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

July 9, 2015

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.

This blog post will address some of the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of the State Department reports’ coverage of human rights globally.

The Good

Amnesty International USA found several points of consensus with the Department of State reports’ assessments and conclusions regarding the human rights situation in Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, and Nigeria.

With regard to Nigeria, both the State Department and Amnesty International have documented the abductions, mass killings and destruction caused by the armed extremist group Boko Haram, and have called for an end to the culture of impunity perpetuated by Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. A recent Amnesty report condemned the human rights violations committed by the Nigerian Security Forces in their response to Boko Haram’s abuses.

The Bad

The State Department is, however, far more lenient on other countries where egregious violations are also being committed. Upon initial review of the reports, Amnesty found several countries – including Mexico, South Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia—in which information provided about current country conditions is certainly lacking.

Case in point: the Central African Republic (CAR). The report clearly documents the violence committed by Chadian MISCA peacekeeping forces and the concern over impunity for those abuses, but it fails to mention serious abuses committed by Anti-balaka forces in the western regions in January and February of 2014. The State Department curiously managed to miss (or completely ignore) the heinous abuses perpetrated by the armed extremist group, including mass killing of civilians, destruction of homes, businesses and mosques, and other means used to ethnically cleanse the CAR of its Muslim population—acts which have been extensively documented by Amnesty International and constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The 2014 report also fails to name at least twenty individuals whom Amnesty has named and should be investigated for human rights abuses and war crimes.

Where Amnesty is forceful and deliberate in its choice of words, the State Department is more passive in its language, simply stating “there were several reports of torture committed with impunity.” Many would have expected that a country plagued by conflict and ethnic cleansing would be at least mentioned more thoroughly in a comprehensive report on human rights around the world.

The Ugly

Another point of disagreement between Amnesty International’s research and the State Department reports is over the findings in El Salvador.

The report states: “Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children; to have the information and means to do so; and to have the highest standard of reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence.”

This statement, however, does not accurately reflect the reproductive laws in the country, which severely limit women’s human rights and endanger the lives of women and girls. In 1998, a total abortion ban was enacted into law, banning abortion in all circumstances, without exception, even if a woman’s health or life is at risk, or in cases of rape or incest. Women found guilty of receiving an abortion face up to eight years in prison, and those found guilty of assisting a woman to terminate a pregnancy face the same sentence. And to ensure absolute adherence to the law, health professionals who assist women with an abortion face a heavier sentence of up to 12 years in prison.

The provisions of this law are black and white, and contradict the report’s assertion of the “right to decide the number, spacing and timing of children.” Perhaps the phrase should be rewritten to read, “Couples and individuals have the right to accept that laws dictate a woman’s reproductive rights” or “Couples and individuals have to accept that draconian laws will oppress a woman’s right to reproductive freedom and endanger their lives.”

Not only are women imprisoned for having abortions, but also women suffering miscarriages are reported to the authorities by health care personnel and subsequently interrogated by the police. They can find themselves being convicted of serious offenses such as homicide and sentenced to long prison terms on weak or inconclusive evidence, often following flawed trials.

These laws are direct violations of the fundamental human right of a woman to have control over her own body. State Department reports claim to “focus on the behavior of governments – which bear responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in their territories,” so it is shocking that they have overlooked this human rights crisis in El Salvador.

Where To Go From Here

Though the State Department should be commended for its attempts to uncover human rights abuses and hold government agencies and non-state actors accountable for their actions, the U.S. government must do a better job in more consistently consulting the research of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International. But moreover, the U.S. must also turn its reporting within its own borders to address its own failings and eradicate all forms of human rights abuses, including by #closeGuantanamo, #endtorturenow, #abolishthedeathpenalty, #endpolicebrutality.

Read the full Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 here.

*Thank you to the Amnesty International USA Country and Thematic Specialists who contributed research and insights for this post.