Department of State Human Rights Reports: The Resource That Washington Ignores

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to how the 2013 Human Rights Reports were the foundation of U.S. foreign policy and a statement to the world that the U.S. is watching to make sure that foreign governments protect the human rights of their citizens (Photo Credit: Mladen  Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to how the 2013 Human Rights Reports is the foundation of U.S. foreign policy and a statement to the world that the U.S. is watching to make sure foreign governments protect the human rights of their citizens (Photo Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

At long last, the 2013 country reports documenting global human rights trends has been released by the U.S. Department of State.

This year’s report, which was first produced during the Carter administration, is as important for what it does not say – or perhaps how it says it – as it is for what it says. In looking back at events in 2012, the report highlights several alarming trends, first what can only be described as a growing assault on civil society and human rights defenders.

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Reports that have lost their meaning

As we enter the new year the U.S. State Department is finishing the touches on its annual human rights report. When I took over as Egypt country specialist for Amnesty back in the 1990s, Egyptian activists used to look forward to the report’s publication.  It was a rare occasion that any official body of influence called the Egyptian government on its human rights abuses.  It gave their work particularly against torture, legitimacy and moral support.

But this year, as in the past few years, the report will be ignored by my activist colleagues in Egypt.  Today’s New York Times has a story that explains why.

The story is about ex-Guantanamo detainee Muhammad Saad Iqbal.  After more than six years in American custody, Iqbal is now free, never having been charged with any crime, but he suffers from years of abuse.  Some of the worse came when the Americans rendered him to Egyptian authorities, whom, Iqbal says, tortured him.  You can read his story here.

This year’s State Department report will criticize the Egyptians for torture.  It will echo Amnesty’s own language accusing the Egyptians of systemmatic torture and impunity for the torturers.  But as the evidence mounts that American officials are complicit in the same abuses that they criticize, this year those words just don’t mean as much.

New Prez, How to End Impunity for Military Contractors

This week, Human Rights First (HRF) issued a report, “How to End Impunity for Private Security and Other Contractors: Blueprint for the Next Administration“.

The report helpfully encapsulates many of the calls for better oversight, monitoring and accountability that HRF, Amnesty International and others have been calling for with regard to companies, like Blackwater, Titan, KBR…, whose personnel have engaged in human rights abuses from rape and torture to killing, with impunity.

It also posits some fresh ideas into the conversation, such as extending the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to these companies and reforming state secret and other privileges that often get in the way of justice for victims.

However, the report suffers from an oversimplification, with an implied reference to fossilized examples as representative of the scope of the problem. In this sense, it feels like a recycled agenda from a “multi-stakeholder” conference. 

We should be working together to progress most of the recommendations in the report, but a few things should not be sacrificed in the name of appearing practical: human rights abuses should be prosecuted because we don’t tolerate them, period, not just because they foster hostility toward us and undermine military missions; the US shouldn’t consider whether to ban contractor roles in rendition, it should prohibit any role in rendition, which is illegal; UCMJ application to company personnel shouldn’t be revised, it should be repealed — why should we potentially subject the entire world (the result of subcontracting of third-country nationals) to the US military justice system?

Finally, let’s tell it like it is: many companies that provide services directly or indirectly to military operations shun “military” as part of an identification of their industry, instead often preferring “security” contractor or provider which sounds more benign. With few exceptions, HRF’s report should make them happy. Even its title does not mention the word military.