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One-Issue Policy Won't Work

April 19, 1998

Last year when Congress first took up a measure to apply sanctions to countries that engage in or permit religious persecution, rapid passage was expected. Republican leaders in the Senate and House promised it would be approved before year's end. The influential Christian Coalition mobilized popular backing. But as hearings were held and questions about various provisions of the bill were raised, doubts grew. Now a new version of the bill, considerably amended, has been approved by the House International Relations Committee. Its fate remains uncertain, and for good reasons.

Originally, the bill targeted specific countries, including China, Vietnam, Sudan, Cuba, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, North Korea, Indonesia and Laos. The legislation would create a government office to determine which foreign regimes carried out, supported or failed to stop religious persecution. Where persecution was found, sanctions would automatically follow. Among them would be a ban on exports and imports, a prohibition on all non-humanitarian aid, U.S. opposition to loans from the International Monetary Fund and development banks, and denial of visas to those identified as persecutors. And victims of religious persecution would be given special consideration if they applied for U.S. asylum.

The amended version of the bill strengthens the president's authority to waive sanctions for reasons of national security or if there was reason to fear that imposing sanctions would increase religious persecution. The House committee also approved the first of what could be a series of exceptions. At issue was Sudan, whose Muslim government has long persecuted Christians and animists in the country's south. Sudan is the source of 90% of the world's gum arabic, which is widely used in medicines and food products. When this fact was brought to the committee's attention, it voted to let American companies participate in Sudan's gum arabic industry until alternative sources for the material could be developed.

The exception illuminates a key flaw in this well-intentioned but too narrowly focused measure: It invites inconsistency if not hypocrisy in application. Saudi Arabia, an American ally, notoriously denies non-Muslims all rights of religious observance. Are U.S. exports of technology and military equipment, and imports of Saudi oil, therefore to be banned?

Religious persecution is odious no matter where it occurs or against what creed it is directed, and certainly it is proper for Congress to condemn those governments that practice or are indifferent to it. But sanctions should be used sparingly as a weapon in international relations, and only in full awareness of the damage they may do to American interests. The religious-freedom measure that Congress is now pondering may have laudable intentions, but that does not make it an appropriate instrument of foreign policy.

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