April 12, 2021

IntelBrief: State Department Report Highlights Downward Trend in Human Rights

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the release of the '2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,' at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. Department of State recently published the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, covering 198 countries and territories.
  • The report indicates a global decline in human rights, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and manipulation of such by autocratic governments.
  • The report excludes a section on reproductive health, due to its removal by the Trump administration; an addendum will be released to address this glaring omission.
  • The U.S. track record on human rights is spotty, given inconsistencies in accountability at home and abroad, which undermines American soft power.

On March 30, the U.S. Department of State published the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which covers 198 countries and territories. U.S. diplomatic missions prepare the country reports and aim to offer a comprehensive assessment of human rights on a global level. Following the release of the report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Lisa Peterson conducted a press briefing, using the opportunity to brand the Biden administration’s approach to human rights. Secretary Blinken stated, “President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously.” For longstanding U.S. allies, this is a welcome change from the previous four years of the Trump administration.

The report indicates a decline in human rights globally, a trend that has been further exacerbated by the global pandemic. Secretary Blinken noted that “autocratic governments have used [the pandemic] as a pretext to target their critics and further repress human rights.” Secretary Blinken expressed serious concern about “the attacks on and the imprisonment of opposition politicians, anti-corruption activists, and independent journalists in places like Russia, Uganda, Venezuela” as well as “arbitrary arrests, beatings, and other violence against protestors in Belarus” and “killings, sexual assaults, and other atrocities credibly reported in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.” Of the many human rights concerns noted in China, the report highlighted a litany of abuses by the Chinese Communist Party, including genocide and crimes against humanityagainst the predominantly Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang. The specific crimes range from forced sterilization, coerced abortions, and rape to torture and forced labor. More than one million Uighurs and other largely Muslim minority groups are reportedly held in mass detention in extrajudicial internment camps, and two million more are forced to partake in “re-education” training. China also released its own report into U.S. human rights in late March, highlighting police brutality, gun violence, and the U.S. government’s inept response to handling the pandemic.

On Iran, the report expressed concern regarding the human rights impacts of government officials’ actions not only within Iran but also in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – an especially relevant issue as the U.S. and Iran have now restarted indirect negotiations on the nuclear agreement. Additionally, a pervasive issue flagged in Libya was a lack of accountability and impunity from prosecution, enabled by a broad security vacuum. In addition to impunity, one of many issues raised in Syria were airstrikes by the Assad regime and Russia repeatedly striking civilian sites. Escalated violence in Mozambique, particularly in Cabo Delgado Province, also prompted significant concern for the civilian impact, tied to the advances by ISIS-Mozambique. Close to 1,500 fatalities were estimated in Cabo Delgado caused by violent extremists and (to a lesser extent) security forces. Abuses against civilians included beheadings, kidnappings, the use of child soldiers, abductions, and forced displacement.

The report also noted Russia’s occupation and claimed annexation of Crimea, by which Russian-led forces are reportedly responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and injuries. Also indicated were “extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons in Chechnya.” Furthermore, it was specified that “officers from Russia’s FSB used a nerve agent to poison [opposition activist Aleksey] Navalny.” A particular area of focus in the briefings was Myanmar, as the recent military coup and crackdown were not included in the report given its 2020 scope. Secretary Blinken reiterated the United States’ condemnation, calling on the military to “release all those people who’ve been unjustly detained; stop its attacks on civil society members, journalists, labor unionists; halt the killings by its security forces; and return to power the democratically elected government.”

Notably, this report excludes a section on reproductive health, due to its removal by the Trump administration; to fill this gap, Secretary Blinken flagged that an addendum will be released later this year addressing such topics, to include maternal mortality, discrimination against women in accessing sexual and reproductive health care, and government policies on access to contraception and skilled health care during pregnancy and childbirth. He also indicated that future reports will again include this component, reaffirming that “women’s rights – including sexual and reproductive rights – are human rights.”

However, the U.S. track record on human rights accountability is spotty and inconsistent, both at home and abroad. Secretary Blinken acknowledged the likely critiques to such a report – that often U.S. positions on human rights may be hypocritical in the face of countless issues at home, such as systemic racism and growing socio-economic inequality. He emphasized the United States’ resolve to accept legitimate critiques and address such issues with transparency and follow-through. He also highlighted tools for international support for human rights, such as “consequences through economic sanctions and visa restrictions” and incentivization of human rights through trade benefits and development aid. However, inconsistencies in implementation – such as the release of the intelligence report on the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and creation of the Khashoggi Ban without any significant foreign policy action toward Saudi Arabia – undermine global human rights efforts and American soft power. Such efforts also fail to properly deter Saudi Arabia and other countries from similar behaviors in the future. Furthermore, waffling between administrations has tested and sometimes broken trust with allies. Moving forward, Secretary Blinken emphasized the importance of coordination on human rights between executive and legislative branches, multilateral action, and coordination with allies. Acting Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson also flagged the candidacy of the U.S. for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) later this year, following the Trump administration’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the HRC in 2018. As Secretary Blinken affirmed, “Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests.”