The US State Department’s human rights report for 2017, released Friday, appeared to reflect the Trump administration’s worldview by scaling back on the reporting of women’s issues and choosing not to identify the West Bank or Gaza Strip as territories “occupied” by Israel.
The report did criticize US adversaries including Russia and Iran, but pulled punches when it came to key US allies such as Saudi Arabia.
The report’s introduction singled out political adversaries and pointed to four particular countries: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. The report itself also singled out Russia, emphasizing once again the disconnect between an administration willing to criticize Moscow and President Donald Trump’s reluctance to do so. Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan said the governments of the four countries “violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”
He added that “States that restrict freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly; that allow and commit violence against members of religious, ethnic, and other minority groups; or that undermine the fundamental dignity of persons are morally reprehensible and undermine our interests.”
Allies such as Israel, along with others that have questionable track records, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were not singled out in the introduction.
Like many administrations, the White House has stepped lightly when it comes to allies, but some aspects of the report – particularly its decision not to refer to Palestinian territories as occupied and its care over alleged Saudi torture – seem to mark striking concessions to them.
Critics said the report is the latest indication that the Trump administration is putting human rights on the back burner.
“From the beginning, this administration has sent the message that the United States will no longer prioritize efforts to hold the global community to account for human rights,” Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and governmental relations at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.
“Reports of the omission of key passages pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights, women’s rights and the rights of marginalized populations, combined with the Administration’s deference to known human rights violators like the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, make us skeptical that these reports present a full picture of human rights around the world,” Lin said.
Those concerns surfaced last year, when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came under fire for breaking with tradition and declining to present the report in person when it was issued. More than once while he was in the job he expressed the view that human rights sometimes have to take a back seat to more pragmatic concerns.
While it’s too early to say what sort of emphasis Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo will place on human rights, he tipped his hat to the issue in his April 12 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He told lawmakers that America’s blessings come with a duty to lead. “If we do not lead the calls for democracy, prosperity and human rights around the world, who will?” Pompeo asked. “No other nation is equipped with the same blend of power and principle.”
Notably, this year’s report changes the way women’s reproductive issues are addressed – a move that has concerned some women’s health and human rights advocates.
Breaking with recent tradition, the document highlighted instances of coercive family planning, such as forced abortion, instead of referring to a broader range of reproductive rights including restrictions on access to abortion.
Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Friday that the report “guts the analysis of sexual and reproductive rights, reflecting the Trump administration’s hostility toward these issues.”
“In doing so the administration is undermining a document that has long been relied upon by the Congress, foreign governments and activists alike to assess human rights conditions around the world,” Prasow added. “This is unfortunately only one facet of the administration’s efforts to downplay human rights as an element of US foreign policy.”
Last year, the administration drew similar ire from advocacy groups over its decision to reinstate the so-called Mexico City policy barring nongovernmental organizations that advise women on abortion from receiving US funds.
But the State Department says it is simplifying the report – which is congressionally mandated and intended to document the status of human rights and worker rights in nearly 200 countries and territories – to return to its basic requirements under the law as it was applied prior to the Obama administration, and that it provides additional information on some abbreviated sections in hyperlink form.
“This year, we have sharpened the focus of the report to be more responsive to statutory reporting requirements, and more focused on government action or inaction with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights,” Sullivan told reporters, speaking broadly about the document.
The report, available online and one of the government’s most highly read publications, is broken down by region and country.
The Israel section was notable for a change in its categories. This year’s report removed references to the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied territories.”
Whereas last year the country section was titled “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” this year it is called “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” The report refers, at one point, to the “Israeli-occupied Golan Heights,” but the only place where it refers to Gaza or the West Bank as “occupied” is in a quote.
Here are some highlights of the report.
Saudi Arabia’s abuses included unlawful killings, execution without due process, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention. Saudis lack basic freedoms, including freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement and religion, the report said.
In November, the Saudi government detained approximately 200 government officials, businesspeople and royal family members, ostensibly to investigate allegations of widespread corruption. The report offered odd, soft-pedaled language to describe allegations of torture, saying that, “according to media reports, members of the security forces coerced with relative impunity at least some of the detainees to the point of requiring medical care.”
The report noted that Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure, and cited concerns by the United Nations and rights groups such as Amnesty International that Saudi strikes caused disproportionate collateral damage. Unusually, it paired that observation with a sentence noting that rebels in Yemen have fired missiles into Saudi territory.
The Syria section of the report reads like a catalog of the absolute worst of human behavior.
