Every year, the U.S. government collects tales of tortured prisoners, child laborers and persecuted activists for an annual report on the relentlessly grim state of human rights worldwide.
The latest edition, released this week by Secretary of State John Kerry, marks the 40th year of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, thousands of pages covering conditions in every nation except the United States.
During the report’s four-decade evolution, it’s become known as the world’s most complete portrait of human rights conditions, but the chief criticism remains unchanged: not all violators are treated equally, according to analysts who study the intersection of human rights and foreign policy.
The State Department prides itself on building an exhaustive yearly roundup of violations, but how it presents or acts on the information often depends on whether the nation in question is an ally or an enemy. The takeaway for many human rights advocates is that the report remains an invaluable historical record, but don’t count on it to spur a response from the White House, especially when some of the worst offenders are U.S. allies.
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“Obviously, we would have higher hopes that the report would influence policy more than it does, but we’re much better off with it than without it,” said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom House, an international democracy watchdog group.
Michael G. Kozak, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, which oversees the report, said he’s been involved in foreign policy long enough to remember when the endeavor first began, in 1974. He said the idea came about because Congress had taken heat for sending military aid to human rights violators during the Cold War. The first iteration examined countries that receive U.S. military aid and later expanded to include all United Nations members.
Over the years, he said, the report has improved by the elimination of loaded descriptions. Debate now is confined to how prominently to mention a particular issue rather than whether it’s mentioned at all. “The facts are the facts,” he said.
The report’s job is to give you the facts. The policy part is a different process.
Michael Kozak, State Department
As for policy, that’s not a fair criticism of the report since it’s not the report’s goal.
“The report’s job is to give you the facts,” Kozak said. “The policy part is a different process.”
The report is used in briefing papers for White House officials before they meet with foreign dignitaries, Kozak said. He recalled former Secretary of State Colin Powell browsing the reports before high-level meetings.
“He said, ‘I want to know who I’m dealing with,’ ” Kozak recalled.
Since 2006, the report has been edited by Stephen Eisenbraun, a former diplomat who oversees around 50 editors in the production of the 2.3 million-word report,according to his LinkedIn profile. For the hundreds of far-flung contributors, gathering information can be hazardous, with personnel going “to great lengths, under trying and sometimes dangerous conditions, to investigate reports of human rights abuses.”
That’s the frustration for many human rights activists – the State Department touts all this hard-won information but then policymakers look the other way in favor of what they consider greater interests.
Allies often get passes on their documented violations, as evidenced last year when the Obama administration reinstated a billion-dollar military aid package and delivered jets, missiles and tanks to Egypt, a supporter of U.S. counterterrorism efforts and keeper of a peace treaty with Israel.
As of 2015, according to the latest report, that same Cairo regime still had held no one accountable for authorities’ massacre of more than 800 protesters in 2013 – an episode that prompted a brief U.S. suspension of aid and which Human Rights Watch called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
Since 2006, the report has been edited by Stephen Eisenbraun, a former diplomat who oversees around 50 editors in its production
Meanwhile, the east African nation of Tanzania, which lacks Egypt’s close U.S. ties and strategic location, just lost nearly $500 million in U.S. funds because of a disputed election in the Zanzibar archipelago, whose tumult is described in the State Department report. The U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation explained that the election debacle violated a commitment to democracy and therefore rendered Tanzania ineligible for the aid.
“Policy doesn’t follow the accurate descriptions we tend to find in the country reports, regrettably,” said Neil Hicks of Human Rights First, an international rights advocacy group that used to issue regular critiques of the State Department report until it noticed improvements about 15 years ago.
While the data included in the report has become more even-handed, Hicks said, U.S. action on the documented abuses hasn’t caught up, largely because of concerns about American interests. He pointed to the example of Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich monarchy that the Obama administration counts among a handful of stable allies in a Middle East rife with conflict.
“In the country reports, they can speak openly about freedom of expression, lack of freedoms, torture,” Hicks said. “But I can pretty much assure you President Obama won’t be mentioning that stuff when he’s in Riyadh next week.”
The latest report does note Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record, but the difference in wording is glaring when compared to, say, the entry on Iran. Both are Persian Gulf powers whose rivalry plays out in the killing fields of Syria, Yemen and other conflict zones. And both are hardline Islamist theocracies with long lists of human rights violations, notably the arbitrary and widespread application of the death penalty.
But the Saudis are friends and the Iranians are foes, so how executions are recorded sounds markedly different.
2.3 million Number of words in the current report
The State Department devoted 11 long paragraphs to executions in Iran, giving hard numbers gathered from the United Nations and Iranian activists that point to more than 900 executions in 2015, with at least 33 carried out in public.
Half that space was given to capital cases in Saudi Arabia, and the main focus was on death sentences handed down to members of an activist Shiite Muslim clan. Executions in Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. report, were “sometimes” conducted in public. No figures were given for the total number of executions, though they aren’t hard to find; they’re in an Amnesty International account referenced in the U.S. report: at least 151 people were put to death in what Amnesty called “an unprecedented wave of executions marking a grim new milestone.”
There was also no mention of the awkward fact that the most common form of execution is beheading, a practice the U.S. ally shares with extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
Kozak, of the State Department, said he hadn’t personally read the two entries and would look into the matter.
Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, an umbrella group for 400 Palestinian advocacy groups, said the report’s Israel entry was thorough on contentious issues such as Israel’s extrajudicial killings or holding of child prisoners. He objected, however, to the report’s use of distinct sections, one for Israel and for the “Occupied Territories.”
“Separating them out allows them to start the entry on Israel by saying ‘Israel is a multiparty parliamentary democracy’ – as long as you ignore that military occupation thing,” Munayyer said. “That’s really problematic because Israel rules over 4 to 5 million people without the right to vote.”
As many diplomats and human rights advocates say it might be counterproductive for the United States to become more vocal about states’ violations. Notorious offenders such as Iran, Russia, Cuba and China have released human rights statements that emphasize the United States’ mass incarceration, Guantánamo detention center, racial inequality and police brutality.
“Simply lecturing foreign leaders about human rights and our perceptions of their interests only creates resentment and will be seen as highly hypocritical,” said Perry Cammack, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who served as an adviser to Kerry in the Senate and at the State Department.
But even in an age where national security considerations trump human rights accountability, there’s value in the report, whether or not it leads to a shift in policies.
“The point is that it makes regimes uncomfortable and forces them to respond to it,” said Erin Snider, an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and an expert on foreign aid. “They can say it’s false, a tool of evil U.S. imperial forces, et cetera, but they have to respond. It keeps the subject on the table even if they know we’d never, in the case of, say, Egypt, cut them off for a horrible report.”