Advancing Religious Freedom in Different Political Regimes in Theory and Practice

Elizabeth A. Clark is Associate Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Regional Advisor for Europe at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

There are many aspects of advancing religious freedom globally. As an academic, I can speak most to the theory and practice of assessing and promoting compliance with international norms on freedom of religion or belief.  In practice, I’ve consulted with national governments, NGOs, U.S. government bodies, or intergovernmental organizations in dozens of countries, with a particular emphasis in post-Communist Europe and Central Asia. Most of my work is this sphere is focused on legal analysis and education, often in the form of technical analyses of draft laws, working with other comparative law scholars on amicus briefs, expert testimony, or engaging in legal trainings.

At the outset, it’s important to stress that, even when I’ve worked with the U.S. government, the effort has never been to impose American values or norms, but to instead focus on compliance with international norms and treaties that a country may be party to.

To frame the question of advancing religious freedom, two models are helpful. The first looks at methods of influencing regimes to be more compliant with their international and domestic human rights commitments, and the second focuses more on the process of the regime change.

Three models of human rights compliance theory have been proposed[1]. The first is rational choice, an economics-style approach that focuses on material inducements to change. The U.S. International Religious Freedom Act, which involves the possibility of sanctions for “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), follows this approach. Another method is constructivism, which focuses on the need to assist in the construction of a state’s practice through repeated interactions, argumentation, and exposure to international norms. Much of the work our Center has done relies on this approach, such as engaging with key government officials in discussions about the implementation of international norms in their country, providing technical analyses of draft laws, or bringing a variety of international experts in to discuss best practices from around the world.

Goodman and Jinks have also suggested a third approach, which relies more on psychological and sociological theories of acculturation, or adaption of behavior to fit that of surrounding communities[2]. This, rational choice, and constructivist approaches are often used in combination, such as when the European Union both offering material inducements for Eastern European countries that joined it to make political reforms and appeared to assume that being part of the EU would encourage acculturation of human rights and rule-of-law norms. While at times combining approaches can send mixed messages, such as whether or not freedom of religion and belief is an instrumental value, the combination can at times be effective, such as for countries like Vietnam and Uzbekistan that were have been seeking economic engagement and have been eager to engage in dialogue and other steps to move off the U.S. CPC list.

Another model, which focuses more on the process of how regimes move from repression to rule consistent behavior is Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink’s “spiral model”[3], which I discuss in more depth in my chapter in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook[4]. The spiral model tracks countries’ approach to international human rights norms first from repression to denial, where states implicitly accept the awareness that their reputation is involved, through tactical concessions, to acceptance of the prescriptive status of human rights norms, and finally to rule-consistent behavior. Unfortunately, as we have seen in many parts of the world recently, this spiral does not move in only one direction and some governments may get stuck at various points along the continuum.

The spiral model is particularly useful, however, because it highlights where and how international and domestic players can most meaningfully contribute to change. At the early stages, violation monitoring and naming, shaming, and blaming can be particularly significant. Sanctions from other parts of the international community can also sometimes promote movement at the early stages. As states move to the tactical concessions stage and the acceptance of a prescriptive status of human rights norms, we see an increased need for more of the quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy and expert advice. Repeated engagement and discussion of specific concerns requires governments to concretely address the issues and articulate their concerns. Risse and Sikkink argue that “a process which began for instrumental reasons, with arguments being used merely rhetorically, increasingly becomes a true dialogue over specific human rights allegation in the ‘target state’”[5].

As a practical matter, it is also important to remember that international politics overlaps with domestic politics. Robert Putnam has referred to these distinct but overlapping realms as “two-level games”[6], where actions that make sense at one level with one set of players may not make sense at the other, although shifts in one may trigger shifts in the other. Government officials may easily face conflicting pressures from domestic and international scenes on religious freedom questions, and being an effective international partner involves understanding the complexities that government entities and actors face.

Those involved in promoting compliance with international freedom of religion and belief norms need to recognize the cultural, political, and legal challenges that national partners are navigating and the setup on their domestic game-board as well as their international one. Promoting freedom of religion or belief, like other human rights norms, requires patient persistence and an understanding of how religious freedom rights intersect with the other concerns a nation may be facing. Sustained change often requires continuing engagement and broader cultural shifts. While law can at times drive culture, cultural change ultimately must be supportive of religious tolerance for legal changes promoting freedom of religion or belief to take hold have any significant effect. We have seen first-hand the importance of efforts to build interreligious solidarity and support for broad religious tolerance and the rule of law and know that this must accompany the legal changes entrenching freedom of religion or belief. Legal experts who can be long-term players and raise issues with specificity and comparative law knowledge can build trust over time with key domestic policy makers and assist in the formation and implementation of laws, but accomplishing significant policy change and practice depends on far more than just foreign influence and engagement: it needs domestic cultural support for the changes, time, and political leadership for policy changes to be significant and lasting.

[1] See, e.g., Elizabeth Stubbins Bates, Sophisticated Constructivism in Human Rights Compliance Theory, 25 European Journal Of International Law, no. 4 (2015), 1169-1182.

[2] See, e.g., Ryan Goodman and Derek Jinks, Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights through International Law(2013).

[3] See Thomas Risse, et al. Eds, The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (1999); Thomas Risse, et al., The Persistent Power of Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance (2013).

[4] Elizabeth A. Sewell, Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief through NGOs, in Tore Lindholm, et al., eds., Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief: A Deskbook (2004), 822-26.

[5] Risse and Sikkink, The Socializiation of International Human Rights Norms into Domestic Practices: An Introduction, in Thomas Risse, et al., eds., The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change(1999), 28.

[6] Robert D. Putnam, Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games”International Organization 42 (Summer 1988) 433-35.

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