State Department’s Human Rights Reports Omit US Involvement in Abuses Abroad
OVERVIEW This year’s report opens with a forthright assessment of the important work by individual and groups that are human rights defenders. That acknowledgement is a positive development in itself. But there are clear and troubling gaps in this report, as we outline below. As in years past, the U.S. government has rightly identified and criticized countries for their repression of human rights activists, but this in many instances only serves to highlight how U.S. government policies fail to follow through on this commitment in practice. There is no mention of the numerous ongoing investigations into the role of many countries in sending people to countries where they are at risk of torture. Italy, for example, just indicted Italian and U.S. officials for their role in the abduction and transfer of an Egyptian cleric to Egypt where he was allegedly tortured. But the reports make no mention of the allegations or the indictment. “This is a disappointment,” said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First. “In addition, the reports fail to reference the significant role the U.S. plays in detention operations in both Afghanistan and in Iraq. In Iraq, for example, almost one-half of all persons detained there are held by U.S.-led Multi-National Forces without due process.” Massimino added: “Several years ago, the State Department instructed drafters of the reports not to include actions taken at the request of the United States. That instruction was later withdrawn, but the repeated absence of reporting on abuses in which the United States is implicated raises questions about whether the instruction to ignore actions encouraged or directed by the United States continues to skew reporting.” PRINCIPLES FOR NGO’s The U.S. government launched several valuable initiatives to support the work of human rights defenders during 2006. In particular, the Guiding Principles on Non-Governmental Organizations, announced by Secretary Rice in December, set forth core principles to guide the U.S. governments own treatment of NGOs, and to assess the actions of other governments. This is a critical matter in places like Russia, where domestic NGOs have been harassed and even closed for political reasons. Perhaps the most striking example of a retreat from principles is in the Middle East and North Africa region, especially with respect to traditional U.S. allies in the Arab world. In Egypt, for Secretary Rice’s ringing call for an end to emergency rule and arbitrary justice that she made in Cairo in June 2005 was not echoed last year. Instead, direct reference to continuing and worsening human rights violations in Egypt, including restrictions on human rights defenders, have been absent from high-level public exchanges between the two governments. In such circumstances, vulnerable human rights defenders in Egypt, or elsewhere in the Arab world, do not feel supported by U.S. policies. AFGHANISTAN The Report on Afghanistan omits any reference to the detention and interrogation activities of the United States in the country.The United States operates numerous detention facilities in Afghanistan, holding approximately 600 detainees throughout the country.These facilities range from those whose official existence is unacknowledged to those where the existence of the facility is acknowledged but very little else is known, particularly the nature of the legal status and rights of those held. In addition to the detention facility at Bagram Air Force Base, there exist a number of field facilities or transient facilities run by the United States scattered throughout Afghanistan.Little is known about these facilities, including exactly how many exist, where they are located, how many individuals are held, and the legal status and rights of those detained.The Country Report omits any discussion of these U.S.-run detention facilities. While the Country Report notes that organizations have “reported the presence of secret or unofficial prisons through 2005,” it fails to mention that many such reports implicated the United States. COLOMBIA This section provides an example of a country where the reports themselves appear to fall short of the NGO Principles. The report fails to recognize explicitly the existence of political prisoners in Colombia, including wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders like Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango. Colombian human rights defenders have told us that their greatest need is for a political environment that is supportive of their work. The NGP Guiding Principles also require that human rights defenders be permitted to work free from harassment or intimidation. Yet public statements by President Uribe and other senior government members are contributing to a climate of increased danger for Colombian human rights activists. Remarks made February 3 in which Uribe said some members of the political opposition were “terrorists in business suits” promoted a series of death threats against Colombian human rights organizations by re-grouped paramilitaries. EGYPT This year’s report on Egypt has a subtle but telling change in language on