Tuesday, March 06, 2007


The State Department has just released its annual human rights reports detailing human rights abuses in countries around the world.

From the NY Times:

“Our democratic system of governance is accountable, but it is not infallible,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in releasing the Congressionally mandated report. It weighs the human rights situation in 193 countries — but not the United States, and Ms. Rice did not specifically cite any American violations.

But Barry Lowenkron, an assistant secretary of state, said the State Department was “issuing this report at a time when our own record, and actions we have taken to respond to terrorist attacks against us, have been questioned.” He referred to American laws “governing the detention, treatment and trial of terrorist suspects.”

Officials from countries that are often cited in the report have complained that the United States is quick to criticize others for violations that sometimes occur in America, and the remarks on Tuesday, one White House official said, were an attempt to answer those charges. In particular, the administration has come under fire from human rights groups for its treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

That’s pretty weak beer. If the administration’s way of addressing criticisms of U.S. human rights practices is to acknowledge that they exist, I suppose it’s a big improvement over the past five years, but still far from adequate.

The State Department Human Rights Reports have historically been a valuable resource for human rights groups and other NGOs around the world. While Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and other NGOs do good work, they simply don’t have the resources to undertake a project of this magnitude. I worked for a short time some years ago at an organization in London that provides legal services to refugees, and the human rights country report was a central piece of evidence in building any asylum claim. While never sterling, the U.S. government used to have some credibility as a source of detailed information on the multitudinous ways governments abuse their people.

Now I don’t know as an empirical matter which reports from which countries have historically had rough edges smoothed, or which claims have been inflated from year to year. And the U.S. has had its own human rights problems both at home and abroad. But I do know that many of the people who gathered the information and put those reports together cared deeply about what they were doing, and they were part of an ongoing project that endeavored to publicize injustice and universalize Enlightenment ideals. The term “human rights” is really shorthand for the U.S. Bill of Rights and the amendments to the Constitution. This annual attempt to apply ideals of individual rights to every society in the world, a grand cultural leveling, was both arrogant and naïve—typically American—but also simply the right thing to do.

Now it seems to me that every report is up for question since the U.S. government has backed off its explicit commitment to human rights in so many arenas. While it may be argued that the government is only making public now what it has long done in secret or by proxy, this still matters. In the last five years, the government has embraced torture as a tool of electoral politics. This was, to my knowledge, a bridge it had not crossed before. While pre-9/11 U.S. advocacy of human rights often triggered accusations of hypocrisy, now the government cannot credibly promote a comprehensive program of human rights simply because it has publicly defended its own transgressions. It must set its own house in order before it can serve anything resembling an exemplary role again.

And in the long run, this function would be better performed by the UN Human Rights Council, other supranational bodies, and NGOs. One nation alone cannot effectively police itself, much less the rest of the world.

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