Good cause, bad legislation

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, passed by Congress just before its October adjournment, raises anew the question of priorities in foreign policy.

The law sets up a complicated scale according to which the United States is supposed to promote religious freedom worldwide. It creates an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large.

This is in addition to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor headed by an assistant secretary of state. This makes religious freedom, which is one human right, equal to democracy and all other human rights.

But there's more. For 20-plus years, the State Department has been reporting annually to Congress on human rights in other countries. Now it is to submit a separate report on religious freedom in the same countries. There is also to be a government commission on international religious freedom, and this commission is to submit yet another annual report to Congress (as well as to the president and secretary of state).

The law defines two categories of violations of religious freedom. There are "severe violations" and "violations." Severe violations include torture, prolonged detention without charges, or the disappearance of persons. Violations are arbitrary restrictions on the practice or advocacy of religion. All of these things are already on the list of human rights violations. Now, apparently, they count twice if done for religious reasons.

There is a graduated list of 15 actions for the president to take in response to violations. These range from a private protest to cancellation of a state visit. In the case of severe violations, the actions range from cutting economic assistance to ending US procurement in the offending country.

Religious freedom has deep roots in the United States. Some of the first settlers (Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland) came looking for it. Religion is listed first among the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

Religious freedom is so embedded in American life that it will always be an important part of American foreign policy, whether or not the law requires it. But there is a hierarchy of foreign-policy objectives - among others, national security, promotion of trade, protection of American citizens (including missionaries) and business abroad, access to essential raw materials, promotion and protection of democracy and human rights. The rank given any particular objective within this hierarchy differs from time to time, and even from country to country. Some have to be sacrificed to achieve others.

Despite virtually universal acceptance in the US, religious freedom is one of the more controversial human rights. In many places, somebody's religion offends somebody else. At least since the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, history is littered with religious wars.

None of this is reason not to encourage the spread of religious freedom. Wider tolerance of religious differences would do as much as anything to promote world peace. What we have here, however, is special-interest politics at work. An interest group (mainly evangelical Christians) wants to assert itself about a grievance (mistreatment of religious minorities abroad). Nobody is going to oppose this. Most of the countries curtailing religious freedom are not very popular anyway - China, Russia, Iran, Sudan, et al.

Before you know it, you have an unstoppable piece of legislation creating a new foreign-policy bureaucracy. The reports this bureaucracy cranks out will provide grist for congressional hearings. The hearings may turn into investigations, and the investigations may lead to riders on appropriation bills. All because the political process let a worthwhile, universally supported objective overshadow the broader national interest.

Sometimes the toughest negotiations in foreign affairs are with your friends at home. It's a pity the president didn't veto the bill.

* Pat M. Holt, is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is the author of 'Invitation to Struggle: Congress, the President and Foreign Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992).

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