The State Department Human Rights Reports and National Security

By Michael Posner

The Human Rights Reports are not a policy-making document or exercise, but they do lay out a factual predicate which helps to inform and drive policy.

Last Thursday U.S. Secretary of State Kerry presided over the release of the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. This marks the 37th year that the State Department has published these reports, which now examine almost 200 countries in 7000 pages. Critics of these reports generally focus on three concerns. First, they ask why the United States Government is the best and most credible entity to produce these reports. Secondly, they point out the disparity between what the reports document and the effectiveness of US policies aimed at combatting such violations. Finally, they question the credibility of the reporting exercise itself, particularly given the deficits in the protection of human rights by the United States and especially on issues relating to national security.

From the fall of 2009 until March of last year I directed the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) in the State Department, the office that quarterbacks this effort. In doing so I gained a much better sense of what these reports are, and what they are not. Based on that experience, here is my assessment of the Human Rights Reports, especially as they address national security issues.

Why should the US government produce these reports?

In short, the US continues to publish the Human Rights Reports because they serve a range of very useful purposes both inside and outside of government and because no one else is willing or able to do so. Prominent human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch produce detailed annual reports, but they only cover selected countries. The Chinese government publishes a human rights report, but it covers only a single country, the United States. And no international organizations, other governments or groups of governments have the inclination or capacity to do this type of comprehensive reporting. While at State I approached various other governments and international organizations, repeatedly encouraging them to emulate and complement the public reporting the USG is doing. I never got a nibble. Not once.

Read full article as published on JustSecurity.org

Michael Posner is a Professor of Business and Society and Co-Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.