A Critique of the US Department of State 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

By Tarah Demant, Director of Gender, Sexuality, & Identity Program, Amnesty International USA

On April 20th the U.S Department of State released the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The reports have, in the past, represented a significant human rights effort by the staff of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and staff in US embassies around the world to educate readers about human rights conditions in different countries and help reinforce human rights norms.

Unfortunately, this year’s reports have been overshadowed by an unprecedented and alarming level of politicized editing by the Trump administration that undermines the credibility of the reports — and worse, undermines the human rights they are intended to promote and support.

Amnesty International USA’s Country Specialists and staff have reviewed the reports and offer these critiques in the hope that future reports will focus on accuracy, objectivity, and a commitment to documenting all human rights.

Key Thematic and Policy Concerns

The State Department dramatically changed the way it reported on discrimination in general, particularly in its reporting on women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights. Significant changes were made to “Section 6. Discrimination Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons,” including changing what information was deemed “critical” to include. The current reports have omitted crucial details about human rights abuses, particularly abuses by non-state actors (a non-state actor is a “private” citizen or group not directly representing a government or acting directly at the behest of a government. “State actors,” in contrast, are anyone representing or acting at the behest of the government, e.g. government officials, military, police, public teachers, etc.). What’s more, the State Department Reports have refused to report on reproductive rights.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert reported that these cuts were intended to “sharpen the focus of the report on abuses of internationally recognized human rights and the most egregious issues.”

But the State Department has not “sharpened” the focus on human rights; it has backtracked on women’s rights and revealed a lack of understanding of and commitment to human rights that it finds ideologically inconvenient to the current administration.

Human rights are indivisible and universal. That reports of attacks and threats to women’s human rights in general, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights of women, were stricken from the report sends a clear message that the United States does not appreciate the interlinked, comprehensive nature of human rights.

By refusing to report on reproductive rights, and instead focusing on the limited mandate of “Coercion in Population Control” (with a focus only on forced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods), the State Department has produced an ideologically-driven interpretation of human rights, one that wants to ignore key rights for women– to health, bodily integrity, and to control when they have children. Not only does this undermine the United States’ stated commitment to human rights, it woefully misunderstands women’s rights and the centrality of sexual and reproductive rights to ensuring equal rights for all. Reproductive rights are recognized human rights, despite what the State Department selectively leaves out. Cutting out reproductive rights betrays an ideologically-driven agenda that wants to cherry-pick human rights, ignoring reproductive rights because they are not politically palatable — but the State Department cannot rewrite international law.

Ambassador Michael Kozak, currently the top official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, has insisted that this cut is “not a diminishment of women’s rights or a desire to get away from it; it was to stop using a term that has several different meanings that are not all the ones we intend.” But reproductive rights are clearly outlined in international laws and standards. That they are politically inconvenient in our current political climate is not the business of the State Department’s human rights reports — or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s a diminishment not only of women’s rights, but of the integrity of the reports themselves and the State Department’s commitment to human rights.

Other changes made to Section 6 as part of “sharpening” the focus of the report included scaling back much reporting on women’s rights, LGBTI rights, and other rights to non-discrimination. Where before, the report detailed out the lived reality of rights holders, including rights violations felt in society and by non-state actors, the reports now omit critical human rights realities on the ground. The reports largely focus only on a state’s legal response or whether a state actor has committed human rights violations.

The problem with this approach is many-fold. First, it indicates that “private” discrimination is not a human rights abuse, which it is, or that it is not a state (government) concern, which it is. While states must have human rights-compliant laws, a law on the books is not a true indicator of whether or not people have access to their rights; ignoring context and the abuse of non-state actors ignores the obligations of the state to actually fulfill people’s rights.

States are obligated not only to respect and protect the rights of people, but also to fulfill those rights, and they are bound to prevent and punish human rights violations perpetrated not only by state actors, but also by non-state actors as well. It’s not enough, for example, for a country to say, “it wasn’t a police officer that murdered this trans woman, and it is illegal to murder in our laws, so therefore we have met our human rights obligations”: international laws, treaties, and standards bind states to fulfill the rights of people — meaning a state has to positively ensure that every person can enjoy their rights, not simply be free from the state itself violating those rights in law or practice.

Additionally, by cutting additional context in the discrimination section, the State Department reports do not actually speak to the root causes of human rights violations and, in fact, ignore the lived reality of people in relation to those rights.

