U.S. Urged to Follow Own Human Rights Reporting
Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, 24 May
The U.S. State Department on Thursday released the government's annual compendium of country-by-country human rights reports, but ran into criticism from rights groups for holding double standards.
Guarding the rights of citizens around the world "means the United States cannot selectively champion freedom and human rights when convenient," said Frank Jannuzi, the head of Amnesty International's Washington office.
"Disturbingly, in the era of globalisation, the United States has too often pushed aside human rights concerns to focus on economic and national security priorities."
In unveiling the new report, Michael H. Posner, an official with the State Department, reiterated President Barack Obama's theory of "principled engagement", the U.S. attempt to balance human rights with other interests.
"We engage in the world and we recognise that there are a range of interests," Posner said in Washington. "We have security interests, economic interests, political, diplomatic. But human rights is an essential part of what we do across the board."
In part, the report warns that the rights situation in China is deteriorating, pays special attention to issues related to technology and sexuality, and makes particular mention of what has taken place in Myanmar (Burma) over the past year.
It suggests that Myanmar's "example of a government moving towards a model of greater openness, democracy, and liberty" could "inspire & other closed societies, such as Iran, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, or Sudan."
The report also includes a focus on the Arab Spring and subsequent transition period, warning that "change often creates instability before it leads to greater respect for democracy and human rights & The challenge during these transitions is to keep societies open to political debate."
Adding to a warning voiced last year, the report notes a "sharp escalation of official restrictions on the work of human rights and democracy advocates".
Rights defenders are nearly unanimous in their appreciation of the scope and detail of the mammoth compilation, now 35 years old but having taken notable strides in recent years. Officially known as the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, this year the report covers the activities for 2011 of 199 countries, though not including the United States itself.
"The report has become an invaluable reference point, and this year's looks particularly fresh," Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for Human Rights First, here in Washington, told IPS.
"The challenge arises in that the more and better that the United States reports on human rights conditions, the more it exposes the limitations and inconsistencies in U.S. human rights policy."
He notes that Saudi Arabia, for instance, is entirely missing from the widely read introductory overview. "That will not go unnoticed in the region," he says. "It will bring forth accusations of double standards."
Hicks also points to the example of Bahrain, the reporting on which is notably robust in the new report. "During that same year, we had a large sale of arms to Bahrain by the U.S., despite several human rights problems there being unresolved," he says.
"There is a consistent trend across the Middle East. Look at the military assistance that went to Egypt even though problems relating to the persecution of NGOs remained outstanding. Such actions send contradictory messages."
Even as the reports have continued to improve, "every year U.S. policymakers ignore these findings," concurs Geoff Thale, programme director with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an advocacy group.
"U.S. policymakers act as if the reports never happened," Thale said in a statement, pointing to inconsistencies between U.S. rights research and foreign policy in Colombia, Mexico and Honduras.
"The United States continues to funnel assistance to militaries with patterns of abuse, to train police forces that have long-standing problems with corruption and criminal infiltration, and to work closely with security forces that frequently ignore the rule of law."
Once again, the new report does not cover the United States itself. For many observers, particularly in governments singled out by Washington for criticism, this notable absence has long translated into a certain lack of legitimacy for the report overall.
The State Department acknowledged such criticism in a handout accompanying the new report, in which it noted that "the United States does examine its own human rights record against its international commitments and obligations in many other fora." It highlighted the U.S. report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in December, as well as its participation in the U.N. Universal Periodic Review process.
More worrying for some observers is not necessarily the lack of information on what takes place within the United States, but rather the quiet absence of reference to U.S. actions in other countries.
"The U.S. this year has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people through drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and is evolving a model of lawless assassination on an industrial scale that would not reflect well in any balanced human rights report," Medea Benjamin, a political campaigner, told IPS.
"To talk about human rights activities in Pakistan and not bring up the massive death toll from U.S. drone strikes is ridiculous. Unfortunately, it shows that the U.S. is not really open to reflecting the reality on the ground."