Washington, 25 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Even though the collapse of communism in Europe and the former Soviet Union eased East-West tensions over the issue of human rights, independent rights monitors say the U.S. State Department's annual reports on human rights around the world are as valuable as ever.
On Friday (Feb. 26), the State Department is making public its reports on the state of human rights in almost 200 countries. This will be the 22nd consecutive year that the department has issued the reports.
According to some experts from non-profit human rights organizations, the State Department reports are regarded as credible portrayals of how individual governments treat their citizens.
Arch Puddington, the Vice President for Research at the New York-based Freedom House, told RFE/RL that his organization puts a high value on the U.S. reports.
"We find the country reports in the State Department survey to be quite accurate, comprehensive and very thorough."
And Lin Neumann of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the State Department reports help non-governmental agencies prepare their own case files on human rights concerns.
In an RFE/RL interview, he said:
"I think the whole process is very valuable. The reports themselves for us are a valuable benchmark in terms of the situation in a lot of different countries, and they also provide an opportunity for us to interact with the State Department as the reports are being prepared."
In releasing last year's reports, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said the documents were "the product of tens of thousands of hours of hard work, observation, collection of data, analysis and careful drafting and very clear-headed thinking."
The reports are prepared by State Department experts working from U.S. embassies and consulates all over the world. The individual reports are reviewed, corroborated and edited by the department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor before they are sent to the U.S. Congress.
Congress passed a law in 1974 requiring annual reports "regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights." According to the State Department, the first reports in 1977 covered only those countries that received U.S. economic assistance. Today, 194 reports are submitted.
Michael Jendrzejczyk of the international rights advocate known as Human Rights Watch have improved in quality since the late 1970s to the point where, he told RFE/RL, that they have become "a valuable barometer," of human rights trends and developments.
The former head of the State Department's rights bureau, Ambassador John Shattuck, said the standards used to measure progress "are the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." He said those principles "are universal in nature; they apply to everyone, and all governments are responsible for upholding them."
Shattuck said the country reports "are the tool to ensure that human rights concerns are taken into account in all US relationships; to alert us to dangerous trends; to spotlight abuses; and to provide a yardstick to show progress."
While the independent rights monitors generally welcome the State Department reports, they contend that there is room for improvement.
Jendrzejczyk, for example, says he believes there is often a gap between what is stated in the reports for some countries and the actual implementation of U.S. policies. He contended that, for countries with which the U.S. has close economic and security ties -- such as some Middle Eastern nations, Turkey and China -- the U.S. will downplay rights abuses, despite whatever blunt language may be used in the country reports.
Puddington said he questions what he called the department's tendency to divide up human rights along gender and ethnic lines rather than viewing human rights through the prism of the entire society.
However, he also said that, in the case of China and other totalitarian societies:
"I think it's important that there is an arm of the government that will issue a blunt, honest assessment of the state of human rights in China so that at least you've got one division of the government saying 'China is doing this to its workers; it's discriminating against people who want to have more than one child,' and various other things, when our President and Secretary of State and other high officials either choose to ignore those things or feel that it is simply prudent to do because of the needs of diplomacy."
The CPJ's Neumann said he sometimes considers the State Department reports to be too moderate when it comes to some human rights violators. But he also said the rights reports are an important tool in the arsenal of diplomacy and something that people in oppressed societies look forward to.
"I do think that the pressure that the United States government brings to bear, in part through the country reports, and through other means, can be a very important way for the United States to raise the issue of human rights with various countries. I think it's an issue that the United States has an obligation to raise, and which does get the attention of the offending country sometimes."