Sanctions won’t help religious freedom

For the most part, religious freedom is crucial to stable and just societies. Yet thousands of people in countries such as China, Tibet and Sudan are killed, tortured and enslaved for their religious identity and practices. With high hopes to crack down on religious persecution, the House passed the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act by a 375-41 vote last Thursday. The bill would restrict exports, ban nonhumanitarian aid, prohibit the distribution of visas and impose other sanctions on violating countries. The co-sponsors, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., argue that sanctions will force governments to create a protective environment for religious minorities. While condemning religious persecution is symbolically important, it does little to end the abhorrent practice. Moreover, sanctions often backfire, creating social and economic hardships without solving the problem. If the bill is not modified when it goes through the Senate, President Clinton should certainly back his promise to veto it.
The bill calls for an establishment of an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, which would oversee and punish countries that commit or allow religious oppression. It mandates annual reports to Congress on religious persecution abroad. And it prioritizes victims of religious intolerance for asylum status. These measures are seemingly humane. However, critics say the bill is a victory mainly for local religious groups, with the Christian Coalition among its strongest backers. By contrast, missionaries and religious organizations abroad insist that the proposal will lead to more religious persecution. When slapped with sanctions, violators could use religious minorities as scapegoats for the nation’s economic problems. In addition, free trade must exist for religious activism to spread throughout a nation. In the late 1970s, the number of missionaries and Christians in China rose substantially only after the country opened its market.
The Clinton administration asserts that the use of sanctions is counterproductive. The sanctions-based approach undermines diplomatic efforts to promote religious freedom, said John Shannuck, a White House official. So far, the administration has formed a special advisory committee to help the president and secretary of state deal with religious persecution. Embassies are also playing a greater role in fostering religious tolerance. And in the coming months, a senior adviser in the Department of State will be chosen to promote religious freedom abroad. For these measures to work, cooperation with foreign countries is needed. Sanctions would only sever many diplomatic relationships.
The end of apartheid in South Africa shows what international sanctions can accomplish. Such positive results are rare, however. U.S. sanctions have an even lower success rate. Economic pressure against Cuba, Iraq and other nations have bolstered anti-American sentiments and angered allies. Because sanctions limit trade and foreign investment, they make citizens worse off than they were before. The Wolf-Specter bill has noble intentions, but instead of promoting religious freedom, it could simply create more problems. Restricting trade with persecutors is hardly a way to improve conditions for the persecuted.