A state must do more than not actively violate that right; it must make rights real for people, and the cuts in the State Department reports made to “sharpen the focus” of the reports have instead missed the larger human rights picture and, with the deletion of reproductive rights, have seriously challenged the integrity of the reports overall.

Country Specific Critiques

Several reports contained key human rights information that remains vital to human rights defenders in and outside the respective countries. However, the lack of comprehensive and detailed coverage by the State Department has left both human rights defenders and rights holders less equipped to effectively defend human rights worldwide, and we remain concerned that critical omissions have compromised the purpose and usefulness of these reports.

Amnesty International USA’s Country Specialists and staff have reviewed the reports and offer below overviews of some of the country reports in the hope that future reports from the State Department will focus on accuracy, objectivity, and a commitment to documenting all human rights.

AFRICA

THE GAMBIA

While many of Gambia’s human rights issues were addressed in the report, sections such as the Protections of Refugees, Rape and Domestic Violence, FGM/C, Displaced Children, and Prohibition on Forced Labor sections were shortened, undermining a complete human rights picture. Moreover, the section on the UN or other international bodies, and the sub-section on Indigenous People were omitted, and the Reproductive Rights section, as noted above, was replaced with ‘Coercion in Population Control.’ The Discrimination subsection was limited to reciting only a summary of the laws. Further research should be conducted on the report’s assertion on the Children’s Rights subsection where it states that authorities generally enforce the law when cases of child abuse or mistreatment came to their attention.

MAURITANIA

While, in general, the report gives a mostly accurate account of the situation in Mauritania, crucial human rights are not addressed directly, such as: the use of torture and denial of fair trial of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) detained activists, security forces’ use of oppressive means to intimidate and attack all those who criticized the government, and, the erasure of any coverage of reproductive rights in the country. Moreover, there is no direct reference to the situation along the Senegal/ Mauritania border.

The report does not go into great depth on the impact of the fight against terrorism by the Mauritanian government and instead mentions laws that are similar to the Patriot Ac in the United States i.e. “Defendants did not often learn of the charges until the investigation was complete.” and “The law requires that in most cases courts review the legality of a person’s detention within 48 hours of arrest, but police may extend the period for an additional 48 hours, and a prosecutor or court may detain persons for up to an additional 15 days in national terrorism cases.” Comparing the impact of a law in Mauritania to that of a law in the United States does not take into account the differing contexts including a lack of checks and balances that play a critical difference in challenging laws, policies and actions by the government that violate international human right standards.

NIGER

While the general overview of the report gives an accurate account of the situation in Niger, the cooperation of the Niger government with the United States, particularly regarding the “war on terrorism” has resulted in an understated report that downplays the scale and scope of the human rights concerns.

The report mentions “the law prohibits detention without charge for more than 48 hours, but police occasionally violated these provisions. The law allows individuals accused of terror-related crimes to be detained without charge for a longer period.” But the report does not address the circumstances and conditions of detention of the Boko Haram suspects. The report focuses mainly on the human rights abuses of Boko Haram and does not adequately report the violations done by the Niger security forces.

The report did not discuss the situation of workers of AREVA mining company, which directly speaks about Niger’s freedom of association and right to collective bargaining.

SENEGAL

While the report gives a generally accurate account of the situation in Senegal, Senegal’s cooperation with the United States in “the war on terror” and its membership in the G5 Sahel Cross-Border Joint Force, has resulted in an understated report that does not properly address the serious impact of these laws and anti-terrorism measures on Senegalese’s human rights.

Further, there was no mention to the conditions of the unfair trial of Khalifa Sall, opposition leader and Mayor of Dakar as a political Prisoner. Moreover, no governmental responsibility is discussed with respect to the Casamance conflict. The report does not address either the critical situation of violation of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and only mentions the fact that some permits for demonstrations have been denied, inexplicably ignoring the brutal use of force by security forces, unlawful detention of protestors, and even the death of some protestors by the same security forces.

GUINEA

In general, the report gives an accurate account of the situation in Guinea. However, the report does not acknowledge the difficult access to decent housing in Conakry and the inability of the Ministry of Territorial Administration to solve this human rights situation. Though the report does mention the violation of freedom of expression, it does not go in depth with any useful detail. Also, the report does not mention the government denying access to information, undermining the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to work in a secure environment without harassment. The report also omits positive advances regarding human rights, such as the new military code which led to the abolition of the death penalty in the country.

