2004 State Department Human Rights Report: Early Global Reactions

2004 State Department Human Rights Report: Early Global Reactions

Last Monday, the State Department released its 2004 Report on Human Rights conditions around the world. The report has been around since the Carter administration, when Congress began requiring human rights reporting as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. Since the beginning, the report has been criticized globally as reflecting an American tendency to subject other countries to a higher degree of scrutiny than it applies to its own behavior. Given the fact that one of the biggest human rights news stories of 2004 was abuse of detainees in US custody, reaction in the foreign press to the 2004 report is more strident on this point of “American exceptionalism” than ever. For example, Russia has accused the US of “double standards” and China has issued its own human rights counter-report detailing US violations.

Despite the obvious danger of being labeled hypocritical, the report is still the most widely read of international human rights reporting — particularly by the governments who find themselves criticized for falling short of international norms and by the human rights activists for whom the report offers public and official acknowledgement of conditions they are working to alleviate. Indeed, since the release of the report, governments around the world have gone out of their way to go on the record about the report (which means in most cases they have at least read the report). Reactions have ranged from outright denial to statements welcoming the information and discussion of problems raised in the report. Here are some samples from around the world:

Armenia says report is biased, but can provide guidance on civil rights issues;

North Korea dismisses report;

Ethiopia says report based on “lies”;

Slovakia says US report is overall “balanced”;

Pakistan calls US report “baseless”;

Bangladesh says report is “one-sided”; and

South Africa, Cyprus and Venezuela reject the report.

What makes this years report particularly sensitive is the condemnation of practices in countries to which the US has been sending detainees for interrogation. (See, for example, this discussion of torture practices in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia outlined in the State Department report.) Great attention is also being paid to the report’s account of human rights abuses by the interim government in Iraq.

But how do these reports get written? Are they at all reliable? Back when I was a Foreign Service Officer, I served as human rights officer during one of my tours. It is in the foreign country where almost all the information is collected by FSOs on the ground. Here is an explanation of the process from the introduction of the 2004 report:

Our embassies, which prepared the initial drafts of the reports, gathered information throughout the year from a variety of sources across the political
spectrum, including government officials, jurists, armed forces sources, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, and labor activists. This information-gathering can be hazardous, and U.S. Foreign Service Officers regularly go to great lengths, under trying and sometimes dangerous conditions, to investigate reports of human rights abuse, monitor elections, and come to the aid of individuals at risk, such as political dissidents and human rights defenders whose rights are threatened by their governments.

Reliability and impact are not just measured by the sources and reporting methods, but also by the follow-up scrutiny of the report by governments and NGOs. The release of the report marks the beginning of an annual round of public diplomacy by US representatives overseas and provides a useful tool for engaging the governments and popular opinion on these issues. (See this discussion of the US Embassy in Lagos framing of the report as part of an “educational” process.)

It is clearly going to be more difficult than usual for the State Department to be taken seriously in its pursuit of human rights protection, when, as was reported in the NY Times yesterday, other elements of the US government are engaging in practices that implicitly (or explicitly) exploit the bad practices of other governments. And I don’t envy the work of human rights officers at US embassies around the world over the next few weeks. But sustained engagement with the rest of the world on these issues has marked US foreign policy since the late 1970s as different from the traditional diplomacy of other states. Consistency, the danger of politicization of the reporting process and charges of hypocrisy have always been a problem. That is why we should be sure that our criticisms of other states is matched with a shift in policies governing rendition and other programs and where policy change is resisted, human rights activists continue to pursue judicial remedies.

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