disappearances. The 2005 report talked about “no new cases of disappearance during the year.” The 2006 report amends that to read: “no reports of politically motivated cases of disappearance.” This troubling new qualification suggests a shift in focus to a narrower scope of disappearances. There is no acknowledgment of disappearance of persons rendered to Egypt by the U.S. We welcome the inclusion of the new allegations of sleep deprivation and forcing detainees to watch others being tortured. Some of these techniques are similar or identical to those used by U.S. The new report also notes that under Emergency Law, prolonged incommunicado detention is authorized and that allegations of torture frequently accompany detentions under this law. Incidents of arrest without charge or trial are cited, including “Islamic extremists,” as well as a “culture of impunity” for human rights abusers among police/security apparatus. Civilians may be referred to military courts, and there is no mention of lack of independence of emergency and military courts. INDONESIA While noting incidents of police torture and arbitrary detention more broadly, the report fails to mention that a U.S.-supported police anti-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, has been credibly accused of both practices in East Java and Central Sulawesi. Possibly due to a question of definition, the section on political prisoners does not mention the case of 18 Papuans imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs, such as through flag-raisings. The report describes the existence of the bilateral Truth and Friendship Commission established by East Timor and Indonesia to address human rights abuses in 1999, but does not note the significant flaws in its mandate. The commission cannot recommend prosecution but can propose amnesties, and requires victims to support such amnesties in order to be eligible for reparations. The result is a body slanted towards the interests of perpetrators. In fact, the Indonesian Supreme Court struck down an Indonesian law on its domestic Truth and Reconciliation Commission due to similar flaws (and not just because of the reason highlighted by the report, the delay in appointing commissioners). The report also does not mention East Timor’s own truth commission, which produced a comprehensive 2,500 page report and formally presented it to the U.S. and other governments, with no official response. IRAQ The State Department’s Country Report on Iraq omits any reference to the detention and interrogation activities of the United States in the country, providing a count of only noncoalition force detainees.The United States runs numerous Multi-National Force detention facilities in Iraq, holding approximately 14,000 detainees (as of October 2006) throughout the country. Thousands of detainees have been held in U.S.-led Multi-Nation Force detention facilities without charges or trials and without any meaningful process by which to challenge their detention. The United States continues to transfer detainees from its custody in Iraq to Iraqi authorities, despite detailed reports of torture and abuse of detainees by Iraqi authorities documented in the State Department’s Country Report on Iraq. MOROCCO This year’s report repeats language from 2005 citing “No reports of politically motivated disappearances.” Police are permitted to hold detainees without charge. The report notes that denial of access to counsel or family members during initial detention is when most torture/abuse “was most likely to occur.” This years’ report repeats language from 2005 citing “No reports of politically motivated disappearances.” Police are permitted to hold detainees without charge. The report notes that denial of access to counsel or family members during initial detention is when most torture/abuse “was most likely to occur.” The report also notes that the courts are subject to extrajudicial pressures. Under the rubric “Denial of Fair, Public Trial,” it is noted that at the discretion of government, state security cases may be brought to tribunals under Ministry of Interior authority. POLAND In November 2005, human rights groups and the media reported on the existence of secret detention and interrogation centers in Eastern Europe, including Poland.Since that time, Poland has failed to conduct an official inquiry flowing from these reports.Despite the uncertainty as to whether the facility was in use in 2006, the Country Report makes no mention of the numerous investigations discussing its existence and the responsibility of Poland to investigate these reports. ROMANIA Following a November 2005 Washington Post article indicating that the CIA operated detention facilities in Eastern Europe, human rights groups reported the possibility of the U.S. operating a facility in Romania.A leaked fax from Egypt’s Foreign Ministry to the Egyptian Embassy in London reported that “23 Iraqis and Afghans were interrogated at the Mikhail Kogalniceau base at Constanza, on the Black Sea.” Despite the uncertainty as to whether the facility was in use in 2006, the Country Report makes no mention of the numerous investigations discussing its existence and the responsibility of Romania to investigate these reports.