The Cable

In Speech on Global Human Rights Abuses, Kerry Attacks Trump

The release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights typically focuses on grotesque abuses and atrocities in far-flung corners of the world. But this year, Secretary of State John Kerry found himself addressing something closer to home: the vigorous endorsement of torture by the leading 2016 Republican presidential candidates.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13:  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks about the release of the 2015 Human Rights Report at the State Department Harry S Truman building April 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. The State Department's report covers internationally recognized individual, civil, political and workers rights as practiced around the world according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and submits the annual report to Congress.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 13: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks about the release of the 2015 Human Rights Report at the State Department Harry S Truman building April 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. The State Department's report covers internationally recognized individual, civil, political and workers rights as practiced around the world according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and submits the annual report to Congress. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The release of the State Department’s annual report on human rights typically focuses on grotesque abuses and atrocities in far-flung corners of the world. But this year, Secretary of State John Kerry found himself addressing something closer to home: the vigorous endorsement of torture by the leading 2016 Republican presidential candidates.

In an implicit but unmistakable dig at real estate tycoon Donald Trump, Kerry said he wanted to “remove even a scintilla of doubt or confusion” that the United States “is opposed to the use of torture in any form at any time by any government or non-state actor.”

“This is a standard that we insist others meet and therefore we must meet this standard ourselves,” he added as the report was released Wednesday.

On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly defended the use of torture against suspected terrorists, saying, “We have to beat the savages.”

“We should go for waterboarding, and we should go tougher than waterboarding,” he said March 3 during a Fox News debate.

In separate interviews, Trump has promised to “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete” with the brutality of the Islamic State militant group.

“We have to play the game the way they’re playing the game,” Trump told CBS.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is Trump’s top challenger in the GOP primary, supports waterboarding of terror suspects because he doesn’t believe it meets the traditional definition of torture. The technique, which simulates the sensation of drowning, is viewed as torture by the vast majority of human rights groups and the Obama administration.

It’s rare for a secretary of state to wade into U.S. electoral politics. But Kerry, a former Vietnam veteran and Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, appeared wary of appearing hypocritical as Wednesday’s report sharply criticizes a number of foreign governments for torturing citizens and political prisoners.

“In the arena of human rights, every government — every government — has the ability to improve, including the United States,” he said. “We declared this opposition to torture yet again just last year, in bipartisan legislation approved by the U.S. Congress.”

The State report prominently criticized a number of key allies, including Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and Hungary, as well as longtime adversaries such as Russia, Syria, and China. The issue of torture, specifically, was noted in a variety of the report’s country-by-country breakdowns.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, authorities were accused of obtaining a confession “using torture” after arresting Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, who was prosecuted for crimes when he was 17.

This year’s report also criticizes a range of U.S. partners on issues related to press freedoms, election fraud, and human rights abuses. In its “Global Overview” of violations, the State Department called out NATO ally Turkey for using laws against insulting the president and anti-terror legislation to “stifle legitimate political discourse and investigative journalism.”

Egypt, a top recipient of U.S. aid, dissolved some 500 non-governmental organizations in 2015, according to the report. It also imposed travel bans on human rights defenders, investigated humanitarian organizations using “restrictive registration laws,” and curtailed the activities of “several human rights” groups.

Hungary, another NATO ally, was criticized for employing “xenophobic rhetoric” and failing to provide humanitarian aid in its handling of “large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers” from the Middle East and North Africa.

“Human rights are part of our agenda — with every single nation,” Kerry said.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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