March 30, 2023

IntelBrief: Key Implications of the U.S. Global Human Rights Report

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. Department of State’s annual report on worldwide human rights practices is out and targets authoritarian powers such as Russia, China, and Iran; it has, however, been regularly criticized for holding adversaries and allies to different standards.
  • The report cites several countries, including allies and those with which the United States is at odds, for wide-ranging abuses, including extrajudicial killings, repression of opponents, torture, and denial of freedom of expression and assembly.
  • U.S. officials maintain that they influence the human rights practices of U.S. allies and partners through quiet diplomacy and weigh human rights issues against broader national security interests.
  • While unveiling the report, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced last week his determination that members of parties on both sides of the recent conflict in northern Ethiopia had committed war crimes.

On March 20, the U.S. Department of State released its 47th annual “Country Reports on Human Rights” evaluating the human rights practices of 198 countries and territories during 2022. U.S. officials assert that the report, popularly known as the “Human Rights Report,” is based on credible reports of events and research by U.S diplomats acquired through engagement with officials, non-governmental and international organizations, jurists and legal experts, journalists, academics, human rights defenders, and labor activists in the countries covered by the report.

Although U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials assert that the report applies the same standards to U.S. allies and partners as well as to “countries with which we have differences,” the latest report, like past iterations, singles out U.S. adversaries for particularly harsh criticism. Referencing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the report cites Russia for causing “massive death and destruction, with reports of members of Russia’s forces committing war crimes and other atrocities.” In a press briefing for the report, Blinken also indirectly criticized China’s proposed peace plan for the conflict, saying that any proposed ceasefire that does not require the removal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory would allow Russian “President Putin to rest and refit his troops and then restart the war at a time more advantageous to Russia.” Instead, Blinken called for Chinese President Xi Jinping to engage with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and consider his “just peace formula.”

The State Department report also cites Iran for its violent crackdown against those protesting the regime’s repression of women’s rights and China for “genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, repression of Tibetans, a widespread denial of basic rights in Hong Kong, and targeting of individuals on the mainland for exercising fundamental freedoms.” Other U.S. adversaries flagged in the report include the Taliban regime of Afghanistan for repressing women’s rights; the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Belarus for unjustly imprisoning demonstrators; Myanmar’s military regime for killing opposition activists and carrying out abuses against minority ethnic and religious groups, including actions that the United States has deemed genocide against its Muslim Rohingya  population; and North Korea for its “harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps.”

During the press conference, Blinken said the Taliban’s December 2022 edict barring female employees of non-governmental organizations from the workplace imperiled tens of millions of Afghans who depend on humanitarian assistance, and said the Taliban’s “repressive edicts against women and girls” remain an obstacle for normalizing relations with the United States and other countries. At a time when Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, an ally of both Iran and Russia, seems to be redeeming his relations with neighboring states, the report accuses members of Syria’s security forces of “numerous abuses, some of which the U.N. Commission of Inquiry for Syria considered to be war crimes.”

Secretary Blinken rebutted charges that the U.S. government largely excuses human rights abuses by allied countries, asserting that U.S. diplomats often engage with allied officials on human rights issues privately. However, he also acknowledged that close bilateral relationships with authoritarian or other partner countries often color U.S. characterization of their human rights record, stating that while “human rights is a central interest of [the United States,] it’s not the only one.” The variance in standards applied raises important questions about the target audience and the impacts of the report.

The report cites EgyptSaudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern U.S. allies for a litany of major abuses, including unlawful or arbitrary killings, extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents, enforced disappearances by state security forces, torture, and others. On Israel – a close U.S. ally currently facing a significant domestic and global outcry over proposed legislation that would undermine the independence of its judiciary – the report notes that the country’s “military and civilian justice systems have rarely found members of the security forces to have committed abuses” against Palestinians despite “credible reports” of human rights issues.

While the report credits Iraq, which hosts 2,500 U.S. military personnel supporting the country’s fight against the terrorist group Islamic State, with taking steps to “identify, investigate, and prosecute officials responsible for perpetrating or authorizing human rights abuses,” it found that these officials were “rarely punished.” In a rare rebuke of a country the United States is seeking to partner with in counterbalancing China, the report listed "significant human rights issues" and abuses in India, including reported targeting of religious minorities, dissidents, and journalists.

Alongside his presentation of the report, Blinken announced that the State Department has determined that “members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces, and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.” Without spelling out specific consequences for the alleged war crimes, he said a “durable peace” would require accountability and reconciliation. Painting a more hopeful future for the country, Blinken asserted that a November 2022 ceasefire had put a stop to the fighting, allowing humanitarian assistance to flow and services to be restored. During his visit to the region, Blinken added, he noted a “commitment on all sides to engage in this process of transitional justice; an acknowledgment of the atrocities that have been committed…and, I believe, a commitment to genuinely get to a better place.”