The regime conducted extrajudicial executions and used rape – including of children – as a weapon of war. It committed massacres, starved its population, “disappeared” and tortured people by the thousands. Prisons are known for sexual violence, life-threatening conditions and the deliberate denial of medical care.
Syria continued to use chemical weapons, including sarin and chlorine, against civilians, and to conduct widespread “barrel bombing” of civilians and residential areas. The government systematically attacked civilian infrastructure, including hospitals.
“Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security forces and elsewhere in the government,” the report said.
Beyond the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its backing for Russian-led forces in Ukraine, where thousands of civilians have died, Russia was identified as a major violator of human rights within its own territory.
The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, life-threatening conditions in prisons, arbitrary arrest and detention, a lack of judicial independence and severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, to name a few.
New laws limit peaceful dissent and curtail the work of opposition politicians and civil society groups. There is “widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government,” the report said.
The government in Chechnya of Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, committed abuses with impunity, including killings, torture, physical abuse and politically motivated abductions. “Virtually none of these abuses was credibly investigated or prosecuted by either the federal government or local Chechen authorities,” the report said.
The description of human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, was a horrifying litany of extrajudicial killings; disappearances; arbitrary arrests and detentions; torture; and political prison camps in which conditions were often life-threatening and included forced and compulsory labor, as well as unfair trials and rigid controls over many aspects of citizen’s lives.
The report also said there have been “numerous reports” that North Korea’s government, which holds three American hostages, committed arbitrary and unlawful killings. Trump is set to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in the next few weeks.
Iran is a violator of rights at home and a driver of destabilization in Syria because of its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and for Hezbollah forces there and in Iraq, the report said.
Iran executes people without fair trials, tortures and arbitrarily detains people, invades their privacy, and restricts the press and all public expressions of dissent against the government.
“The government took few steps to investigate, prosecute, punish, or otherwise hold accountable officials who committed these abuses, many of which were perpetrated as a matter of government policy,” the report said. “Impunity remained pervasive throughout all levels of the government and security forces.”
The report calls out Myanmar’s security forces and local militias for committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority population in 2017.
Those groups, the report notes, “reportedly committed widespread atrocities against Rohingya villagers, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, torture, arbitrary arrest, and burning of tens of thousands of homes and some religious structures and other buildings.”
“We condemn the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Burma and the atrocities committed against them,” Sullivan said in his remarks, referring to the country by its alternate name, “and we are working with partners to address that crisis.”
“Those responsible for the violations, abuses and attacks must be held accountable,” he added.
“Democratic governance and human rights deteriorated dramatically during the year as the result of a campaign of the Maduro administration to consolidate its power,” the State Department said in its report, citing cases of excessive force used against protesters and widespread detentions.
“The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial killings by security forces, including government sponsored ‘colectivos’; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; widespread arbitrary detentions; and political prisoners,” the report states.
The Trump administration has frequently criticized President Nicolas Maduro’s government, threatening further economic sanctions and a potential oil embargo if reforms aren’t implemented.
Venezuela is facing an economic crisis that has led hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring countries.
While the US and Cuba restored diplomatic relations under the Obama administration, the two countries continue to find themselves at odds on a host of issues, including human rights and governance.
This year’s human rights report calls out Cuba for issues including politically motivated detentions, torture and censorship.
The report, which covers developments in 2017, makes no mention of the recent political transition in Cuba.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US was “disappointed that the Cuban government opted to silence independent voices and maintain its repressive monopoly on power, rather than allow its people a meaningful choice through free, fair and competitive elections.”
In addition to singling out China as a force for instability in its preface, the report focuses on the country’s police and judicial system, as well as “significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement.”
In his remarks, Sullivan said, “China continues to spread the worst features of its authoritarian system, including restrictions on activists, civil society, freedom of expression, and the use of arbitrary surveillance.”
“We’re particularly concerned about the efforts of Chinese authorities to eliminate the religious, linguistic and cultural identities of Uyghur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists,” he said, “as well as restrictions on the worship of Christians.”
The US and China have had an unsteady relationship in recent months, with Trump publicly praising Chinese President Xi Jinping, while blasting the country over its trade practices.
“In Turkey, the detention of tens of thousands of individuals including journalists and academics under an ongoing state of emergency has undermined the rule of law there,” Sullivan said in his remarks, referring to a widespread crackdown initiated by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since a failed coup attempt in 2016.
While the US and Turkey retain an important military alliance, their relations have become increasingly frayed as Erdogan has consolidated political power and aligned himself more closely with US foes like Russia and Iran.
The report notes that Turkey “experienced significant political challenges during the year,” but it criticizes widespread arrests, including those of two US mission employees.