US Abuses, Sense of Irony Missing in Rights Report

Foreign policy, legal, and human rights authorities are raising serious questions about the credibility of the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights, released last week.

Noah S. Leavitt, an attorney who has worked with the International Law Commission of the United Nations in Geneva and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, told IPS: "The sad reality is that because of the [George W.] Bush administration’s haughty unilateralism and its mockery of international prohibitions on torture, most of the rest of the world no longer takes the U.S. seriously on human rights matters."

While most of the experts contacted by IPS found little fault with the accuracy of the so-called Country Reports, whose 2005 edition ran to more than 3,000 pages, they question whether U.S. human rights abuses committed in the "global war on terror" have diminished Washington’s authority to speak out on this issue.

"The State Department’s annual human rights report was once a beacon of truth for American policymakers as well as the rest of the world," said Patricia Kushlis, a retired official of the U.S. Information Agency.

"But how can it now be seen as anything more than a sham when the Bush administration consistently breaks our own laws – from illegal wiretaps at home to renditions abroad – yet still tries to portray itself as the protector of freedom, democracy, and liberty for all?" she said in an interview.

An Egyptian activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because her views are at odds with those of her government, told IPS, "We’re used to the iron fist of government in Egypt. We expect it. We used to have someone we could count on to show our leaders how to lead by setting an example of good governance without the iron fist. It was America."

"Now that’s gone," she said. "Now, the only people who are motivated by what America is doing are the very people it’s trying to defeat – Muslim extremists."

The report, released in Washington March 8, reviewed human rights achievements and setbacks in some 190 countries and regions around the world. It called the human rights records of key Arab allies poor or problematic, citing flawed elections and torture of prisoners in Egypt, beatings, arbitrary arrest and lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, and floggings as punishment for adultery or drug abuse in the United Arab Emirates.

Iraq’s performance was said to be "handicapped" by insurgency and terrorism that affected every aspect of life, the State Department said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last month. She praised these nations for being "strategic partners" in U.S. anti-terror operations.

The relationship between the U.S. and the UAE became the center of a political firestorm last week regarding a Dubai company’s plans to take over terminal management operations at six U.S. seaports. Despite strong support from President Bush, the UAE ultimately backed out of the deal under pressure from Congress to block it.

Introducing the Country Reports, Rice said, "How a country treats its own people is a strong indication of how it will behave toward its neighbors. The growing demand for democratic governance reflects a recognition that the best guarantor of human rights is a thriving democracy," with rights such as accountable government and a free press.

But Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab Politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, told IPS, "The U.S. has lost a tremendous amount of credibility in any discussion of human rights and rule of law. I can’t imagine anyone in the Middle East or the ‘Muslim World,’ for example, taking the State Department report seriously."

"After all, how can you take a report on human rights seriously written by a nation-state that is currently perceived to be among the most egregious violators of human rights and rule of law in the world?"

"Everyone remembers Abu Ghraib and no one has forgotten about Guantanamo, especially not in the Middle East," he added.

A similar view was expressed by Dr. Jack N. Behrman, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina and a former senior official in the administration of President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963).

He told IPS, "The U.S. has forfeited its leadership on human rights as a result of the maxim that ‘You must be careful whom you select as your enemy, for you will become like them.’"

"Washington has adopted fundamentalist religious views in its opposition to Muslim fundamentalism. It has practiced torture, deceived and dissembled, promised to assist those harmed by its policies (or lack thereof) and done little or nothing, and harmed and killed many innocents in an effort to dictate how others should live. All of these are practices by ‘autocratic and evil empires’ that this administration has copied extensively."

Members of the religious community have also raised doubts about U.S. authority in the human rights area. George Hunsinger, McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America, told IPS, "It is tragic that the United States has so recklessly squandered the moral authority it once had in the field of human rights."

"Nothing could be more urgent than for us to reaffirm our historic commitment to international law. A democratic nation that refuses to cry out against its government’s complicity in torture and abuse – and to ban them without loopholes – is approaching spiritual death."

Some commentators have raised questions about the report’s completeness, as well as the issue of U.S. credibility. Neil Hicks, director of international programs for the legal advocacy group Human Rights First, expressed concern about what he termed "a blind spot" in the reports – reporting on states that send people to countries where they are at risk of torture.

He told IPS, "Numerous governments have apparently cooperated with the U.S. in rendering detainees to countries that are known for their use of torture. This is a clear violation of the UN torture convention, but it is not mentioned in the report."

Hicks called the report "admirable and comprehensive," but told IPS it is "regrettable that U.S. violations of human rights undermine their credibility and effectiveness, and make it easy for governments rightly criticized in the reports to point the finger back at the U.S."

Some foreign governments are also using Washington’s diminished authority to criticize the State Department report. The Chinese government-controlled People’s Daily Online accused the U.S. of "posing once again as the world’s judge of human rights."

It said, "The State Department pointed the finger at human rights situations in more than 190 countries and regions, including China, but kept silent on the serious violations of human rights in the United States."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.