Global Human Rights: The Conundrum

March 26, 2019 Updated: March 26, 2019

The annual Department of State Human Rights Report (HRR) is a somewhat erratic harbinger of spring.  Officially designated the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices—2018,” the report, mandated by Congress, is technically due for delivery to the Hill by Feb. 25.  Such date, however, has been more honored in the breach than in precise chronological adherence.

The HRR is disingenuously portrayed as a technical exercise addressing a panoply of human rights activities and violations in roughly 200 countries and territories, identifying abuses without fear or favor, regardless of violators being allies or opponents.

It is, however, essentially a political document designed to make U.S. foreign policy points while burnishing our human rights credentials.  From its inception in 1976 (now one of the last legacies of Jimmy Carter’s administration), when it covered 82 countries in 286 pages, it has monster-morphed into a roughly 6,000 page opus, spinning off, over the decades, separate extensive studies on religious freedom and trafficking in persons, now only passingly reviewed in the official HRR.

Unsurprisingly, different administrations have placed different emphasis on countries abusing human rights and the types of abuse worthy of identifying (“naming and shaming”).  Such policy is particularly fraught when one administration succeeds another with substantially different human rights views and objectives.

The HRR presentation has been at the whim of the Secretary of State, who has to carve out 15 minutes of schedule time when facing primary imperatives, e.g., traveling and/or negotiating.  Consequently, its formal presentation has often wobbled into the beginning of spring, “March Madness,” the opening of the baseball season, and hockey playoffs.

The delay and manipulation of HRR “roll out” timing was particularly blatant for the 2016 document.  Unable to substantially redraft all elements of the Obama-administration concepts, the Trump administration chose to release it on a Friday afternoon, without the traditional statement and official press conference briefing.  When asked about the procedural change, the response was simply, “the report speaks for itself.”

However, this year’s HRR, released on March 13, was traditional.  Indeed, given that substantial elements of the U.S. government, including the Department of State, were closed for five weeks, it can almost be considered as delivered on time.

Secretary of State Pompeo provided brief introductory remarks extolling “self-evident truths” epitomized in the U.S. constitution, which have evolved “across the world as human rights.”  Pompeo singled out Iran’s “pattern of cruelty” to its people, South Sudan’s sexual violence against civilians, and Nicaraguan repression of peaceful protestors.  He excoriated China as “in a league of its own” by imprisoning upwards of a million Uyghurs and other minorities in “reeducation camps.”

The Secretary took no questions, instead tossing the baton to the senior State Department official addressing human rights, who wiggled through conundrums such as the legal nomenclature for territory controlled by Israel, responsibility for killing Jamal Khashoggi (without specifying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), and whether North Korean human rights abuses were still “egregious.”

Noise Drowns Out the HRR 

As is almost always the case, the HRR release was all but subsumed by higher profile foreign and domestic events:  the Boeing 737-MAX8 crashes; the British BREXIT debate/crisis; the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand; the grinding effort to remove Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro; and high level bribery to accord rich students entry to elite U.S. universities.

Consequently, attention was minimal, but probably greater than in previous years as the “back to the future” Chinese incarceration of hundreds of thousands of minorities/dissidents has grown too poignant to ignore.  Likewise, the mosque massacre in Christchurch has stimulated debate over weapons ownership—regardless of political ideology.

Nevertheless, human rights remain secondary, if not tertiary, for U.S. foreign policy.  Washington will not hew to an Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch agenda, which demands a League of Women Voters attitude toward unpleasantness and would happily jettison foreign policy “babies” with human rights abuses “bathwater.”

Saudi institutional stability, economic resources, and regional balance against Iran are more important than Khashoggi.  Achieving a modernized trade agreement and deconflicting confrontation in the South China Sea with China outweighs Beijing’s repression of minorities.

Revised arms control agreements with Russia, securing Ukraine political independence, and creating Syrian stability are more important than Putin’s repression of democratic dissidents.  And, reducing tension on the Korean peninsula, notably by neutering Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear threat, is more important than whether Kim Jong-un knew about Otto Warmbier’s torture and death.

These are less “hard choices” than pragmatic ones; we are not the first, and will not be the last, to sacrifice principle for performance.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones