The US has a lot to say
about human rights – except
when it comes to itself
For more than 30 years the United States has compiled its own report into the state of human rights around the world. Taking information from its embassies, a team in Washington sifts through everything it is sent, fact-checks it all, and then compiles it into a very weighty document.
The 2011 report was keenly anticipated after the dramatic and continuing changes in the Middle East and North Africa. Critics say that the report is hard on America's opponents and easy on its allies – something rejected by the US State Department which compiles the data. It insists that it is a fair, honest and credible assessment of the current situation. It's hard to compress so much material into such a short space but let me give you some selected highlights.
In China, the human rights situation is considered to have deteriorated, with the repression of those involved in rights advocacy. During the Egyptian revolution, the report says that human rights abuses were rampant, that few of those responsible have been held to account and that the police and soldiers used excessive force to disperse crowds after Mubarak had gone. It also warns of onerous restrictions imposed on non-Muslims.
In Bahrain, in the opening summary, there is no mention of the deaths of protesters. Instead it says that the biggest issue for this close US ally was the inability of citizens to peacefully change their government. In Sudan it says that, in the Darfur region, human rights abuses went unpunished and people can act without fear of sanction.
In Syria, stating what the world has watched in the past 14 months, the report says that the government has used indiscriminate and deadly force to quell protests. The events recently in Houla is simply another shocking example of that. Iran, we are told, continued to deny its citizens human rights, including the freedoms of expression, assembly, association, movement, and religion. And in South America, there is concern at the increasing executive power of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, a vocal and persistent critic of the US. Even in the glow of improvements in Myanmar there is the warning that 'significant human rights problems persisted, including military harassment'.
Interestingly, even somewhere like Ireland merits a whole 16 pages to essentially deliver a clean bill of health (although the treatment of an 'indigenous nomadic group called travellers' merits a mention of concern). This document is important. It guides senators and members of Congress when it comes to making decisions on foreign military and economic aid. That could mean millions – or in cases like Egypt – billions of dollars being affected.
After the report was released I spoke to assistant secretary of state Mike Posner. I wanted to know why the country which still operates the camp at Guantanamo Bay, which launches drone attacks killing innocent people, feels it has the moral authority to launch a report with a warning to other governments: 'We are watching you and will hold you to account'.
He told me: 'We hold ourselves to account. We say on all of these issues that there is a single standard for human rights, a law-based standard and that includes for the United States'. Tom Malinowski works for Human Rights Watch, which keeps a global eye on abuses. He accepts that the State Department report is a significant document: 'This may be the one day a year they report honestly on America's friends and America's enemies'.
It would be wrong to write-off the report as insignificant or unimportant. It is sent to Congress and forms the basis of relations globally. And it is consulted when the question of military and financial aid is considered.
It is a hefty, detailed piece of work. What is missing is an assessment of human rights in the US itself.
Alan Fisher is an Al Jazeera correspondent