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Report Back Better

The State Department’s yearly human rights report may be the United States’ best tool for fighting sexual violence. Biden needs to get it right.

By , a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and , an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science.
Demonstrators protest sexual assaults on women in Kolkata, India.
Demonstrators hold placards to protest sexual assaults on women in Kolkata, India, on Dec. 4, 2019. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

On March 30, the U.S. State Department published its 2020 Human Rights Reports—critical works that activists and scholars use to document human rights violations and ensure government accountability. This year’s publication comes after former President Donald Trump spent years eroding the documents’ quality and scope, including by cutting their coverage of reproductive rights. Now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised to reverse course by expanding the reports’ coverage of women’s issues—but he will need to go farther in making human rights and the fight against sexual and gender-based violence a strategic priority.

Since the mid-1970s, the United States has shown global leadership by using these yearly briefings to systematically monitor the status of human rights around the world. Although sometimes controversial, the reports play a crucial role in elevating the importance of human rights and amplifying the work of organizations that prevent abuses. By drawing international attention to violations and publicly naming abusers, these reports also help hold governments—which care about these reports and their reputation—accountable for their actions.

But under the Trump administration, the quality of these reports dropped. Not only did Trump shorten them and reduce their coverage, but when compared to reports produced by previous administrations, they also referred less to women, reproduction, racism, sexual violence and abuse, LGBTQ rights, and refugees.

These reports help elevate the importance of human rights and amplify the work of organizations that prevent abuses.

This reduction in quality has had a devastating impact on human rights protection worldwide. Nigeria’s country report from 2019, for example, omitted significant amounts of information about human rights abuses committed by state security forces. The report suggested that Boko Haram perpetrated sexual violence more widely than state security forces, when for years, the Nigerian military and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad police force have been reported to commit rape, torture, and extrajudicial killing at higher rates. With this omission of information, the Nigerian government was able to secure an arms deal with the Trump administration, bypassing an Obama administration moratorium imposed over the Nigerian military’s human rights abuses.

In some cases, the reduced quality of reporting has also produced a false narrative of improvement on the ground. The Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict data set, which draws on the U.S. human rights reports, Amnesty International reports, and Human Rights Watch reports, shows that the share of states that reportedly committed conflict-related sexual violence dropped between 2016 and 2019. But this trend is inconsistent with data from the last 30 years, which shows that state forces are most frequently reported as perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. Since Trump shortened the reports by excluding information on discrimination, societal abuses, and human trafficking, we think this decline is likely in part a result of these truncated reports—more so than actual progress in ending wartime sexual violence. A false sense of progress impedes efforts to end wartime sexual violence. A decline in the quality of reports also undermines trust in existing ones and damages the credibility of the State Department.

More importantly, lower-quality reporting impedes efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and help survivors. Collecting data on wartime sexual violence is already notoriously challenging. Due to stigma, survivors are often reluctant to report abuses—and even if they did, local law enforcement agencies rarely prioritize sexual crimes and are frequently ill-equipped to take their cases. Many criminal justice systems, if at all functioning during war, also seldom prosecute and punish rapists. All of these challenges mean that we lack hard numbers about conflict-related sexual violence, a broad term that includes rape, sexual mutilation, forced sterilization, and other atrocities. This hinders humanitarian agencies and researchers, who rely on this data to respond to survivors and analyze wartime sexual violence.

Beyond publishing these human rights reports, the United States has also worked to mitigate sexual violence by advancing the women, peace, and security agenda in the United Nations Security Council. Washington played a leading role in passing resolutions that recognized wartime sexual violence as a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. In what is now known as the Hillary Doctrine, the United States was also one of the first countries to recognize sexual and gender-based violence as an international security problem.

But this agenda lost momentum under the Trump administration. Trump displayed misogynistic behavior and expanded policies, such as the Mexico City policy—often called the “global gag rule” by critics—that threatened women’s rights. Although Congress passed the first Women, Peace, and Security Act in 2017, Trump undermined its agenda by attempting to abolish the ambassadorship for global women’s issues. When this effort failed, he left the position vacant for almost three years.

Under the Biden administration, women are entering positions of power at an unprecedented rate—but President Joe Biden will need to go further in making gender equality and human rights a strategic priority. Gender equality is not just a domestic issue; it is also a global concern. Biden’s Agenda for Women calls to “Protect and empower women around the world,” but unlike the other goals on the list, it is vague and unspecified. The United States must renew its commitment to, and work to implement, the women, peace, and security agenda.

Gender equality is not just a domestic issue; it is also a global concern.

In making human rights a strategic priority, the State Department should start by bolstering its annual human rights reports so that they are more extensive, detailed, and nuanced. Specifically, reports should record any incidents of sexual violence and harassment. Acts of sexual violence often require distinct policy responses to address survivors’ needs, hold perpetrators accountable and prevent further abuse. By systematically documenting all cases of sexual violence, these reports can help provide the nuance necessary for states, activists, and organizations to combat the issue.

The Biden administration should also increase its funding to international and domestic nongovernmental organizations that focus on addressing human rights. Although the State Department relies on these local organizations to inform its reports, a lack of funding often limits their work.

The State Department’s human rights reports depend on good investigative journalism; therefore, it is also imperative for the United States to support journalists at home and abroad. Human rights advocates and scholars alike depend on this commitment to reporting and facts, and the State Department needs to show both material and ideological support for a free press that holds governments accountable. While social pressures and fear of retaliation often prevent survivors from reporting abuses, an independent press can help bring attention to sexual violence and advocate for the protection of human rights.

Finally, the State Department must work to eliminate biases in its reporting. Washington’s human rights reports often present U.S. allies and foreign aid recipients more favorably than international monitoring organizations do—but this obstructs activists’ efforts to hold these governments accountable and undermines the reports’ credibility. To effectively protect against human rights abuses, Washington should name all potential violators, regardless of if they are allies or foes.

After the Trump administration looked the other way on international human rights abuses while slashing the quality of its annual reports, the Biden administration has inherited a State Department in need of restoration. It is time for Washington to restore and strengthen its commitment to human rights, and once again make the United States a global leader in the campaign to end sexual and gender-based violence.

Robert Nagel is a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. He’s also journal manager at International Peacekeeping and an affiliate at the WomanStats Project. Twitter: @RobertUNagel

Ragnhild Nordas is an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science, a faculty affiliate of the Program in International and Comparative Studies, and a faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research. She is also a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and deputy editor of the Journal of Peace Research. Twitter: @ragnhildnordas