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State Department: Between Terrorism and Counterterrorism, Human Rights Are Losing Out

The latest human rights reports from State detail the way people in too many countries were crushed in 2014 between violent extremists, on the one hand, and repressive governments whose actions threaten to fuel further resentment and terrorism, on the other.

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“2014 was a tough year for human rights.” That was Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, putting it lightly, at a Thursday briefing on the release of the State Department’s annual reports on human rights around the world.

Covering a year when groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram went on sprees of killings, sexual violence, and enslavement, the reports focus to an unusual degree on non-state actors, Secretary of State John Kerry said at the briefing. But he also stressed that many governments’ violent and repressive responses to the resurgence of extremism violated more human rights in turn, making for a vicious cycle of abuses.

“We can’t rescue a village from Daesh or Boko Haram by destroying it,” Kerry said at the briefing, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “And terrorism, obviously, is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society, or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent. Practices of this type are not only unjust; they play directly into the hands of terrorists.”

A Saudi court set up to try terrorism cases sentenced liberal blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes for his writing, Malinowski noted, while China used trumped-up separatism charges to sentence moderate ethnic minority scholar Ilham Tohti.

Malinowski said the human rights reports are the most-read documents that the State Department releases each year, and aim to guide the foreign policy and aid decisions of U.S. government agencies and Congress. The latest reports detail the way people in too many countries were crushed in 2014 between violent extremists, on the one hand, and repressive governments whose actions threaten to fuel further resentment and terrorism, on the other.

“These groups did not emerge from nothing,” Malinowski said. Boko Haram was able to terrorize northern Nigeria in part due to inaction by the government of former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, while Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq helped spur support for the Islamic State, he added.

Not specifically in reference to America’s own role in Iraq’s problems, Kerry said that “every country, including the United States, has room to improve.”

“We approach this with great self-awareness,” he said, nodding to the current spotlight on systemic racism in the United States.

That said, the reports don’t profile the United States itself. They gloss over moves to increase powers of surveillance in countries like Canada and Australia, which, like the United States, arguably infringed last year on citizens’ rights in the name of counterterrorism. Malinowski also sidestepped a question about Palestinian claims at the International Criminal Court, to which the United States isn’t a party.

The reports do, however, soundly criticize Iran and Cuba, countries where diplomatic relations have recently warmed. (In response to a shouted question as he was leaving, Kerry said he was “always hopeful — yes, I’m hopeful — I’m not declaring optimism,” ahead of the the upcoming nuclear deal deadline with Iran.)

Noting that “engagement is not the same thing as endorsement,” Malinowski said that the nuclear talks are separate from discussions about human rights in Iran, where, he said, “I can’t say that we have seen any meaningful improvement.”

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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