KARACHI / WASHINGTON: The US State Department has placed Pakistan on its Special Watch List for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’, it said on Thursday, days after the White House insisted Islamabad to do more to combat terrorism and receive US aid.
The State Department also said it had re-designated 10 other nations as ‘countries of particular concern’ under the International Religious Freedom Act for having engaged in or tolerated egregious violations of religious freedom.
The re-designated countries were China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They were re-designated on December 22.
“The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity,” the department said in a statement. “These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries.”
On Twitter, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the US “recognises that several of these countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom”, adding that the US “welcomes their initiative and looks forward to continued dialogue”.
She added that the US remained committed to advancing religious freedom around the world.
Explaining the purpose of the list, she wrote that the State Department “annually designates governments that have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Joshua White, an associate professor and fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Washington who previously served at the White House as director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, broke down what the listing means.
In a series of tweets, he wrote that there have been internal debates for at least 15 years about adding Pakistan to the ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ list.
“The independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom has frequently cited Pakistan’s failures to protect religious minorities, but State [dept] has demurred on the designation,” he said.
He opined that Pakistan was probably put on the list now, not because the situation had changed, but “because there are fewer voices now at State [dept] and the White House who worry about the implications of this move for the US-Pak relationship”.
According to Joshua, the Special Watch List is a category for countries that engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom during the previous year” but don’t meet the full list of criteria, which includes systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charge, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.
He added, “Realistically, in the short term, this is likely to be little more than a shot across the bow, sending a message to Pakistan that the US government will be more willing to call out human rights and other issues publicly.”
He also noted that the list of Presidential actions under the act is so broad that the State Department can take basically whatever steps it chooses, ranging from “usually a private demarche or *gasp* delay of a cultural exchange!”
He further explained that while he found it encouraging that State Department took this step, “because conditions in Pakistan warrant it… in another sense, the fact that it took so long reveals just how much the process can be captive to political and security considerations in the bilateral relationship”.
US President Donald Trump has criticised Pakistan for not doing more to combat terrorism, and his administration has informed members of Congress that it will announce plans to end ‘security assistance’ payments to the country.
Pakistan has said it is already doing whatever it can to fight militants, and summoned the US ambassador to explain a tweet by Trump that said the United States had been foolish in dispensing aid to Islamabad.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Nauert said, “The United States expects Pakistan to take decisive action against the Haqqani Network and other militants who are operating from its soil. And they need to [do] better – to earn, essentially, the money that we have provided in the past in foreign military assistance… they need to show that they are sincere in their efforts to crack down on terrorists.”
Although she noted that the US is pleased with cooperation in some instances, such as the recovery of a kidnapped Canadian-American family, she added that despite such cases “they can do more”.