WASHINGTON—For several months in 2018, U.S. sanctions gutted the value of Turkish currency as Turkish authorities held American Pastor Andrew Brunson on phony charges. The United States lifted the sanctions once Turkey released Brunson, WORLD’s 2018 Daniel of the Year, in October of that year, proving U.S. economic pressure can be an effective tool in getting countries to uphold human rights. Now the U.S. government might start conditioning foreign aid more often on how much a country protects religious freedom.
The proposal, first reported by Politico, would apply to U.S. humanitarian and development aid and possibly military assistance. Two anonymous White House officials told Politico that the idea is still in its early stages.
“It’s our stated policy—going back to the International Religious Freedom Act … that [religious freedom] should be a priority,” said Tony Perkins, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “This is a logical step to communicate that.”
Such a policy could shake the United States’ relationships with countries with poor human rights records. But human rights advocates said it would simply get the executive branch to act consistently with existing laws. Those rules, enacted by Congress, recommend—but do not usually require—the president to consider human rights violations in distributing aid or imposing economic penalties.
For example, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 mandates that the State Department reduce nonhumanitarian aid to countries that ignore or facilitate human trafficking.
In 2015, Congress added an amendment to another law, the Trade Promotion Authority, encouraging presidential administrations to consider religious freedom when negotiating trade agreements. And the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 allows a president to impose economic sanctions on foreign nationals who seriously violate human rights. It also allows the United States to block their access to U.S. property and revoke their U.S. visas.
White House officials could use the USCIRF annual report to set up a similar framework for applying economic pressure to religious liberty violators. The report ranks countries in tiers according to their record on religious freedom and recommends penalties against egregious violators. Saudi Arabia and China—both key trading partners with the United States—rank as top-tier countries known to severely restrict religious freedom.
Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and a former chairwoman of USCIRF, said most presidents have taken advantage of the “opt-outs or workarounds” in existing laws because “we have multiple agendas in countries we deal with: national security interests, or anti-terrorism interests, or economic ties. There’s a reluctance to compromise those other interests in the pursuit of human rights.” But she added that religious freedom advocates believe “when we effectively advocate for other governments to do better on human rights, we make the world a safer place for us, as well.”
In September, President Donald Trump gave a speech to the United Nations in which he noted that “80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is in significant danger or even completely outlawed. … Americans will never tire in our effort to defend and promote freedom of worship and religion.”
Lantos Swett said there’s no guarantee each instance of withholding aid to religious liberty violators would produce results, “but when there’s a price to be paid for trampling on human rights, trampling on religious freedom—governments will think twice and consider modifying their behavior or moving in the right direction.”