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UN: NGOs Await U.S. Human Rights Report But Want More Action

  • Robert McMahon

The United States today (26 February) releases its annual human rights report assessing conditions in 194 countries during the year 2000. The world's leading human rights organizations regard it as a thorough and fair report but say it does not play a big enough role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. RFE/RL's Robert McMahon talked with human rights activists ahead of the release of the 25th anniversary report.

New York, 26 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-five years after the U.S. Congress first asked the government to report on human rights in the world, the annual State Department human rights survey has grown in size and importance.

It is closely read in world capitals and by non-governmental organizations, and despite occasional criticism is widely regarded as comprehensive and fair. The State Department says the report has become the most heavily demanded foreign policy document the U.S. government produces.

But some independent human rights experts told our correspondent in interviews last week that despite the quality of the reports, they do not play a big enough role in influencing U.S. foreign policy.

Last year, for example, the State Department report alleged that Russian security forces had killed civilians in Chechnya through the use of indiscriminate force.

That report was followed weeks later by the passage of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva calling on Russia to investigate abuses by its military in Chechnya. Russia has failed to act on the charges and the United States has not sought to make Chechnya a major issue when dealing with Russia.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tells RFE/RL he hopes this year's report again highlights conditions in Chechnya. Roth says his organization, which has reported extensive human rights abuses by Russian forces in Chechnya, will look to see whether U.S. policy on the conflict changes under a new presidential administration.

"We will certainly be looking at the country reports to make sure they accurately describe both Russian and Chechen abuses in Chechnya. But the second concern and really the primary concern is, will this description -- which hopefully will be accurate -- will this description inform U.S. policy and make it more muscular when it comes to upholding human rights? Will human rights be a more significant part of U.S. policy toward Moscow then it has been under the Clinton administration?"

Roth expresses concern that the administration of President George W. Bush will choose not to make an issue of human rights abuses in Chechnya because of its desire to engage Russia in other areas, such as national missile defense.

Roth and other specialists say the problem is that human rights are often outweighed by strategic concerns or economic matters deemed more important by U.S. policy makers.

Carlos Salinas, acting director of government relations for Amnesty International, agrees. The U.S. government was willing to overlook human rights abuses by some governments during the Cold War, he says, because of the larger objective of opposing communist expansion.

In post-Cold War times, he says, human rights do not always carry the same weight in U.S. foreign policy as do economic interests or even fighting drug traffickers.

"Rhetorically, human rights has firmly entrenched itself in terms of foreign policy, but where it's still weak is that it is still considered a bit of a soft issue. So while anti-communism is no longer trumping human rights, counter-narcotics considerations trump human rights, trade trumps human rights, issues of economic globalization and integration trump human rights."

The U.S. government has also faced criticism in recent years for failing to press human rights reforms in energy-rich former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan.

But in the case of Azerbaijan, State Department officials say U.S. pressure last year helped reverse a crackdown on religious minorities. They say many religious groups have in the last year been allowed to register for the first time in Azerbaijan after President Heidar Aliyev intervened personally.

The annual U.S. human rights report is based on the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The report was initially mandated by an act of the U.S. Congress, which required the government to compile a complete human rights profile of countries expected to receive U.S. security assistance.

In the early years, the report included information on areas such as respect for freedom of speech, press and religion, and respect for individual integrity of the person, which included torture and arbitrary arrest.

Through the years, the report has been expanded to cover areas such as discrimination based on race, sex and language and violation of human rights in internal conflicts. In 1993, the discrimination section was expanded to include discussion of the rights of women and children.

The report is compiled through the contributions of U.S. embassies, which gather information on human rights developments throughout the year in their respective countries. A draft is then sent to the State Department, where staff in Washington produce the final version, often after consulting with groups outside the government such as Amnesty International.

Arch Puddington, the vice president for research at New York-based Freedom House, says that the State Department's reports provide a nice complement to annual reports of other rights organizations. Puddington says that, collectively, the reports of his organization, the U.S. government and groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Transparency International help to keep the spotlight on issues ranging from human rights abuses to corruption.

"They all have a role to play, and they're constantly cited and they sort of reinforce each other. [If] a country has a serious human rights problem, you're going to have a lot of these monitoring groups that are going to be pointing up the problems."

Roth of Human Rights Watch says it is important to note that the U.S. report adheres to international conventions that a majority of the world's countries are legally committed to obeying.

"This is not an imposition of foreign values, this is the upholding of international values. It's not an interference in a government's internal affairs -- an old Soviet line -- it rather is doing what every government accepts by adopting international human rights treaties. That is to say it opens itself up to international scrutiny of its human rights practices."

But Roth said the reports usually amount to a one-time statement of concern. He said one way Washington could balance both economic and human rights interests would be to follow an approach used by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Angola. The two financial bodies have imposed a transparency regime there that channels funds to humanitarian sectors and not to sectors contributing to the civil war.

Roth suggested the United States could impose a similar regime on some Caspian Sea states. He says that would ensure U.S. funds go directly to support the basic needs of the people in such countries as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan.