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Relationship Counseling for Federal Advocates of Religious Freedom

After last year's Turkey tiff, GAO wants State Department and USCIRF to patch things up.

Tensions between the top international religious freedom advocates in the American government–the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and the United States' Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)–are longstanding. So the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined both groups and offers a new report with suggestions for fixing current problems.

The GAO concludes that the two bodies are both "implementing responsibilities but need to improve interaction." It found that their collaboration has "varied greatly" related to "disagreement over how they should work together," though the relationship has recently improved from its "previous low level" (thanks to new members of both bodies). The report notes:

"[T]he lack of a definition regarding how the two entities are to interact has created foreign policy tensions that State has had to mitigate. These tensions have resulted in part from the fact that the Ambassadors and USCIRF have not defined the Ambassador's role as an ex-officio member of the commission. Guidance that would clarify how State and USCIRF are to cooperate would strengthen each entity's unique contribution to promoting international religious freedom. It would also institutionalize their information sharing and help ensure that the U.S. government presents a more consistent foreign policy message with respect to religious freedom."

The disjointed interactions stem from separate missions. While the State Department conducts international diplomacy, USCIRF was created to make recommendations to the government on which countries were violating religious human rights and what to do about them. However, the State Department is not required to act on those recommendations. As a result, the GAO report points out relational uncertainty over how the two bodies should work together, given that the State Department has complained of damage to certain international relationships–most recently Turkey and Vietnam–as a result of USCIRF actions.

"USCIRF's mandate is neither to conduct diplomacy nor balance religious freedom against other U.S. national interests," USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett responded in a statement, noting, "We recognize that USCIRF's role sometimes poses a challenge for the State Department, but that role has been mandated by law, and–as the report notes–it also has produced opportunities for proactive diplomacy."

Last week, USCIRF offered the Obama administration a new "roadmap" on international religious freedom, noting that it "serves as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, as it often is the first freedom taken away." Among other things, USCIRF advocates for the creation of an interagency working group and individual country strategies.

CT has regularly covered USCIRF, the State Department, and international religious freedom, including the disagreement over Turkey's designation last year.

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