For Immediate Release: February 25, 2009
New York, NY – The release today of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices follows a number of positive steps taken by the Obama administration to begin to remedy the United States’ own human rights violations, particularly regarding torture and detention. Preliminary improvements to these practices, which had seriously compromised the promotion of human rights abroad, provide a brighter context for this year’s reports, said a leading human rights group.
“The new Obama administration has been quick to identify one of the United States’ primary challenges in promoting human rights abroad – the damage done to its credibility over the past eight years,” said Elisa Massimino, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights First. “President Obama has made it a point to reassure the world that the United States will uphold basic human rights principles, as the basis for making clear our expectations that other governments will do the same.”
Echoing this sentiment, the report’s introduction states that the United States is “inalterably committed to working at all levels - national, regional, and global - to ensure that the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are protected and respected.”
While applauding this important first step, Human Rights First underscored the need for the Obama administration to demonstrate to its key strategic partners that consistent, principled support for human rights is a central part of U.S. foreign policy that cannot be separated from other vital strategic issues.
“Making the protection of human rights a top priority is completely consistent with the concept of ‘smart power’ Secretary of State Clinton has put forth,” said Massimino. “The calculus is simple: Human rights violations contribute to instability, insecurity and lack of transparency and accountability that exacerbate crises and threaten US interests abroad, while human rights protections – including labor rights, just legal systems, and official accountability – advance economic growth and international security.”
Several large, influential countries with which the United States aspires to have cooperative relations have troubling human rights records detailed in the report. Among them: China, where many read the Secretary’s remarks during her recent trip to China as relegating human rights issues to a secondary status; Russia, where there is a “continued negative trajectory in its overall domestic record;” Egypt, where there is “a decline in the government’s respect for freedoms of speech, press, association and religion;” and Colombia, where “numerous societal problems and governmental human rights abuses” persisted. Human Rights First believes that respect for human rights, far from interfering, is necessary to address serious strategic challenges.
A particular area of concern that was the focus of sustained democracy promotion efforts by the previous administration is the broader Middle East region. The report again demonstrates that the region continues to be plagued by human rights violations resulting from unresolved conflicts and from deeply entrenched authoritarian governments, some of which are close U.S. allies. The conflicts and instability in this strategically vital region of the world threaten U.S. national interests and international peace and security.
Among the recommendations Human Rights First put forth for the new administration are:
- Demonstrate that human rights remain a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, by quickly staffing positions at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and in all positions concerned with United Nations human rights mechanisms, with experienced and effective human rights experts;
- Strengthen multilateral efforts to promote human rights and democracy. The U.S. government should focus on improving the functioning of the U.N. Human Rights Council and of the human rights machinery of the United Nations as a whole through constructive engagement with them.
- The U.S. government should foster the development of strong regional human rights mechanisms in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Such institutions can enhance the ability of people within each region to improve their own human rights conditions, thereby lessening the damaging tensions created by perceptions that the West is dictating to the rest of the world on human rights issues.
- Avoid a false trade-off between priorities, and ensure that human rights are a key part of bilateral dialogue with all nations. U.S. policy should focus on factors that inhibit positive change, by supporting the work of local human rights activists, providing direct assistance where necessary, and supporting their full participation in national, regional and international human rights institutions. The U.S. government should support independent judiciaries, a free press and other essential elements of free societies throughout the world.
- U.S. policy should confront criminal behavior that fuels severe violations of human rights by preventing illicit arms trafficking, and implementing effective policies to combat hate crimes and discrimination.
Human Rights First also praised the work of the hundreds of State Department and Foreign service staff who have provided the wealth of invaluable information about human rights conditions around the world that comprise this report.
“Bringing about sustainable improvement in the human rights conditions described in the report will require unremitting, consistent and principled engagement over many years. The country reports will be a vital tool in measuring this progress,” said Massimino.