A US assessment of human rights

It would be wrong to write off the state department’s annual report as insignificant. What is missing is an assessment of human rights in the US itself.

For more than 30 years, the US has compiled its own report into the state of human rights around the world.

Taking information from its embassies around the world, a team in Washington sifts through everything it is sent, fact-checks it all and then compiles it into a very weighty document.

The 2011 report was keenly anticipated after the dramatic and continuing changes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Critics say the report is hard on America’s opponents and easy on its allies, something rejected by the US state department which compiles the data.

It’s hard to compress so much material into such a short space but let me give you some selected highlights.

In China the human-rights situation is considered to have deteriorated, with the repression of those involved in rights advocacy.

During the Egyptian revolution, the report says, human-rights abuses were rampant, few of those responsible have been held to account, and the police and soldiers used excessive force to disperse crowds after Mubarak had gone.

And the report warns of onerous restriction imposed on non-Muslims.

Bahrain and Sudan

On Bahrain, in the opening summary there is no mention of the deaths of protesters. Instead it says the biggest issue for this close US ally was the inability of citizens to peacefully change their government.

In Sudan, it says in the Darfur region human-rights abuses went unpunished and people can act without fear of sanction.

In Syria the government has used indiscriminate and deadly force to quell protests, the report says, stating what the world has watched in the past 14 months.

Iran, we are told, “continued to deny its citizens human rights, including the freedoms of expression, assembly, association, movement, and religion”.

And in South America, there is concern at the increasing executive power of Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, a vocal and persistent critic of the US.

And even in the glow of improvements in Myanmar, there is the warning “significant human rights problems persisted, including military harassment”.

Interestingly, even somewhere like Ireland merits a whole 16 pages to essentially deliver a clean bill of health [although the treatment of an ‘indigenous nomadic group called Travellers” merits a mention of concern].

This document is important. It started to guide senators and members of congress when it comes to making decisions on foreign military and economic aid. That could mean millions – or in cases like Egypt – billions of dollars being affected.

Moral authority

After the report was released, I spoke with Mike Posner, assistant secretary of state.

I wanted to know where the country that still operates the camp at Guantanamo Bay, that launches drone attacks that kills innocent people gets the moral authority to launch a report with a warning to other governments: “We are watching you and will hold you to account”.

Posner told me: “We hold ourselves to account, we say on all of these issues, there is a single standard for human rights, a law base standard, including for the United States”.

Tom Malinowski, who works for Human Rights Watch, which keeps a global eye on abuses, accepts the state department report is a significant document.

“This may be the one day a year they report honestly on America’s friends and America’s enemies,” he said.

It would be wrong to write off the state department report as insignificant or unimportant.

It is sent to congress and forms the basis of relations globally. And it is consulted when the question of military and financial aid is considered. For Egypt for example, that is worth more than $3bn a year.

It is a hefty, detailed piece of work. What is missing is an assessment of human rights in the US itself.


Follow Alan Fisher on Twitter @alanfisher


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