Commentary

Christian Groups Should Be Wary of Economic Sanctions

By Daniel Griswold
October 3, 1997

Religious lobbying groups want Congress to restrict the sale of goods to foreign nations that persecute people of faith. But the bill that the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council support, the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, will likely make life worse for the very believers the lobbying groups want to help.

Sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., H.R. 1685 would bypass the State Department’s human rights monitors by creating yet another federal fiefdom, the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring. Once a year, that office would give the president a list of foreign governments that either actively persecute people for their faith or fail to prevent systematic persecution. The law would then ban exports to those countries of “persecution-facilitating products, goods and services.”

Religious groups in America have a right, even a duty, to draw attention to religious persecution in other countries. Persecution is widespread, with tens of thousands of people being imprisoned, tortured or killed each year for their faith. The House Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony this week from a Tibetan nun and others who had suffered unspeakably cruel acts of religious persecution. Although Republican leaders have promised to do something about religious persecution, there is no reason to believe that restricting the right of Americans to trade with people in offending countries will make life better for the victims.

Typically, governments that are authoritarian enough to engage in religious persecution are the least politically sensitive to outside economic pressure. The most likely result is that sanctions will stoke the zeal of anti-Western, anti-Judeo-Christian militants.

By focusing on religious persecution, the Wolf-Specter bill seems to relegate other human rights to second-class status. It ignores freedom of speech, the press and assembly and the right to a fair trial. The latest Freedom House survey lists 53 countries whose 2.24 billion citizens are “Not Free” to exercise basic civil and political liberties and another 59 countries whose 2.23 billion citizens are only “Partly Free.” If we make economic sanctions the measure of our commitment to basic human rights, we risk rupturing our relations with three-quarters of the world’s people.

Christians who want to make the world a freer and more prosperous place should seek to expand trade, not restrict it. In addition to products, goods and services, trade ties allow believers in the West to export missionaries, Bibles and ideas about the rights and dignity of the individual.

No better example exists than mainland China. Since China began opening itself up economically two decades ago, opportunities for missionary work have increased dramatically, as has the number of Christians there. Many Christian missionary organizations have therefore publicly opposed the rupturing of trade ties with China over human rights. Revoking China’s most favored nation trade status might make some Christians back home feel better, but it would complicate the lives of those seeking to win converts in the field. Passage of the Religious Persecution Act would have the same effect.

Another reason why Christians should support free trade is concern for the poor. Sanctions seldom impose any real hardship on a nation’s rulers. Instead, because they stifle private trade and investment, sanctions tend to reduce the opportunity of the mass of people to better their condition.

Today the most effective avenues for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for the sick are free trade and economic liberalization. The World Bank offered compelling evidence last month when it reported that the number of people in East and Southeast Asia who live in absolute poverty (defined as $1 a day in 1985 dollars) shrank by more than 350 million between 1975 and 1995.

It’s no coincidence that the countries that have seen the most dramatic progress against poverty, mainland China and Indonesia among them, have either followed outward-oriented market policies or moved decisively in a liberalizing direction. Imposing sanctions against countries where people suffer religious persecution will only compound one form of suffering with another.

The best way to combat religious persecution is not through isolation of the offending country but through engagement —economic as well as spiritual.

Daniel T. Griswold is director of trade and immigration studies at the Cato Institute.