The State Department’s Human Rights Assessment—Only a U.S. Perspective

In what could be seen as an effort to respond to the March 11, 2009 edition of the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights, Ecuador has promised to publish its own human rights counter-report. This initiative is meant to assess Washington’s own respect for human rights from an outside perspective and is meant to be a necessary response to the State Department’s often imprudent document. Also, the very next day, March 12, China published “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2009.” At the least, this flap indicates that the report released by the U.S. has been suffering from a generalized lack of legitimacy, not only in the Latin-American region but also throughout the world. Egypt, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and China are only a few of the countries that have taken some form of exception to the U.S. global evaluation.* The underlying thrust of this general rejection by a number of countries is that Washington should not have unilaterally assumed a condemnatory role regarding the subject because the U.S. tends to be selectively indignant when it comes to its own policies toward the allegedly offending nation.

The Department of State’s Duty

On March 11, 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the traditional briefing in Washington D.C. in order to formally present the 34th edition of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that reviews human rights conditions from 2009 in more than 190 countries. Clinton affirmed that her Department’s reports provide “the most comprehensive record available of the condition of human rights around the world.” Likewise, on March 2, 2010, Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Department of State, declared that reports prepared by non-governmental organizations “[…] are invaluable, but they don’t have the same scope or breadth as what the State Department does. We report on 194 countries in the world.” However, the notable absence of an examination of its own human rights’ practices, to a large extent, brought on the rejection of its integrity by a number of the countries that the U.S. had condemned. Secretary Clinton asserted that “[h]uman rights are universal, but their experience is local. This is why we are committed to holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves.”

The U.S. Secretary of State continued by noting that under the watchful eye of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Washington is undergoing the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Nevertheless, the world will have to wait for its results as Washington’s UPR session is scheduled to take place fall of 2010. Until then, critical assessments are likely to be made by other countries that had been negatively evaluated by U.S. authorities.

The 2009 Report

The last U.S. human rights self-review was officially released by the Department of State in 2006; however, the rest of the world has been consistently screened for the entire period, with no gaps. The current 2009 Report again is an extensive evaluation of 194 countries that includes a brief overview of each and 7 sections regarding human rights violations. Foreseeing what could be a rancorous reaction to its absence in the report, the State Department declared in its introduction to the 2009 Report that in fact, “the U.S. Government reports on and assesses [its] own human rights record in many other fora pursuant to [their] treaty obligations,” as they will need to for the International Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Still, it is not a fair comparison. First, these reports are not publicized in the same way the Department of State publicizes the rest of the country reports; and second, the U.S. conducts its own assessment, while the rest of the countries are measured by foreign standards and subject to a superpower whose democratic ideas have, at times, been wanting.

World and Latin American Reactions

Even though the U.S. Department of State explains that “[i]n the early 1970s [it] formalized its responsibility to speak out on behalf of international human rights standards,” there are many countries that believe that this duty that has to be carried out by international organizations, rather than by states or governments that are not necessarily divorced from their own self-perceived national interests. According to the State Department’s 2009 Report, this was a year with “serious human rights violations.” The group of countries that were categorized as “human rights violators” include Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, China, Cuba, Colombia, Iran, DPRK, Venezuela, Vietnam, Egypt and even Switzerland, regarding Bern’s initiative to ban minarets, among others.

Ecuador Promises a Counter-Report

As aforementioned, different countries, specifically several in the Latin American region, have backed up the rejection of the bona fides of Washington’s report; these countries include Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba and Ecuador. The latter rejected Washington’s findings on March 19, 2010 when Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ricardo Patiño made the Ecuadorian government’s rejection public at the United Nations Office in Geneva, saying that the U.S. reports are “unilateral and biased.” Its representatives maintained that the United States has a complex of being the world gendarme but continues to overlook its own wrongdoings. Patiño affirmed that “it is not acceptable that one state unilaterally becomes the world judge regarding human rights,” when this is the duty of multilateral organizations. Therefore, Ecuador reaffirmed its support for the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Reviews as the only suitable and equitable mechanism recognized by the international community to evaluate human rights performance in every nation. At the same time, as reported by Telesur, the Foreign Relations Ministry said that Ecuadorians considered that any human rights report coming from a state, rather than an international body, is bound to be illegitimate and invalid. For these reasons and in perhaps a petulant move, Quito decided to prepare a counter-report. President Rafael Correa has personally asked his Foreign Minister, Chancellor Patiño to start working on a report regarding United States’ human rights abuses which, according to Correa, could seriously compromise the U.S.’ image as a guarantor for the freedom of speech and the right of expression.

