The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2022 Annual Report assesses religious freedom violations and progress during calendar year 2021 in 27 countries and makes independent recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress for U.S. policy.
In addition to chapters with key findings and U.S. policy recommendations for these 27 countries, the annual report describes and assesses U.S. international religious freedom policy overall. The report also highlights important global developments and trends related to religious freedom during 2021—including in countries that do not meet the criteria for CPC or SWL recommendations. These include: the COVID-19 pandemic and religious freedom, blasphemy and hate speech law enforcement, transnational repression, religious intolerance in Europe, deteriorating religious freedom conditions in South Asia, and political upheaval that raises religious freedom concerns.
USCIRF bases these recommendations on its statutory mandate and the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international documents. USCIRF’s mandate and annual reports are different from, and complementary to, the mandate and annual reports of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
The key findings, recommendations and analyses in this report are based on research by USCIRF, including travel, hearings, meetings and briefings, and are approved by a majority vote of Commissioners, with each Commissioner, under the statute, having the option to include a statement with his or her own individual views. In early 2021, USCIRF did not travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Standards for CPC and SWL Recommendations
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) defines Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) as countries where the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. The statute, as amended by the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 (Frank Wolf Act), defines the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom.
Under IRFA, particularly severe violations of religious freedom means “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations,” including violations such as: (A) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charges; (C) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (D) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons. Although the statute does not specifically define “severe” violations of religious freedom, in making SWL recommendations, USCIRF interprets it to mean violations that meet two of the elements of IRFA’s “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious” standard.
The fact that a country is not covered in this report does not mean that religious freedom issues do not exist there, or that concerns discussed in previous annual reports have improved. It indicates only that USCIRF did not conclude that the conditions in the particular reporting year meet the statutory CPC or SWL standards.
In its 2022 Annual Report, USCIRF recommends 15 countries to the State Department for designation as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations.” These include 10 that the State Department designated as CPCs in November 2021: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—as well as five others: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam. For the first time ever, the State Department designated Russia as a CPC in 2021, which USCIRF had been recommending since 2017. Regrettably, the State Department removed Nigeria as a CPC though it had been added the previous year and religious freedom conditions remain dire.
The 2022 Annual Report also recommends 12 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) based on their governments’ perpetration or toleration of severe violations. These include three that the State Department placed on that list in November 2021: Algeria, Cuba, and Nicaragua—as well as nine others: Azerbaijan, CAR, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. In 2021, USCIRF removed CAR from its SWL recommendations because incidents of religious targeting and violence had decreased during 2020, but these trends have since been reversed.
Entities of Particular Concern (EPC)
The Frank Wolf Act requires the U.S. government to identify nonstate actors engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom and designate them as EPCs. The law defines a nonstate actor as “a nonsovereign entity that exercises significant political power and territorial control; is outside the control of a sovereign government; and often employs violence in pursuit of its objectives.”
The 2022 Annual Report further recommends to the State Department seven non-state actors for redesignation as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations. The State Department designated all seven of these groups as EPCs in November 2021: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP or ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
The fact that a nonstate group is not recommended for EPC designation does not mean that it does not engage in religious freedom violations. There are numerous nonstate groups that commit particularly severe religious freedom violations but do not meet the Frank Wolf Act’s standard for designation as EPCs because, for example, they do not exercise significant political power and territorial control.