Each year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) publishes an annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world. USCIRF, statutorily-established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), is charged with examining religious freedom violations and making recommendations to the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
USCIRF refers to religious freedom, freedom of religion, and freedom of religion or belief as the “broad right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief–including the right to nonbelief–protected under international human rights law.” In its annual report, USCIRF reviews the conditions of religious freedom in countries and provides recommended designations to the State Department. These designations are meant to bring attention to religious freedom violations and help guide U.S. policy to better promote religious freedom. The President “delegated the authority to determine these designations to the Secretary of State,” who does so through the State Department’s Office of International Freedom.
The designations are:
Country of Particular Concern (CPC): USCIRF will recommend a country be designated as a CPC if it finds the country’s government engaging in or tolerating ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom. IRFA defines ‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’ as systematic, ongoing, egregious violations that include torture, detention without charges, abduction, and other blatant life, liberty, or security denials of a person.
Special Watch List (SWL): USCIRF will recommend countries be placed on the State Department’s SWL if the country’s government engages in or tolerates ‘severe’ violations of religious freedom. For this designation, the country would embody two parts of IRFA’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious standard.
Entity of Particular Concern (EPC): EPCs are nonstate actors or groups that exercise significant political power and territorial control, are outside of sovereign government control, and often use violence to attain their goals. EPCs are also found to have engaged in ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom.
In its 2022 Annual Report, USCIRF assessed religious freedom conditions from 2021 and made the following recommendations to the State Department:
CPCs: Add Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam; redesignate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
SWL: Add Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan; maintain Algeria, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
EPCs: Redesignate al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Islamic State in West Africa Province, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin.
The 2022 Annual Report contains issues of particular concern and relevancy to the international humanist community and, throughout the report, there are references to the conditions humanists, atheists, and nontheists are facing globally. These include observations of discrimination, continual enforcement of blasphemy and apostasy laws, persecution, denial of formal government recognition, imprisonment, social and official consequences, and ostracization.
Particularly of note, the report highlights the situation of Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and a USCIRF Religious Prisoner of Conscience (RPOC). Bala was arrested on April 28, 2020, and held without charge for 462 days. On April 5, 2022, Bala was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. The Kano State High Court of Nigeria convicted him on eighteen counts of causing public disturbance in connection with “blasphemous” social media posts. AHA’s statement condemning Bala’s sentencing can be read here.
This year’s report once again explicitly spotlights humanists in its data distinction, which began in USCIRF’s 2021 Annual Report. Specifically, humanists are denoted in USCIRF’s Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Victims List, which provides information on persons targeted for their religion or beliefs from countries USCIRF recommends for CPC or SWL status and EPCs. This recognition should help greatly improve the visibility of humanists facing harassment and persecution internationally.
Over the past few years, AHA staff built stronger relationships with USCIRF, working toward greater representation. That’s why AHA leaders are pleased to see the heightened recognition of the international humanist community in USCIRF’s Annual Reports and look forward to continuing that work and fighting for the freedom of humanists globally.
USCIRF publishes reports and factsheets, holds public hearings and briefings, and hosts events on various topics related to freedom of religion or belief. For more information, visit their website. Additional information on the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom can be found here.