State Department Issues 2008 Human Rights Report

by Peggy McGuinness

Yesterday, the U.S. State Department released the 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices — colloquially referred to as the Annual Human Rights Report.  As a matter of law, it is a report by the State Department to the United States Congress.  The mandate grew from a requirement of congressional review of foreign assistance to a more comprehensive summary of the U.S. government’s view of human rights practices around the world:

This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended. The law provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate by February 25 “a full and complete report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights, within the meaning of subsection (A) in countries that receive assistance under this part, and (B) in all other foreign countries which are members of the United Nations and which are not otherwise the subject of a human rights report under this Act.” We have also included reports on several countries that do not fall into the categories established by these statutes and thus are not covered by the congressional requirement.

In the early 1970s the United States formalized its responsibility to speak out on behalf of international human rights standards. In 1976 Congress enacted legislation creating a Coordinator of Human Rights in the Department of State, a position later upgraded to Assistant Secretary. In 1994 the Congress created a position of Senior Advisor for Women’s Rights. Legislation also requires that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ human rights and worker rights performance and that country reports be submitted to the Congress on an annual basis.

As a matter of practice, the report plays a major role in bilateral and multilateral human rights policy for the U.S.; the release of the report can mark the beginning of tense dialogues (public and private) between the U.S. and the governments that come under heavy criticism.  And, the factual findings of the report play an important role in judicial determination of human rights claims (in particular, claims for asylum) in U.S. courts.

The full text of the 2008 country reports is here.  A link to the video of Secretary Clinton’s public statement and the press conference with Karen Stewart, Acting Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor, is here. The pointed questions from the foreign press corps are indicative of the level of attention the annual report receives in the countries that come under criticism in the report.  The NY Times reports that, as in past years, the Chinese government was quick to respond to the State Department’s conclusion that human rights conditions in China worsened over the course of 2008:

The state news agency Xinhua called the report’s section on China groundless and irresponsible, saying it “willfully ignored and distorted basic facts” about human rights conditions and the nation’s ethnic, legal and religious systems. “The report turned a blind eye to the efforts and historic achievements China has made in human rights that have been widely recognized by the international community,” the Xinhua statement said. It called the annual report an American pretext for interfering in the domestic affairs of other nations.


Thursday’s response by China, while sharp, did not significantly differ from its reaction to the human rights assessment delivered by the Bush administration a year ago. Xinhua’s five-paragraph statement largely repeated, sometimes word for word, its 2008 response to the American report.

Russia, Zimbabwe and Egypt were among the other states singled out in the introduction as having worsening human rights conditions in 2008.  I’d be interested in hearing from our readers about reactions to the report outside the United States.

One Response

  1. Here in Venezuela, the government criticized the report. Although I agree that the United States has no moral authority to issue a report on human rights, it seems that the condemnation is because the report comes from the States and Mr. Hugo Chávez and his fellows will always attack what the “empire” says. Anyhow, I can assure you everything the report says about Venezuela is true, since we are suffering massive human rights violations here. I really hope Mr. Obama takes this situation seriously and stop financing the Venezuelan government by buying our oil.

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