ZIMBABWE

The 2017 report on Zimbabwe is comprehensive and detailed and includes critical human rights information particularly on LGBTI rights. One concern is the issue of missing people. There are still many people unaccounted for as a result of the 2017 “military intervention” in Zimbabwe. While many people likely fled the country during the turmoil, an unknown number may be missing and the state must account for them.

THE AMERICAS

EL SALVADOR

Though the report provided some useful information of ongoing issues and concerns El Salvador is facing today, it omitted key issues. There was no information about the dangers that Salvadorians who are deported from the United States face back in their home communities. The omission of such a key issue derails understanding of the impact US policies have on El Salvador and the human rights consequences they bring. Also, there was no mention of the failures of the government in regard to the investigation of missing persons, the utter denial of the existence of Internally Displaced Persons, and the role the national security forces play in forced displacements. Additionally, there is no discussion of how gangs force women and girls into what amounts to sex slavery. Though the was mention of the ban on abortion, and how women are charged with murder if they are caught receiving abortion services, the lack of further information on reproductive rights meant that this human rights crisis is not understandable in its context: a total abortion ban that is a denial of basic reproductive rights and leads to these arrests and erroneous murder charges.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

The report for the Dominican Republic lacked many of its most pernicious human rights issues, the most serious being the country’s widespread discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants. It is the first time since 1999 that this critical fact was omitted from the report. Although the report mentions the issue of at least 135,000 people being stateless, it fails to discuss the root cause of this and several other human rights issues in the Dominican Republic, which is that these violations stem from the racial discrimination against Haitians and their descendants; it is this deleted context that has led to policies such as the removal of nationality of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

PERU

The report inexplicably omitted the pardon granted to former President Alberto Fujimori by then President Kuczynski. The section on violence against women and girls should have mentioned the almost total lack of judicial response to the vast majority of registered complaints. The report’s failure to cover sexual and reproductive issues was compounded by its failure to cover the lack of progress on the cases of about 5,000 women who were forcibly sterilized during the Fujimori regime. The discussion of maternal mortality and access to health services issues and lack of potable water due to riverine pollution and the woeful response by the authorities was also omitted in the report.

BOLIVA

The report on Bolivia reveals a different tone taken found in the reports with countries with whom the United States has tension. For example, the report offers strong criticism of the Bolivian government’s human rights record and includes a brief discussion of the plight of Afro-Bolivians, but it fails to mention the passing of law 969, which authorized the construction of a major highway through the Indigenous territory of Isiboro Securé National Park, one of the country’s greatest water reserves, and a violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples to exercise their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.

ASIA

MYANMAR

The report on Myanmar addressed most of the human rights issues that have been raised by human rights groups like Amnesty International and others. The report also includes information on additional issues such as academic freedom, participation in the political process, government corruption, discrimination, trafficking, with a fair amount of detail. The report covers the ongoing Rohingya crisis and ethnic cleansing. The report also addresses human rights abuses in other parts of the country.

NEPAL

Overall the report was accurate and covered many issues; However, in many sections, the tone was less critical than last year’s report, giving the impression that things are better than they are. The report claims that the Nepalese government is actively investigating and holding accountable official and security forces who are accused of violating the law; however, this is not the case. The cuts to reproductive rights were particularly obvious in the case of Nepal, conspicuously absent were reproductive rights including: maternal mortality, access to contraception, or abortion. Finally, there was no coverage of the hundreds of thousands of Nepalis who migrate every year for work to the Gulf States and who are often subjected to forced labor and abuse.

NORTH KOREA

Human rights abuses in North Korea are so egregious that this is one area in which there is normally broad consensus as to the nature and severity of violations. The report’s findings were thorough and overall in line with Amnesty International’s research. The findings of the report relied heavily on the work of numerous international bodies and NGOs to support the report’s findings, as evidenced by the multiple references to reports from reputable non-governmental sources throughout the text.

The sections detailing the human rights abuses within prison and labor camps were exceptionally detailed. The descriptions of camp conditions were consistent with AI’s prior research and the wording was almost identical to the descriptions of camp conditions quoted in the UN’s Commission of Inquiry Report and elsewhere.

It is encouraging to see that the report highlighted the violence and harassment committed against women — including the trafficking of those who have fled the country, the abuse of imprisoned women by prison authorities, and the prevalence of domestic violence in North Korean society, but, of course, there was no inclusive coverage of women’s reproductive rights in the report.

