Commentary: The Wrong Way To Strike At Religious Persecution

Last year was no bell ringer for religious freedom. In July, mobs burned Christian churches in Indonesia. A 72-year-old woman was jailed in Singapore for having Jehovah's Witnesses' literature. And Chinese authorities raided scores of church groups that were meeting in private homes.

Since then, a broad coalition of religious and human rights groups have joined forces with evangelicals and the powerful Christian Coalition to pressure Congress into taking action. On Sept. 10, the Republican congressional leadership backed a measure to impose unilateral sanctions on countries where religious persecution is rife. U.S. business, which has consistently opposed Democratic efforts to mix trade and human rights, now faces a similar assault from its Republican allies.

GOOD INTENTIONS. The result is an uncomfortable squeeze for business, which will have a hard time fighting a law aimed at ending persecution. It is also another foray into misguided, single-issue foreign policy. The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act is likely to pass Congress and gain President Clinton's approval, joining a long list of dubious unilateral sanctions, including the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, directed at Cuba, and the 1996 Iran-Libya sanctions, which upped the ante against those rogue states.

Such measures may be well intentioned, but they don't work as intended and often backfire. Take the plan to bar American companies from selling Beijing nuclear technology after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China spent $8 billion in France, $4 billion in Russia, and $3 billion in Canada and got the nukes it wanted. Meanwhile, Westinghouse Electric Corp. cut 3,500 workers at a Monroeville (Pa.) plant. Trade policy "is driven more by a desire to make gestures of little value than to underwrite the economic security of the men and women of this nation," Westinghouse Chairman and CEO Michael H. Jordan complained to a House Ways & Means subcommittee this spring.

When Washington acts unilaterally, nations usually manage to get the capital and goods they need elsewhere. Fewer than 20% of recent unilateral sanctions have had even a modest success in achieving their policy goals, says Jeffrey J. Schott of the Institute for International Economics.

There are other options for pressing moral points. Multilateral sanctions, such as those slapped on South Africa, work. Denial of prestige, such as blocking Beijing from holding the Olympics, is also effective. A business-backed measure scheduled to be introduced in Congress this fall would require a kind of cost-benefit analysis before unilateral sanctions are imposed. That would make lawmakers think hard before they act. As foreign policy grows more complex, that's not a lot to ask.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.