Quito’s Laundry List

The countries that have rejected this human rights report have done it mainly for the same reason: inherent illegitimacy. In the case of Egypt, a country that is accused of having a “poor respect for human rights,” Mohamed Faeq, head of the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) said that they are not going to”[…] pay much attention to such report, as local reports from the NCHR, civil societies and international, Arab and African mechanisms concerned outweigh such [a] report.” Similarly, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry declared that “[t]he U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Reports 2009 once again made partial remarks based on untrue information about the real situation in Vietnam” and that the international community has actually acknowledged and lauded the Asian country’s achievements regarding the subject. In the same way, Cuba called the U.S. a major human rights violator and emphasized the fact that an evaluation of the U.S. was missing in the 2009 Report.

China not only rejected this report, but also published its own “Human Rights Record of the United States” that analyzes only Washington’s 2009 performance in this area. It contains extensive research regarding the nation’s human rights conditions and includes topics such as the maintenance and consequences of the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba, as well as the lack of political commitment the U.S. has shown through the non-ratification of certain international conventions, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, among others. In essence, the Beijing-authored document asserts that the U.S. “[…] releases Country Reports on Human Rights Practices year after year to accuse other countries and takes human rights as a political instrument to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, defame other nations’ image and seek its own strategic interests.”

A Double Rejection from Venezuela

The highly regarded Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Álvarez, has rejected the human rights report coming from the United States on the same basis of its “political nature” that China objected to and also because it only “attacks countries that have political differences with the U.S.” The U.S. report informs that the politicization of the Venezuelan judiciary system and the intimidation of the political opposition to the media intensified during the past year. The Venezuelan government has seen this as a setback in the bilateral relations that the Obama administration started to improve by exchanging ambassadors once again, 9 months after having removed them. Caracas continued to affirm that if the U.S. persists with these reports, bilateral relations among both states will be weakened due to the lack of respect for international law principles, such as the principle of non-interference.

On the other hand, the Venezuelan government has also been busy responding to the findings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Report called “Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela.” According to the 2010 press release from the IACHR, Venezuela has displayed “political intolerance, lack of independence of the branches of the State in dealing with the executive, constraints on freedom of expression, the existence of a climate hostile to the free exercise of dissenting political participation […] and, above all, the prevailing impunity affecting cases of human rights violations […].” In essence, the 2010 IACHR release, in rather strong language, condemned the violation of political and civil rights, but acknowledged Venezuela’s improvements regarding its conduct relating to economic, social and cultural rights. However, in the same press release the Commission “[…] emphasize[d] that observance of other fundamental rights cannot be sacrificed for the sake of realizing economic, social, and cultural rights in Venezuela.”

In light of this, President Hugo Chávez withdrew his country from the IACHR, claiming that it is a “politicized body” that serves the “empire.” With this action, Chávez passed up the opportunity to show his political will toward the protection of human rights. He declared the report “biased” because the IACHR is linked to the OAS. Accordingly, the Minister of Foreign Relations of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, alleged that the IACHR’s report was reacting to political pressure coming from Washington and that it intervenes in his country’s domestic affairs. In response to Venezuela’s dismissal of the OAS body as being partial and yielding to the U.S. influence, the IACHR proclaims to “[…] act independently, without representing any particular country” and has done reports on a variety of countries, including Colombia in 2006, Chile in 2009, and one regarding the closure of Guantánamo in 2006. Moreover, as the IACHR was not allowed to enter the country for further research for the report, the sources that the Commission used are suspect.

