Is the U.S. State Department Understating Human Rights Abuses?

Egyptian human right activist with chained hands during a protest against torture in police stations. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian human right activist with chained hands during a protest against torture in police stations. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Following last week’s release of the 2016 Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Amnesty International USA conducted a review of the reports and offered an analysis of the reports.

The annual, Congressionally-mandated reports are meant to highlight abuses such as human rights defenders being killed, detained or hounded in to exile, along with draconian restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, often imposed in the name of national security.

Unfortunately, this year’s report continues the practice of using diplomatic language to understate human rights violations. The report also continues to bury some cases of abuse by failing to refer to them in the summary section of the report. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

The Human Rights Reports that could: Analysis of the 2014 Department of State Country Reports

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).

(Photo Credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images).

By Adotei Akwei and Larissa Peltola*

After months of anticipation by the global community, the Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 finally arrived on June 25, a mere six months into 2015. This beguiling page-turner, which provides us with a summary of the state of human rights around the world, highlights virtually every country yet somehow manages to gloss over, or omit altogether, the human rights violations occurring in the United States (#closeGuantanamo).

Amnesty International USA, along with several other human rights groups, continues to welcome the reports as a potentially valuable roadmap to guide U.S. foreign policy. They offer a detailed look at the human rights situation in particular countries and often indicate developing political and human rights crises, but sadly, they have historically been ignored by the very government that produces them.

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that human rights are a priority of its foreign policy. If that is the case, then we urge the administration to look at the reports of the countries flagged below and assess whether those countries should be receiving security or financial assistance, or whether supporting governments that treat people so poorly is a sensible investment of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.


Import Human Rights to Angola

Children living in the ruins of destroyed houses in Luanda, Angola.

Children living in the ruins of destroyed houses in Luanda, Angola.

Angola is experiencing a major revitalization as it slowly recovers from a devastating 27 year civil war that finally ended in 2002. The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off  (sorry for the soccer pun) this week: a biennial continent-wide tournament, and this year a rousing prelude to the World Cup occurring in June in South Africa. Angola is also one of the world’s top twenty crude oil exporters and a member of OPEC. This revenue stream elevates Angola’s stature as a major economic player both globally and in the region, as nations compete for Angolan oil exports.

These resulting economic ties also create political relationships. Stay with me, I am getting to my point, I promise. Angola ranks sixth in the list of countries importing oil into the United States. This means the US relies on Angola and Angola relies on the US. Thus each is in the position to influence the other on a whole host of issues. And so we have arrived: Angola is up in February for its turn under the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UN-UPR).

The UN-UPR is a process by which each member state’s human rights record is scrutinized by it’s peers. All member nations are subject to this review every four years, during which time other nations and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) can raise concerns, ask questions and make recommendations on how to improve human rights conditions. One of the concerns about the process, which has already played out during other state’s reviews, is peer nations won’t really raise the tough issues. Rather they lob soft balls (or maybe soccer balls?) for fear of damaging economic relationships or labeling as a hypocrit because of the peer nation’s own human rights record.

But it is the duty and responsibility of UN member states to hold each other accountable, and it is our onus as global citizens to make sure our governments step up to the plate. So we are calling on the US State Department to not go easy on Angola because we want it’s oil exports. Instead, we are demanding the US help ensure human rights are imported into Angola via the UPR process.

There are three major areas we call on Secretary Clinton to raise during the UPR process: forced evictions, the safety of human rights defenders and protections of freedom of expression and association. These are all areas of serious concern in Angola; people are rendered homeless for political and/or economic gain, human rights defenders experience repression and beatings as they work to hold the government accountable and journalists and citizens are imprisoned for speaking out and demanding positive change.

So stand up as a global citizen and encourage all UN member nations to not give Angola an easy pass under the UN-UPR next month and tell Secretary Clinton that the US must do it’s part! Economics is supply and demand. Instead of only demanding oil come out of Angola, let’s supply the tools to encourage human rights to come in!

There's No Free Press in Egypt

That’s some bad timing U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey had last week.  Speaking at a public conference in Egypt, Scobey declared that “Egyptians are very free to speak out. The press debates so many things.” She then implied human rights organizations are free to investigate human rights abuses.

Activists call for the release of imprisoned Egyptian blogger Karim Amer

Activists call for the release of imprisoned Egyptian blogger Karim Amer

It didn’t take long for the Egyptian government to undercut the ambassador’s comments.  Today, Egyptian human rights activists announced their support for one of their own, blogger Hani Nazeer Aziz, when the government refused to implement for the fourth time a court order demanding his release from jail.  Aziz has been detained without charge at Borg AlArab prison since October 2008, activists say because the government wanted to silence his pro-democracy writings.

Scobey didn’t mention Aziz in her conference.  Nor did she mention arrested blogger Karim Amer, who is an Amnesty prisoner of conscience; nor did she cite a former POC Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a journalist and blogger detained for more than a month in 2007 for denouncing torture ; nor did she mention novelist Musaad Suliman Hassan Hussein, known by his pen name Musaad Abu Fagr, who is a subject this month of Amnesty International’s Write-a-Thon.  Earlier this month, one of the most famous bloggers in Egypt, Wael Abbas, was convicted in absentia to 6 months in jail on charges of sabotage.


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.