US Releases 2006 Human Rights Report

by Peggy McGuinness

Marking the beginning of the spring human rights season, the US State Department yesterday released its annual human rights report. Since 2003, it has become increasingly difficult for the U.S. to use this report as the effective “shaming” tool it once was. Secretary Rice’s comments upon release of the report refleted this sober reality:

We do not issue these reports because we think ourselves perfect, but rather because we know ourselves to be deeply imperfect, like all human beings and the endeavors that they make. Our democratic system of governance is accountable, but it is not infallible. We are nonetheless guided by enduring ideals: the inalienable rights of humankind and the principles of democracy toward which all people and all governments must continue striving. And that includes us here in America.

Such refreshing acknowledgments notwithstanding, expect to hear more of this kind of criticism reported in today’s WaPo:

Larry Cox, Amnesty International’s executive director, said that although the report correctly points out that Egypt, for example, continues to use torture, “how can the U.S. have any credibility in trying to stop torture in Egypt when the whole world and we know what it does not mention — our role in sending people to be tortured, extradited and jailed. . . . How can we criticize regimes for holding people in indefinite detention while we ourselves are holding people in indefinite detention?”

Setting aside the hypocrisy charge, the State Department report, along with the widely accepted Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch annual reports, is an an important tool for local NGOs and human rights activists in the countries with the worst records. Support of their facutal claims and validation of their struggles has, historically, helped raise awareness and funding for their work and also put real pressure on governments to conform to international norms. Unfortunately, the worst regimes know this, and, as the preface to the State Department report notes, are cracking down on these very groups:

Despite personal risk and against great odds, courageous individuals and nongovernmental groups expose human rights abuses. They seek to protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, workers, and women, and to stop the trafficking in human beings. They work to build vibrant civil societies, ensure free and fair elections, and establish accountable, law-based democracies. . . . .

This noble work continues – but it is not yet complete and it faces determined opponents. Not surprisingly, those who feel threatened by democratic change resist those who advocate and act for reform. Over the past year, we have seen attempts to harass and intimidate human rights defenders and civil society organizations and to restrict or shut down their activities. Unjust laws have been wielded as political weapons against those with independent views. There also have been attempts to silence dissenting voices by extralegal means.

In the coming weeks, Opinio Juris will focus on some of the central human rights issues on the international agenda this year, including direct reporting from an NGO participant at the UN Human Rights Council session that takes place in Geneva March 12-30.

One Response

  1. To be honest, I had been expecting a much stronger argument from Amnesty International, broadly along these lines: “how can the U.S. have any credibility in trying to stop torture in Egypt when the whole world and we know that the U.S. is using this very fact, by having Egypt torture people on its behalf?” (The extraordinary rendition issue, obviously)

    But then, the truth of the extraordinary rendition charge is – if without much success – disputed, whereas the existence of indefinite detention by the U.S. is not.

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