We suggest that in addition to simply linking the reader to the separate reports on religious freedom and trafficking, it would have been beneficial to see a brief summary of those report findings within the body of this text itself, especially since the referenced report on religious freedom is from 2016, and the questions of religious freedom and trafficking are central to understanding human rights concerns in the country.

TIBET

given the scarcity of information on Tibet, this year’s report was quite comprehensive. However, a reoccurring issue remains with the lack of coverage on human rights abuses related to LGBTI rights and related to the occupation. The Congressional Executive Commission on China is cited to support a figure of 507 political prisoners, with the remark that there are probably more. Prisoner of Conscience Tashi Wangchuk is mentioned, very briefly.

INDIA

The report on India generally highlights issues and cases that human rights organizations have focused on in the past year. However, this year’s annual reports by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch clearly emphasized the widespread impunity for growing threats, violence, hate crimes, and intolerance directed at minorities (Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, LGBTI individuals), the press, human rights defenders, and critical academics by Hindu nationalist vigilante groups, state governments, and the federal government. While this year’s State Department report notes this problem, it is ultimately buried and does not stand out as the especially timely and direct threat to Indian democracy and human rights that it is at this historical moment.

This year’s report also omits several significant issues. As in past years, it fails to report on the serious and extensive human rights violations committed against largely Adivasi communities by corporate actors and in private/public development projects such as large dams and mines in rural parts of India. The report also fails to comment on long-standing unresolved human rights concerns including the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster, and impunity for violence against Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination. Also, as with every section, the report has problematically reframed the issue of reproductive rights to “Coercion in Population Control” which limits the focus of lack of access to comprehensive and quality healthcare to the issue of forced sterilization present in India.

PHILLIPINES

While the report highlights extrajudicial killings as the “chief human rights concern” in the country, particularly related to the Duterte government’s “war on drugs,” as well concerns about impunity of police and civilian officials, the report fails to grasp the context of the massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Philippine government on the Filipino people. The report’s omission of the case of the 17-year-old Kian delos Santos who was extrajudicially executed on August 16, 2017, along with other minors killed under Operation Tokhang, that sparked a national outcry against the government’s “war on drugs”, signals a lack of deeper understanding of the consequences of the government’s current policy toward civilian lives.

The report merely provides generalizations about the extent of the killings and cites data from the Philippine National Police that have been proven faulty. Second, the report highlights the human rights violations related to internal conflicts, specifically the armed conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Maute group in Mindanao. It underscores the failure of the AFP to consider the number of deaths in Marawi City as well as the consequences to human rights of the subsequent imposition of martial law in Mindanao by President Duterte.

Finally, the report fails to mention the extent of attacks by the Philippine authorities toward human rights defenders in the country. While the report mentions the case of Senator Leila de Lima, the report does not offer any analysis regarding the increasing number of cases of extrajudicial killings, harassment and vilification as “communist-terrorists” of human rights defenders in the country.

SRI LANKA

The State Department’s 2017 human rights report on Sri Lanka failed to give an accurate representation of the state of human rights in the country due to omissions and selective reporting. The report does describe some abuses that occurred last year (including torture, arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders) and notes briefly that impunity for past violations continued. But it fails to mention the scale or scope of impunity that the security forces continue to enjoy for the tens of thousands of gross human rights violations over the past 35 years, some of which the U.N. has described as constituting war crimes or crimes against humanity. For enforced disappearances, the report cites a U.N. report for the number of outstanding disappearances as 5,859, but fails to mention that the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate in 2016 of at least 65,000 disappearances. The report states that the government made “limited progress” on transitional justice but fails to note that the government had made so little progress that it obtained in March 2017 a two-year extension on its 2015 commitments to the U.N. Human Rights Council on transitional justice.

CHINA

While the report is thorough in some areas, there is no mention of the death penalty, torture, or coerced confessions. There is no general statement of the lack of transparency and independence in the judicial system, which affects all citizens, but most severely those charged with capital crimes.

The extensive use of the death penalty in China, should have been emphasized much more throughout the report, and there was no mention to the abolishing of term limits for President Xi Jinping. The report should have also been more thorough in the section pertaining to religious practices and should have explained the extent of oppression.

The report is curiously short on information about Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s widow (Her “forced vacation” to Yunnan is mentioned in the Arbitrary Arrests section that deals with house arrest). She has been under house arrest since 2010 and the conditions under which she has been held have contributed to significant mental health problems and possibly to her heart attack in 2014. Her treatment certainly rises to the level of inhuman treatment if not torture.