Yet, as Venezuelan society becomes even more politically polarized, there are two clear positions regarding the report. The first one is that it is well-grounded and that in fact, there is violence being applied against the opposition, as well as violations of the right to freedom of speech and laws (like the RESORTE Law-the law on social responsibility on radio and television) that are incompatible with international law principles. Concerning the sources of the IACHR, Carlos Correa of the non-governmental civil association Espacio Público insists that the majority of them are official. His voice represents one side of the divided society. The other sources are the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence and the testimonies from different actors, or, as Correa calls them, the “victims” of the regime. Likewise, human rights activist Liliana Ortega from the human rights-oriented NGO body COFAVIC agrees with the report’s conclusion because it evidences what she calls the two transversal axes that are present in the current superheated Venezuelan society: impunity and violence. She continues to say that there is an arbitrary administration of justice along with many other social illnesses such as an exceptionally high child and adolescent death rate per month, cases of severe jailhouse violence, as well as disappearances and kidnappings all over the country. These issues revealed the need for a document that would hold the government accountable both for violence and continued impunity throughout the country.

On the other hand, a contrary position argues that the report is in fact biased. For instance, Alfredo Ruiz from the Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz, a Venezuelan human rights organization, is skeptical in regards to the sources of the report. Ruiz affirms that the sources were carefully selected and that a particular source was chosen to report on a particular human right, showing a lack of objectivity. He says that the sources used by the OAS body to report on political and civil rights came from the opposition and that it does not cite any pro-government newspaper information on the alleged incriminatory incident. Therefore, Ruiz asserts that the report gives preeminence to civil and political rights over other factors, especially over economic, social and cultural rights. Actually, the 297 page-long report dedicates as much as 240 pages to what the IACHR calls fundamental civil and political rights, 17 pages to the introduction, conclusion and recommendation sections and only 40 pages to the economic, social and cultural rights section. Similarly, Mark Weisbrot, the co-head of Center for Economic and Policy Research sustains that the bias of the report is explicit, since its introduction states that “[t]he Commission’s last visit to Venezuela took place in May 2002, following the institutional breakdown that occurred in April of that year.” Thus, the prejudices of the document, in Weisbrot’s opinion, render it illegitimate.

The Politicization of Human Rights

The number of scathing attacks of the U.S. Department of State’s 2009 Human Rights Report has given some credence to the charge that the role taken on by the United States is not without issue. A human rights assessment by one country of another lacks credibility as the assessor is seen as an accuser rather than an unbiased judge. Most nations’ leaders have come to prefer reports prepared by human rights organizations or multilateral forums and institutions, rather than those prepared by contending countries. Those conducted by human rights organizations are specifically designed to evaluate human rights conditions, while those prepared by individual countries are more likely to also have ulterior political motives. However, as it has been sometimes seen, international organizations, such as the IACHR, can also be regarded as significantly politicized and thus of flawed legitimacy, like in the Venezuelan case. It is for these reasons that the non-intervention principle so often prevails in international affairs. Still, the traditional U.S. lack of interest in the ever treasured concept of sovereignty unsurprisingly has remained a part of its foreign policy, despite the change of administration.

Lastly, it can be inferred that in view of the hostile responses, the spat over human rights may have been a contributing factor to the decision of Arturo Valenzuela—Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs—to travel, leaving on April 4 for a week-long trip to Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. Both Ecuador and Colombia have rejected the report, the latter claiming that the information used to compose it was false. According to the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, in Valenzuela’s visit to the Palacio de Carondelet in Quito, he and Correa addressed 4 main topics: Ecuador-Iran relations, the bilateral commercial agenda, the status of the right to freedom of speech in Ecuador and a possible Correa-Obama meeting to explore not only a bilateral agenda between the two countries but also to define an UNASUR-U.S. agenda. However, the human rights counter-report topic was missing from the program, perhaps contributing to Correa’s description of the meeting as “fruitful,” Patiño’s “positive” comments and Valenzuela’s affirmation that the meeting consisted of a “pleasant and respectful” dialogue. It safely can be assumed that the promised issuance of a human rights counter-report possibly will be delayed for strategic reasons until Correa secures a meeting with Obama to advance national and UNASUR-related topics.

*Additional countries are: Liberia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Russia, Iran, Slovakia, Sudan.