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International affairs > 11. International Religious Freedom

To promote international religious freedom more effectively, the Department of State and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom should define how they are to interact in their efforts; the lack of defined roles has at times created tensions with foreign government officials.

Why This Area Is Important

Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as amended to promote international religious freedom because of concerns about increasing restrictions on religious rights around the world.[1] The act established two entities that are to cooperate and work on behalf of international religious freedom: (1) The Office of International Religious Freedom within the Department of State (State) and (2) the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (Commission). The act describes the following roles for each entity; however, the act did not prescribe how the two entities should interact or coordinate their activities. 

  • The Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large (Ambassador), is to promote international religious freedom. The act establishes the Ambassador as an ex-officio member of the Commission and states that the Ambassador is to consider the Commission’s advice in making policy recommendations.
  •  The Commission is to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom and recommend policy actions to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. In addition, a 1999 amendment to the act directs the Commission to effectively and freely cooperate with State.

To promote religious freedom, the Office of International Religious Freedom hosts events, develops religious-freedom-related programs, and publishes an annual report on the status of religious freedom in each foreign country. The Office of International Religious Freedom and the Ambassador also provide a list of recommended Countries of Particular Concern (CPC)—those countries they believe exhibit “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations of religious freedom—to the Secretary of State, who then makes the CPC designations.[2] The Commission publishes an annual report that discusses the 20 to 30 countries that the Commission considers the worst violators of religious freedom and presents policy recommendations to the U.S. government. Both entities meet with foreign government officials to discuss the religious freedom situation in the country.

[1]See International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-292 (1998), as amended by later acts such as A Bill to Amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to Provide Additional Administrative Authorities to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and to Make Technical Corrections to the Act, and for other purposes, Pub. L. No. 106-55 (1999); and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2011, Pub. L. No. 112-75 (2011).  

[2]The act assigned the responsibility for making CPC designations to the President, and the President delegated this responsibility to the Secretary of State in 1999.

What GAO Found

In March 2013, GAO reported that although the act, as amended, directs State and the Commission to cooperate, they have not defined how they should interact. In interviews with GAO, some of the former and current commissioners and all three Ambassadors—two former and one present at the time of the review—expressed different ideas about the role of the Ambassador and the degree to which the Ambassador should participate on the Commission.[1] As a result, the level of interaction between the Ambassador and the Commission has varied greatly over the years. Former State and Commission officials said that both entities considerably decreased their official communication over the years, in part because of disagreement over how they should work together. In addition, commissioners and Ambassadors said that interaction at the staff level varied over time, although staff tried to maintain some informal collaboration. One former commissioner noted that when the Ambassador’s position was vacant for 2-½ years, the Commission’s contact with State was primarily at the staff level.

The three Ambassadors and a few commissioners reported that not defining how the two entities should interact has sometimes led to tensions with foreign-government officials. For example, in its 2012 report, the Commission recommended that the Secretary of State designate Turkey as CPC. Because the Ambassador was not regularly attending Commission meetings at the time, State officials learned of the commissioners' intent shortly before the Commission published its report. State officials explained that Turkey did not warrant the designation, as it had taken steps to improve religious freedom, but the Commission proceeded with its recommendation. According to Turkish officials, the Commission’s report contradicted State's annual report on religious freedom and was therefore "null and void." State officials told GAO that they had to resolve the resulting tensions with the Turkish government.

Furthermore, all three Ambassadors cited instances when the Commission’s approach with foreign-government officials created bilateral tensions. For example, one Ambassador recounted helping to bring a delegation of high-level Laotian officials to the United States to tour, meet with government officials and religious communities, and view examples of religious freedom.[2] According to the Ambassador, when the delegation returned, they freed 34 of 37 people imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador told us that as a result, he had judged that Laos was making progress in instituting some real changes in the area of religious freedom; however, the Commission recommended Laos for CPC designation shortly thereafter. The Ambassador said that the Commission’s recommendation almost ruined State’s diplomatic efforts to address religious freedom in Laos.  

In another example, in 2005, another Ambassador negotiated an action plan with the Vietnamese government including actions that, if taken by the government, could support its case for removal from the CPC list. According to State officials, Vietnam took the necessary steps and the Secretary of State removed the country’s CPC designation in 2006.  However, when the Commission visited Vietnam later that year, according to State and Vietnamese officials, their conduct offended the Vietnamese officials in high-level meetings. State officials said that this was damaging to some of the progress made with Vietnamese officials and necessitated efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with Vietnam.

As these examples illustrate, the lack of definition regarding how State and the Commission are to interact has sometimes created foreign policy tensions that State has had to mitigate. These tensions have resulted, in part, from the fact that the Ambassadors and the Commission have not defined the Ambassador’s role as an ex-officio member of the Commission. Agreeing on roles and responsibilities is a key practice that can enhance interagency collaboration.[3] Thus, guidance that would clarify (1) the Ambassador’s role as an ex officio member of the Commission and (2) how State and the Commission are to cooperate would strengthen each entity’s unique contribution to promoting international religious freedom. It would also help ensure that the U.S. government presents a more consistent foreign policy message with respect to religious freedom.

[1]The most recent Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom resigned October 17, 2013.

[2]At the time of the Laotian delegation, the first Ambassador had left State and was President of the Institute for Global Engagement.

[3]See GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO‑06‑15(Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005).   

Actions Needed

To enhance U.S. efforts to promote international religious freedom, GAO recommended in its March 2013 report that the Secretary of State and the Chair of the Commission

  • jointly define how State and the Commission should interact in their efforts to promote international religious freedom, paying particular attention to defining the ex-officio role of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom as a nonvoting Commission member.

GAO believes that there are long-term foreign policy benefits to implementing this recommendation such as strengthening each entity’s unique contribution to promoting international religious freedom, and ensuring that the U.S. government presents a more consistent foreign policy message with respect to religious freedom. GAO could not estimate the potential financial benefits of taking these actions because the foreign policy tensions that result from the lack of defined roles cannot be measured in terms of financial benefits.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from products listed in the related GAO product section. For that work, GAO analyzed documents from State and the Commission, including State cables and the Commission’s press releases, editorials, and annual reports. GAO met with officials from State and the Commission, including all three Ambassadors—two former and one present—and all of the current and approximately half of the former commissioners. GAO also interviewed State and foreign-government officials in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, as well as non-governmental organization officials in the United States and abroad who have worked closely with both entities. The five countries GAO selected for fieldwork met at least two of the following criteria: (1) Department of State had funded an international religious freedom program in the country; (2) the country was on the Commission’s watch list; (3) the Commission had recommended designating the country, or State has designated it, as a Country of Particular Concern; and (4) the Ambassador or the Commission had visited the country in the past 3 years.

Table 9 in appendix IV lists the agencies GAO identified that might be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the March 2013 report on which this analysis is based, both State and the Commission agreed with GAO’s recommendation and expressed willingness to take action.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to State and the Commission for review and comment. State provided no additional comments. According to the Commission, it is working with State to address GAO’s recommendation.

For additional information about this area, contact Thomas Melito at (202) 512-9601 or

Related Products

International Religious Freedom Act:

State Department and Commission Are Implementing Responsibilities but Need to Improve Interaction
Published: Mar 26, 2013. Publicly Released: Mar 26, 2013.

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