One omission worth mentioning was the discussion of the laogai system. Laojiao, re-education through labor, is mentioned — it was technically abolished in 2013, but is rumored to still be in use. The report doesn’t comment further, saying that these claims of continued use cannot be independently verified. The section on minority rights omitted discrimination faced by Uighurs and others outside of their autonomous regions such as migrant workers in eastern cities.

Europe

RUSSIA

The report provided a brief and helpful overview of legal frameworks in place related to a given right. Most of Amnesty International USA’s concerns and observations coincide with those expressed in the report — suppression of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly; impunity for human rights violators at multiple levels of government, with specific attention to egregious violations in Chechnya; the persecution of LGBTI individuals throughout the country, particularly in the Caucuses region; and a package of loosely defined laws used to harass individuals and groups who are critical of the Russian government. In addition, many specific individuals at risk that AIUSA has advocated on behalf of were named in the report.

The omission of the section on women’s reproductive rights is particularly apparent in this section and concerning. In the section addressing the treatment of prisoners, there was no discussion of human rights violations that occur during prisoner transport. There was no discussion of whistleblowers or lack of whistleblower protections. Although prisoners arrested in Ukraine and held in Russia were discussed briefly, there was no direct mention of arrests of high-profile activists.

TURKEY

The report highlighted the deterioration in the respect and protection of human rights human during 2017 however there were some critical omissions. The report glosses over the fact that the majority of the “thousands of additional police and military personnel dismissed on terrorism related grounds” were targeted unfairly. It did not mention the issue of renditions of Turkish citizens from foreign countries and there was no mention of Turkish national consulate employees that were targeted.

The Middle East and North Africa

SAUDI ARABIA

The report on Saudi Arabia astoundingly dismisses Amnesty reports on human rights abuses by the Saudi led coalition in Yemen as being focused on collateral damage. This is factually incorrect and an alarming interpretation of serious human rights abuses. As reporting by Amnesty International and other independent human rights organizations show, attacks appear to be disproportionate and/or indiscriminately and appeared not to sufficiently minimize collateral impact on civilians.

ISRAEL AND OCCUPIED PALESTENIAN TERRITORIES (OPT)

The way the Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) report is organized is problematic. The report includes the Israeli occupied Syrian Golan Heights and “residents of” occupied East Jerusalem in the section including concerns inside the State of Israel. The second, separate section includes the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. This division of sections and how they are treated gives de facto recognition of these areas as part of Israel despite both unilateral annexations of these areas by Israel as illegal under international law and not recognized as by the international community. The Syrian Golan Heights remain occupied territory under international law as well as East Jerusalem, which is part of the occupied West Bank.

The report mentioned key issues such as: [terrorist] attacks targeting civilians, politically and religiously motivated killings by non-state groups and individuals, administrative detention of Palestinians, often extraterritorially in Israel, legal requirements and official rhetoric that adversely affected the operating environment for human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Yet it failed to clarify who were the perpetrators of the of the attacks and killing. And it understated the hardship NGO’s have gone through because of the state’s official rhetoric.

Moreover, it did not mention the situation in the Gaza Strip created by the 10-year-old blockade, and how the blockade itself is a form of collective punishment imposed by the Israeli government, which is a war crime. There is no mention of the separate and discriminatory judicial system set up in the OPT to deal with Palestinians separate from Israelis living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including the processing of 500–700 children through this inherently biased and inadequate system.

The report goes on to say that “the government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses within Israel regardless of rank or seniority” which misrepresents the fact that only a small percentage of Israelis were held accountable for actions taken against Palestinians. And those that were prosecuted received very light sentences as opposed to the widespread crackdown on Palestinians under the discriminatory military judicial system set up for Palestinians in the OPT, including children.

The report reiterates the U.S. position on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This statement includes ALL of Jerusalem in the language “recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” which would be all municipal Jerusalem predetermining negotiations. It then goes on to directly contradict the first sentence with the second sentence in saying, “the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.”

Moreover, there have been institutional and societal discrimination against women and other Israeli citizens with Palestinian or other Arab backgrounds as well as Ethiopian Israelis. Women or peoples of these backgrounds have faced hardship in in access to equal education, housing, and employment opportunities. In addition, the entire issue of women’s reproductive rights was omitted.