Human Rights Groups Bristling at State Department Report

What’s not in the report is as important as what’s in it.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan speaks on the release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Washington, D.C. on April 20, 2018. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan speaks on the release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Washington, D.C. on April 20, 2018. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Human rights groups blasted the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, released on Friday, which removed the term “reproductive rights” and softened language on human rights violations in a number of countries, including Yemen and the Dominican Republic.

The report also dropped the phrase “Israel and the occupied territories,” replacing it with “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza” in a break from years past, made more controversial by the recent violent flare up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Human rights groups say the changes undermine the integrity of the report, which is used by the U.S. government, lawmakers, and researchers around the world as a global benchmark for how each country treats human rights.

In the section on Saudi Arabia, the State Department pared down language on the effects of its U.S.-backed bombing campaign in the Yemeni civil war and misquoted reporting from human rights watchdogs, according to Raed Jarrar, a Middle East expert with Amnesty International.

The report, Jarrar says, “sugarcoats” the conclusions of Amnesty International and other nongovernmental organizations in writing, “some coalition airstrikes caused disproportionate collateral damage.” Amnesty’s actual reporting says the Saudi bombing campaign constituted serious violations that could be amount to war crimes.

“I thought to myself, how dare you misquote us in the report,” he tells Foreign Policy. “That’s not our language at all, and it was obviously changed for political motives.”

The Trump administration has drawn fire from human rights groups and lawmakers for backing the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, which the United Nations says accounts for 61 percent of total civilian deaths in the the conflict.

The report also eliminated the phrase “reproductive rights,” which has been used in the report since 2012. It replaced the section with a much shorter one titled “Coercion in Population Control,” focused exclusively on forced abortion and involuntary sterilization, without mentioning access to contraceptives and abortions as in reports past.

In a press briefing on the release of the report on Friday, Ambassador Michael Kozak, the top official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, cautioned critics against reading too much into the “reproductive rights” term, saying it has has become politically charged among advocacy groups.

“It’s 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,” he said.

But he also made clear that it did signify a policy change.

“We don’t report on it because it’s not a human right,” Kozak said, referring to abortion. “It’s an issue of great policy debate.”

Brian Dixon of the Population Connection Action Fund, an advocacy group that monitors access to reproductive health care, says the omission shows a “flagrant disregard for women.”

The report also removed a section on the widespread discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants in the Dominican Republic, according to Amnesty International.

The nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch said the annual report contained “massive omissions” on other issues ranging from domestic violence in Brazil to human rights violations in Japan, and outlined some the gaps in a thread on Twitter.

Democratic lawmakers piled on to the criticism of the document, an annual report that has been mandated by Congress since 1977.

“This move sends a clear and unambiguous message: this Administration believes that some human rights violations don’t matter,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House foreign affairs committee, in a statement released Friday. “This is just the latest in a disturbing pattern wherein this Administration does not prioritize the rights of women and other marginalized populations.”

While it caught flack in some areas, the State Department also used the report to sharply rebuke human rights violations by Russia, Iran, China, and NATO ally Turkey. This year’s report is also one of the first times the State Department has acknowledged China’s kidnappings of nationals, or what the State Department calls “extraterritorial disappearances.”

FP reported last month on China’s global kidnapping campaign.

“China continues to spread the worst features of its authoritarian system, including restrictions on activists, civil society, freedom of expression, and the use of arbitrary surveillance,” acting Secretary of State John Sullivan said during Friday’s briefing, where he lauded the positive impact of the report.

“America leads the way globally to promote human rights,” Sullivan added. “No human rights abuser, no matter where in the world, is out of our reach.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer