By Ken Mayers, Chair of Amnesty International USA’s North Africa Country Specialist Group
Every year, the US Department of State Human Rights Report represents an important effort on the part of the State Department and US embassies worldwide. This effort could lead to significant human rights impact and meaningful long-term foreign policy advancement. Unfortunately, as with the 2017 report, the document this year suffers from politicized editing.
The United States of America needs to lead the world to respect and protect human rights, not to exploit people by using some of their rights as an arbitrary tool of pressure. A weak Human Rights Report sets the foundation for weak U.S. engagement on these issues. This effect is cumulative year after year. This year’s pattern of omissions resembles and builds on last year’s: the report overlooks human rights abuses by non-state actors and fails to hold states themselves accountable to their full range of responsibilities.
The 2017 Report had similar weaknesses and reinforced weak US policy related to human rights abuses. The 2018 Report makes things even worse by failing to accurately and fully address the full scope of global human rights issues, resulting in a U.S foreign policy that cannot fully address reality.
The attention to women’s rights is particularly uneven. The discussion of sexual and reproductive rights is almost completely absent, other than a narrow focus on “coercion in population control” with no mention of access to reproductive care for women. For example, the 2018 Report on El Salvador indicates that women are charged with aggravated homicide and imprisoned for lengthy terms when suspected of intentionally terminating a pregnancy. The Report laments that poor forensic evidence handling and interpretation may lead to convictions of women who miscarried, but makes no comment on the criminalization of abortion or women’s lack of access to essential medical and reproductive care, which AIUSA believes to be the real human rights issue.
In contrast, previous reports provided a comprehensive assessment of reproductive rights, since the right to decide whether and when to have children is fundamental to women’s rights, and because equality between genders is among the most fundamental guarantees of human rights. This comprehensive assessment has been omitted from the 2017 and 2018 reports. Where the government role in population control is discussed, there is an explicit political agenda. There is a detailed discussion of coercive population control in the China report; in contrast, although Amnesty International issued a report about forced sterilizations in Peru, the 2018 report states that “there were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
The report on Belize did mention unconfirmed reports of involuntary sterilization of Maya women during cæsarian (C-section) deliveries. Oddly, the report on North Korea reported forced abortions by state security officials, but qualified them as “done for political purposes and not population control.”
The almost total omission of information about sexual and reproductive health in the 2018 report reflects current US policy as it plays out at international meetings and forums. For example, at the March 2019 Commission on the Status of Women session at the UN, the US delegation aligned itself with states that attempted to undermine women’s rights, specifically with regard to sexual and reproductive health, gender and the family. During negotiations over the wording of the agreed conclusions, the US attempted to delete all mention of the word “gender” and block reaffirmation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action agreed to by 189 countries at the UN 4th World Conference in 1995. Not only is US policy out of step, but US delegations are attempting to roll back previous agreements, effectively overturning previous US positions. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has rescinded all funding for UNFPA, the UN Population Fund and reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy, also known as the Global Gag Rule.
The 2018 report’s failures aren’t limited to women’s rights. Several governments, including US allies, aren’t held accountable for their human rights responsibilities.
Too often, the report relies on government sources for its information and neglects impartial NGOs. For example, the most frequently cited source in the Morocco report is the Council on Human Rights (CNDH), cited 25 times, whereas Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, are barely cited at all. The fact that the CNDH’s president and at least nine of its 27 members are appointed by the King of Morocco is a threat to its independence and impartiality.
To cite one illustrative instance, in the 2018 report on Morocco, the US Department of State relies on the CNDH as its sole authority to state that 24 Sahrawi individuals accused of crimes during the 2010 dismantling of the Gdeim Izik Camp in Laayoune, Western Sahara were convicted in a “fair trial.” The report does note that “some NGOs” alleged that the group of 24 Sahrawis “were political prisoners.” However, turn a few pages to the Western Sahara report, and the DOS accuses the same Morocco government of torture and unfair trials of Sahrawi prisoners: “In 2016 the UN Committee against Torture declared that Morocco had violated its treaty obligations in Gdeim Izik detainee Naama Asfari’s case, alleging that he was convicted by the military court based on a confession obtained under torture and that no adequate investigation was conducted.”
The uneven coverage of human rights abuses by non-state actors is linked to more urgent and current issues. Perhaps the most alarming example has to do with Libya. The 2018 US State Department Human Rights Report refers much more to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA — 92 times) than it does to the Libyan National Army (LNA — 22 times). The report is weighted towards the GNA’s violations with less discussion of the LNA’s violations. In particular, the human rights violations associated with the LNA’s siege and military operations in Derna are downplayed, although the extrajudicial executions carried out by Mahmoud Werfalli (commander of an elite unit in the LNA) are noted, as well as both the ICC’s warrant for his arrest and the allegations that he carried out another extrajudicial killing in January.
This uneven coverage, especially in a country such as Libya where the state is so vulnerable and non-state actors, supported by foreign powers, are so influential, presents a distorted image of reality at the very moment when clarity is essential. And again, the report’s findings are playing out, disastrously, in US policy. Since April, when the Trump administration indicated its support of Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, Amnesty International and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have documented horrific attacks on the Qasr Ben Ghashir detention center and have called for investigations into war crimes.
Omissions, selective reporting, and uneven coverage of past and current issues also leads to distorted assessments in the 2018 report. For example, the report gives a misleadingly positive impression of progress in human rights in Sri Lanka. The report does describe some abuses that occurred last year (including unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders) and says that impunity for conflict-era abuses persisted. The scale and scope of impunity for government forces is significantly understated; for enforced disappearances, the report cites a U.N. report for the number of outstanding disappearances as 5,859 and a Sri Lankan government agency’s list of approximately 20,000 missing, but fails to mention the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate in 2016 of at least 65,000 disappearances. The U.N. has described some of the violations committed by both sides during the war as constituting war crimes or crimes against humanity. In fact, Sri Lanka’s overall lack of progress has resulted in the U.N. Human Rights Council passing two subsequent resolutions (the first in 2017 and the second in March of this year), with each one requiring ongoing monitoring by the U.N. of Sri Lanka’s implementation of its human rights commitments for another two years.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s incoherent vision of human rights is apparent in his preface for the 2018 Report. Instead of expressing a comprehensive vision of human rights, his focus is on a narrow selection of preferred issues. He states that US policy is to engage solely on the basis of US interests, regardless of human rights considerations. Then, leaving states out, Pompeo promises that individuals seeking reforms “will find a sympathetic friend and strong supporter in the United States of America.”
In a strong report, these concluding words might ring as a clarion call to human rights defenders, and we could all celebrate that whole-heartedly. Instead, tacked on to a halting, equivocal, and disconnected review of the global status of human rights in 2018, the offer of support rings hollow and false.