their religious beliefs or activities. The sanctions might include trade restrictions and withholding of foreign assistance. Their gravity would vary according to the gravity of the persecution. An Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring would be created in the White House to keep tabs on the behavior of other governments.

A serious attempt to implement these provisions would cause untold problems. It would create friction with most countries outside western Europe through American intrusion into sensitive areas of their national life. By creating an office in the White House independent of the State Department and other foreign affairs agencies, it would complicate the formidable problems of managing foreign policy.

Dedication to religious freedom is deeply rooted in American history; it was in search of such freedom that some of the first settlers came to North America in the 17th century.

Protecting this freedom worldwide would be desirable, but achieving this goal may be beyond our means without unacceptable sacrifices of other worthwhile objectives.

There is a fine line between insisting on a decent respect for human dignity and freedom, on the one hand, and preaching sanctimonious hypocrisy, on the other. There are many questions of balance in measuring the trade-offs that are involved in all foreign policy decisions.

The US is a big country with worldwide interests, some of them conflicting. These include, among others, national security, access to critical materials, protection of American business and citizens abroad, trade, and recognition of a number of human rights. The relative importance of different interests varies from country to country and from time to time.

Making foreign policy involves putting these variables in the proper order.

Ever since the days of President Nixon, for example, successive administrations have ranked the promotion of human rights in Cuba as more important to the US than the promotion of human rights in China. There is no evidence that the government of Cuba mistreats its citizens more than does the government of China. The difference in US policy is simply a recognition of the greater importance of China in other respects.

During the cold war, a controlling interest in making foreign policy was generally the anti-communist fervor of a particular country's government and this frequently led to the sacrifice of human rights as a US objective.

Indeed, it was the abuse of human rights by governments in Brazil and Chile in the 1960s in the name of anti-communism that led Congress to create an assistant secretary of state for human rights.

There is also a question of the relative importance of different human rights. The rights to which many, perhaps most, Americans attach primary importance are those which we perceive as restraints on government. The Constitution prohibits the government from interfering with speech or religion. Police forces may not torture suspects or otherwise mistreat prisoners.

Such rights are enforced by the judicial system.

Many people in the third world value these rights but also classify as rights a number of desirable social goals not susceptible to government guarantees. These include such things said to be guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights as: social security, employment, equal pay for equal work, "a standard of living adequate for ... health and well-being," and education.

The prime minister of Malaysia recently caused a stir by suggesting that the UN declaration be revised. He was dressed down by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but it is hard to imagine the declaration in its present form getting many votes in the Senate if it were converted into a treaty and submitted for advice and consent to ratification.

Religion is an especially sensitive area to be approached with great caution. Many people hold particular religious beliefs with great fervor and resent it when missionaries try to make converts to other religions. There was a time when North American Protestant missionaries were unwelcome in Christian (but Catholic) Latin America. Islam is at least as divided as Christianity. It hardly seems in the US national interest to intervene on behalf of Sunni or Shiite Musilims who suffer from discrimination in some Muslim countries. Or on behalf of Sikhs who might suffer from mob violence in India.

Or in any of numerous similar situations that might arise if Congress and the President should be so foolish as to make a law out of the proposed Freedom from Religious Persecution Act.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.