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America’s Human Rights List

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
March 9, 2007


The annual release of a report on human rights by the U.S. State Department is mandated by law, and the Bush administration is hardly the first to face uncomfortable questions about its qualifications to judge such issues. As usual, this year's report reviews progress and pitfalls around the world—not including the United States—and highlights major offenders. But senior officials acknowledged the report also comes at a time when Washington's own adherence to human rights principles is under fire.

The report chides many serial violators of human rights norms—China, Syria, Iran, and Cuba, among others. Like those nations, North Korea's violations are highlighted in the report's introduction, which condemns it as “one of the world's most isolated and repressive regimes.” Similar language is reserved for China, where “human rights record deteriorated” and Cuba, which “continued to violate virtually all the rights of its citizens.”

Critics quickly pointed out the inconsistencies between the report and America's own actions. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), tells Voice of America that the Guantanamo Bay prison and other notorious controversies stemming from counterterrorism activities undermine America's moral authority. Larry Cox, Amnesty International USA's executive director, welcomed the state department report's “useful data” but said until Washington “changes its own policies of holding detainees indefinitely, in secret prisons and without basic rights, it cannot credibly be viewed as a world human rights leader.”

The State Department acknowledged the concern. “We recognize that we are issuing this report at a time when our own record and actions we have taken to respond to the terrorist attacks against us have been questioned,” said Barry F. Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for human rights during a press briefing. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “[W]e know ourselves to be deeply imperfect.”

Some of those condemned in the report picked up on the imperfections. Shortly after the State Department released the human rights report, China delivered its own scathing analysis of U.S. human rights practices, accusing Washington of having “trespassed on the sovereignty of other countries,” with a particular focus on the war in Iraq. As Brazil prepared for a visit from President Bush, its foreign ministry questioned the legitimacy of the report, calling it unilateral and “politically inspired” (Reuters).

The gap between the State Department report and U.S. foreign policy also raises some eyebrows. Despite Egypt's continually poor human rights rating, for instance, it has remained the second biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid for nearly three decades, according to this Congressional Research Service report (PDF). Even though China gets blacklisted for abuses (Washington Times) on an annual basis, human rights failed to make the agenda during Premier Hu Jintao's visit to Washington in April. On the same day the of the human rights report's release, the State Department announced Washington will not seek to join the UN's Human Rights Council for the second year in a row.

Despite the perceived disparity between words and action, Congress may attempt to end the controversial U.S. counterterrorism policy of “extraordinary rendition” through the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act, introduced by Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA) on March 6. The Bush administration's use of extraordinary rendition, which involves force rather than legal means to take a prisoner from one country to another for questionable interrogation practices, has drawn international condemnation and legal action. In January, a German court issued warrants for thirteen CIA agents for kidnapping German citizen Khaled el-Masri and taking him to Afghanistan, where he says he was imprisoned for five months (IHT) and tortured. Last week, a U.S. federal appeals court upheld a decision (PDF) to dismiss a civil suit brought by el-Masri against the United States on the basis that the U.S. government is protected by a “state secrets” privilege not to disclose information harmful to national security.

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