The State Department Human Rights Reports and National Security

Last Thursday U.S. Secretary of State Kerry presided over the release of the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. This marks the 37th year that the State Department has published these reports, which now examine almost 200 countries in 7000 pages.   Critics of these reports generally focus on three concerns. First, they ask why the United States Government is the best and most credible entity to produce these reports. Secondly, they point out the disparity between what the reports document and the effectiveness of US policies aimed at combatting such violations. Finally, they question the credibility of the reporting exercise itself, particularly given the deficits in the protection of human rights by the United States and especially on issues relating to national security.

From the fall of 2009 until March of last year I directed the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) in the State Department, the office that quarterbacks this effort. In doing so I gained a much better sense of what these reports are, and what they are not. Based on that experience, here is my assessment of the Human Rights Reports, especially as they address national security issues.

Why should the US government produce these reports?

In short, the US continues to publish the Human Rights Reports because they serve a range of very useful purposes both inside and outside of government and because no one else is willing or able to do so. Prominent human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch produce detailed annual reports, but they only cover selected countries. The Chinese government publishes a human rights report, but it covers only a single country, the United States.  And no international organizations, other governments or groups of governments have the inclination or capacity to do this type of comprehensive reporting. While at State I approached various other governments and international organizations, repeatedly encouraging them to emulate and complement the public reporting the USG is doing. I never got a nibble. Not once.

Why the disparity between what the Human Rights Reports say and US policies?

The Human Rights Reports are not a policy-making document or exercise, but they do lay out a factual predicate which helps to inform and drive policy. I actually fought hard to keep the distinction between reporting and policy-making clear. Our mantra at DRL was to hold every government to a single standard and to maintain fidelity to the truth. To achieve those objectives we needed to make clear within government that this was not a policy-making process or document. If we had yielded on that principle, the quality and content of the reports would have suffered dramatically. We constantly held off those who wanted to argue their policy predispositions through the reporting process. We took a strict “just the facts” approach, and it paid off. The reports are strong, credible and detailed. The reporting process that has evolved over three decades is extremely thorough, rigorous and disciplined. Literally thousands of people in the State Department in Washington and in US Embassies around the world devote tens of thousands of hours to producing these reports. And that process of gathering, analyzing and reporting on human rights challenges in so many countries has an invaluable educative effect on people in the foreign service.

Can these reports be credible when the US has so many human rights challenges, especially relating to national security?

The Human Rights Reports devote significant attention to human rights issues tied to national security. The agenda includes torture and cruel inhuman or degrading treatment often in the context of interrogation laws and practices, detention policies and practices including the use of military courts to try civilians accused on security violations, surveillance practices that infringe on privacy rights and the use of drones and other new military technologies in asymmetrical conflicts. Nowhere are these issues being debated more vigorously than in the United States.

Aspects of each of these issues have been and will continue to be debated vigorously both within the US Government and by those like Just Security that monitor and seek to influence US actions. The question is how do these debates affect the State Department’s reports on other countries?

While some argue that the intense public debates about these issues as they relate to the United States colors the State Department’s reporting on other countries, I found that to be the exception rather than the rule. Others criticize the hypocrisy of the US Government commenting on detention policies of Pakistan, Zimbabwe or Egypt while maintaining a detention facility at Guantanamo or breaches of Internet privacy in Iran, Russia or Vietnam while the NSA engages in massive data-mining operations.

I come out in favor of continuing to include a focus on these issues in the Human Rights Reports and even a commitment to devoting greater attention to national security issues in the future. This year the State Department has increased attention to issues of corruption in its Human Rights Reports. In recent years it has devoted enhanced attention to other evolving human rights subjects such as the treatment of LGBT communities, or persecution directed against bloggers and others using social media.  Greater attention to the constellation of national security issues in future Human Rights Reports will both help inform the human rights debate globally, and encourage a more rights-oriented debate on those issues here at home. 

About the Author(s)

Michael Posner

Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business & Human Rights, Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance at NYU Stern, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2009-2013), Founding Executive Director and Former President of Human Rights First (1978-2009) Follow him on Twitter at ().