State Department Country Reports Reflect Progress, Show Need for Additional Steps to Protect Human Rights

Washington, D.C. The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2009, released today, comes at a time when human rights activists around the world are looking to the Obama Administration for leadership in promoting human rights internationally. Human Rights First urges the Obama Administration to use these reports as a tool to promote human rights abroad and as a reminder of the importance of leading by example here at home.

“The Obama administration has rightly set a high bar for the United States on human rights by declaring that its efforts to promote human rights abroad should be judged on results not rhetoric,” said Human Rights First President and Chief Executive Officer Elisa Massimino. “The Country Reports released today give a clear picture of the serious human rights abuses that persist in nations around the globe and demonstrate the urgent need for U.S. leadership to identify and implement pragmatic solutions to these problems.”

International expectations for strengthened U.S. human rights leadership were raised by President Obama’s election. His subsequent speeches in Cairo, Accra, Moscow and on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo have further raised this bar. At the same time, human rights conditions are deteriorating throughout the world and basic freedoms are under attack in many countries and in international organizations.  The State Department’s Country Reports highlight these disturbing trends and point to the magnitude of the challenge facing the U.S. government in implementing policies designed to promote human rights and democracy.

In response to today’s Reports, Human Rights First made the following observations and recommendations:

  • The Obama Administration should deliver to foreign governments a consistent message on human rights across all areas of bilateral relationships. Activists from countries with poor human rights records that have important strategic relationships with the United States including China, Russia or Egypt, nations that all have extensive human rights problems described in today’s Reports have urged the administration to not sacrifice or downplay human rights concerns in hopes of achieving better bilateral relations with these strategic partners.  They note that in order to give bilateral discussions about these human rights problems greater credibility, independent activists should be included in such dialogues, and the desired improvements and results should be transparent.
  • U.S. embassies, missions and other diplomatic representatives should build strong relationships with human rights defenders. The Reports note that there is a global trend towards greater intolerance of independent human rights organizations in many countries.  The U.S. government should be developing effective strategies to reverse that trend. Moving forward, another practical measure the U.S. government should take is to strengthen the U.S. Guiding Principles on Non-Governmental Organizations, issued by the State Department in 2006. The administration could achieve this important goal by developing these principles into action guidelines for U.S. embassies, missions and other diplomatic representatives who are in a position to build relationships with human rights defenders on the ground and to show sustained support for their efforts.
  • U.S. Embassies and missions should develop plans of action for supporting the open use of communications technology by independent civil society organizations, media and human rights defenders. The Country Reports provide excellent data from which U.S. representatives can work with foreign governments to produce measurable progress in specific areas.  The Reports should be used as a framework for country and issue specific strategies for measurable human rights progress.  In countries where freedom of expression is curtailed, U.S. Embassies and missions should develop plans of action for supporting the open use of communications technology by independent civil society organizations, media and human rights defenders. This would include convening regular meetings and building relationships with human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers in order to show support and to remain engaged. These meetings would also give the United States the opportunity to monitor repressive government actions against human rights defenders. U.S. Embassies can also help by bringing together civil society activists, bloggers and others with technology companies operating in their countries.
  • U.S. government departments and agencies should transmit a consistent message to foreign governments and to the private sector on protecting Internet freedom. This year’s Country Reports focus specifically on issues related to the Internet and other communications technologies. The U.S. government should follow through on its promises to make Internet freedom a global priority.  It will be especially important to ensure that the various U.S. government departments and agencies transmit a consistent message to foreign governments and to the private sector on protecting Internet freedom. It is also important for the Secretary of State to work with foreign government allies toward consensus on key terms and objectives with respect to Internet freedom, freedom of expression and privacy.
  • The U.S. government should support the participation of independent non-governmental activists in regional and sub-regional human rights mechanisms. U.S. human rights promotion policies should also make greater use of regional and sub-regional human rights mechanisms.  Through its diplomacy and foreign assistance programs the U.S. government should support the participation of independent non-governmental activists in such mechanisms, which will increase their effectiveness as bodies that encourage governments to improve their human rights practices. New democracies, especially influential regional leaders like Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia need to do more to support human rights principles at the United Nations and in other international bodies.  The U.S. government should call for greater cooperation in human rights promotion from its allies, and should look to local civil society organizations to be urging their governments to stand up for universal standards.
  • The U.S. government should take a closer look at nations that enable the commission of mass atrocities. Next year’s country reports should be expanded to cover a specific, critical topic mentioned by Congress in the act creating these reports: the “commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and evidence of acts that may constitute genocide.” Reporting not only on countries that perpetrate mass atrocities, but also those that support or otherwise enable the commission of atrocities by other states, would significantly further the efforts of the U.S. government and others around the world to ensure that such heinous crimes finally do come to an end.

At a Human Rights Summit held last month in Washington D.C., leading human rights activists from more than 20 countries met with President Obama and urged him to implement practical policies to support the work of local human rights activists around the world as a way of halting the erosion of basic freedoms. The recommendations above reflect many of the concerns and proposed solutions these human rights defenders shared with President Obama.

“The coming year is a critical time in the fight for global human rights. I hope that next year, when the Country Reports for 2010 are issued, the U.S. government will be able to point to specific improvements around the world that can be attributed to improved U.S. support, encouragement and leadership,” added Massimino.  “These improvements are not only in the best interest of advancing human rights and protection freedom around the world, but they will also strengthen America’s national security and further restore our nation’s place as a global leader in human rights.”


Published on March 11, 2010


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