More of the Same Dysfunctional American Insularity on Human Rights

By Aaron Rhodes and Hadi Ghaemi

Reactions to the annual publication of the United States State Department Human Rights Report are altogether predictable: Nations whose records have been severely criticized typically denounce the report, sometimes by noting violations of human rights by the United States and thus its hypocrisy in criticizing others. This year is no different. For example, an official Chinese response referenced "widespread violent crimes" in the United States, arms sales, and violations of the sovereignty of other nations. The comments say something about how the Chinese state understands--or misunderstands--universal human rights. But the Chinese are joined by numerous other nations in their view that issuance of such a report amounts to an interference in their internal, domestic affairs, and that the report contains biased and arbitrary criticisms.

The reports follow the same template each year. Each nation is examined according to categories like arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, and other human rights violations. The State Department thus publishes one of the most comprehensive such reports available, as most international human rights organizations only have the capacity to cover selected countries. The reports generally have a reputation for accuracy and, despite the squeals of indignation from states on the hot seat, the government generally criticizes friend and foe alike. Nevertheless, because a government, as opposed to an independent entity, issues the report, it has an intrinsically "political" character. No other government issues such detailed public analyses of the rest of the world. And many around the world have asked why the US government does not include itself in the report, although to do so would certainly raise eyebrows even higher. It is clear no government can accurately judge itself, but can a government judge others objectively?

The new administration has so far continued the practice of hectoring other governments about their human rights records, and has been accused of being unfair and biased, just as the Bush administration was, as previous administrations as well . This unfortunate syndrome, which may even hurt human rights around the world, is to a large extent the result of the United States' almost total lack of reference to internationally recognized human rights standards as the source of state obligations to protect human rights. The Report does not measure compliance with international legal obligations, but rather with a particular set of standards as defined by the American state. While the "independence" of the Report, as the work of a government, will be invariably suspect, it would gain much credibility and be more useful to all if it were based on international human rights and if it were seen as encouraging compliance with international law as opposed to American will.

This was evidently the intent of the document as stipulated by the United States Congress. The preface to the 2009 report says it is submitted to Congress in compliance with Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), which "provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate by February 25 'a full and complete report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights'..." But there is virtually no other mention of the international character of human rights as an idea, or as a political mechanism for protecting individuals from abuse by governments.

It is understood that the United States has not signed all human rights treaties, and focuses its concerns on certain types of human rights to the neglect of others. But the government seems to imply that it has its own world regime for human rights to which other countries should conform. It makes no reference to the international standards that define the human rights on which it reports; the State Department Report refers only to national laws, as if the international framework does not exist and only state sovereignty rules. Not surprisingly, international reactions are defensive. Human rights groups in many countries appreciate the report, especially its emphasis on the indispensible role of civil society and the need to protect human rights defenders. But those same groups can be branded as American stooges because the United States rules itself--not international treaties defining universal human rights and--as the standard to be met. If groups refer to the report, they align themselves with America--not a transcendent set of rules.

Serious civil society groups take care to frame their analysis of human rights problems in terms of states' obligations to conform to their international legal obligations or at least to international human rights standards including those established by regional intergovernmental organizations. They know that this clarifies the objective basis for their observations and criticisms, and that these cannot therefore be dismissed as arbitrary: Governments should protect human rights, not because civil society demands it, but because it is an international duty. More importantly, reports based on international standards are less likely to be interpreted as reflecting a political agenda. Such reports have the intent of assisting governments to meet their obligations, as opposed to using human rights to make political attacks.

The US State Department should take steps to reduce the ease with which its good report is dismissed as a political attack. In addition to viewing human rights within international norms, the new administration has much more to do in reversing policies and practices of the Bush administration that have made much of the world to view the United States as a major violator of human rights, before its reporting can have much impact. As it is, America's report on world human rights has again been batted aside as arbitrary, and America's reputation for making its own human rights laws--for itself and others--has been sustained.

Aaron Rhodes and Hadi Ghaemi are, respectively, Consultant and Coordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.