Half a Meaningful Human Rights Report is a State Department Disgrace
April 18, 2016
The U.S. government likes to talk about “transparency” on the part of other governments, but it has a long record of cutting back on key unclassified reports and failing to properly update others. The latest set of State Department country reports on human rights is a good example. This annual country-by-country report has always been a quiet beacon of objective official commentary that does as much to criticize friends and allies as hostile states. It is anything but popular among many countries, but it is always there—a report that no government can fully ignore.
Over time, however, it has failed to adapt to several key aspects of human rights and the latest version—which Secretary Kerry announced on April 13 th—is at best half a report. Sometimes the path to analytic incompetence is paved with good intentions and sometimes it is simply negligence or truly poor decisionmaking.
The current draft is at best half of a valid human rights report. The creation of a separate annual State Department Report on International Religious Freedom has led the State Department to issue a human rights report that no longer addresses most of the critical sectarian issues that feed international terrorism and divide the Middle East, North Africa, and the Islamic world.
The only way a reader can even to begin to find a meaningful human rights report now is to read the two reports together for each country. If one only looks at the human rights report per se, it has become something of a shell of Western politically correct values that ignores some of the world’s most critical human rights issues.
At the same time, if one does try to integrate both the Human Rights report and the Report on International Religious Freedom, one finds what may be an unconscious bias towards Christian rights issues that focuses on these issue out of proportion to the number of Christians in a given population and the problems faced by other religious minorities. In addition, the reports tend to understate the scale of sectarian divisions in places like Bahrain, Western Iraq, Syria, etc.
Half a meaningful human rights report may be better than none, but it is only half a report and the current version has three other critical problems. First, the current draft does cover some key ethnic and regional divisions like the problems created by the divisions between Israeli and Palestinian. More broadly, however, its focus on individual rights, and particularly on mistreatment of human rights advocates, leads to a failure to seriously address many ethnic, tribal, minority, and regional problems in the necessary depth (e.g., Baluchi and Arabs in Iran).
Second, the reports do not address the extent to which countries do or do not provide key material benefits to the entire population, equal economic and employment opportunity, provide effective governance, and limit corruption and waste. It is a report that has addressed only three of the four freedoms that President Roosevelt addressed as critical to human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear. It has not and does not address what for many is the most critical right, and the one that underlies the ability to focus on the other three: freedom from want.
Finally, the report leaves a critical gap between the State Department country reports on Human Rights and the annual Country Reports on Terrorism, and in the coverage of “freedom from fear.” The Human Rights reports flags a wide range of abuse in the rule of law and counterterrorism that almost certainly help breed terrorism and extremism, but are not addressed in the reports on terrorism. As a result, the terrorism reports do not really focus on the counterproductive actions of friendly states, and concentrates heavily on non-state terrorism groups and "state terrorism" in nations perceived as hostile to the United States.
The good news—if one can call it that—is that the U.S. government’s human rights report is still the best and most comprehensive report issued by any government, and is much better and more objective than some UN reporting. The bad news is that it does not address many of the key human rights issues shaping the modern world, and that it is now much less balanced and less capable of covering the full range of issues than before the creation of the report on International Religious Freedom.
Note: Examples of the strengths and weaknesses of the report as it applies to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are shown in the following two excepts from State Department reporting.
- MENA Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015, available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/160418_MENA_Country_Reports_Human_Rights_Practices_2015.pdf
- MENA Country International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/160418_MENA_International_Religious_Freedom_Report_2014.pdf