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Explained: USCIRF, the Commission concerned over Citizenship Bill; what are its functions?

The USCIRF is an advisory or a consultative body, which advises the US Congress and the administration on issues pertaining to international religious freedom. Why has it said it is “deeply troubled” by the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Lok Sabha?

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: December 11, 2019 10:10:31 am
Explained: USCIRF, the Commission concerned over CAB; what are its functions? During a protest rally against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 in Guwahati on Tuesday. (Express Photo: Dasarath Deka)

On Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said it was “deeply troubled” by the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Lok Sabha, “given the religion criterion in the Bill”, and recommended that “if the CAB passes in both Houses of Parliament, the US government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister and other principal leadership”.

Who are the USCIRF?

The USCIRF is an advisory or a consultative body, which advises the US Congress and the administration on issues pertaining to international religious freedom. On its website, the USCIRF describes itself as an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission that was created by The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). “The broad-based coalition that advocated strongly for IRFA’s enactment sought to elevate the fundamental human right of religious freedom as a central component of US foreign policy,” the website says.

In practice, the USCIRF has little teeth in implementation, but acts as a conscience-keeper for the two branches in the US government — the legislature and the executive. It often takes maximalist or extreme positions, and has been used by civil society groups to put pressure on US Congress members and administration officials.

And what is the IRFA?

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 was passed by the 105th US Congress (1997-99) and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton on October 27, 1998. It is a statement of the US’s concern over violations of religious freedoms overseas.

The full title of the Act reads: “An act to express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion; to authorize United States actions in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries; to establish an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, a Commission on International Religious Freedom, and a Special Adviser on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council; and for other purposes.”

What does the USCIRF do?

The USCIRF is mandated by US statute to “monitor the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad — not in the United States — using international standards to do so and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress”. “USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. While USCIRF is separate from the State Department, the Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is a non-voting ex officio Commissioner. A professional, non-partisan staff supports USCIRF’s work,” according to the commission’s website.

The USCIRF’s main responsibilities are:

#To issue an annual report by May 1 of each year, assessing the US government’s implementation of IRFA. It recommends countries that the Secretary of State should designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”; documents conditions in about 30 countries; reports on significant trends; and makes recommendations for US policy.

#To engage Congress by working with Congressional offices, advising on legislation, testifying at hearings, and holding briefings on religious freedom issues.

#To meet regularly with Executive Branch officials, including the Departments of State and Homeland Security, to share information, highlight situations of concern, and discuss USCIRF’s recommendations for US policy.

How does USCIRF define “freedom of religion or belief abroad”?

On its website, the Commission says: “Religious freedom is an important human right recognized in international law and treaties… The freedom of religion or belief is an expansive right that includes the freedoms of thought and conscience, and is intertwined with the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The promotion of this freedom is a necessary component of US foreign policy.”

In its statement issued to “raise serious concerns and eye sanctions recommendations” in the aftermath of the passage of the CAB in Lok Sabha, the USCIRF said the Bill “enshrines a pathway to citizenship for immigrants that specifically excludes Muslims, setting a legal criterion for citizenship based on religion”.

The CAB, it said, “is a dangerous turn in the wrong direction; it runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith. In conjunction with the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam and nationwide NRC that the Home Minister seeks to propose, USCIRF fears that the Indian government is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims”.

Has USCIRF raised issues relating to India in the past?

In August this year, USCIRF had issued a statement against the NRC in Assam and said that it creates a “negative and potentially dangerous climate for the Muslim community” in northeastern India. It had said that the updated NRC could be used to disenfranchise Muslims in the region and is part of the government’s ongoing efforts to introduce a “religious test” specifically aimed at clearing out Muslims.

In June this year, in response to mob lynching of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand in India, USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins had condemned the incident. “We condemn in the strongest terms this brutal murder, in which the perpetrators reportedly forced Ansari to say Hindu chants as they beat him for hours. Ansari later died from the injuries he suffered due to this horrific attack. We call on the Indian government to take concrete actions that will prevent this kind of violence and intimidation by a thorough investigation of Ansari’s murder as well as the local police’s handling of the case. Lack of accountability will only encourage those who believe they can target religious minorities with impunity,” the USCIRF chair had said.

In July 2008, it had urged the US State Department to deny a tourist visa to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who had been invited to attend a conference in New Jersey. It had said that “Modi was previously denied entrance to the United States due to his role in riots that overtook the Indian state of Gujarat from February to May 2002 in which reportedly as many as 2,000 Muslims were killed, thousands raped, and over 200,000 displaced. Numerous reports, including reports of official bodies of the Government of India, have documented the role of Modi’s state government in the planning and execution of the violence, and the failure to hold perpetrators accountable”.

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