New U.S. Annual Report on Human Rights Around the World

On April 20 the U.S. State Department released its 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan wrote the Preface to the Reports and made remarks upon their release while a Special Briefing on the Reports was conducted by Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, the head of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

These three introductions to the Reports will be discussed below, and a future post will review the report on Cuba.

Preface by Acting Secretary of State Sullivan[1]

“We are a nation founded on the belief that every person is endowed with inalienable rights. Promoting and defending these rights is central to who we are as a country.”

“The 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices . . . document the status of human rights and worker rights in nearly 200 countries and territories. These reports are required by U.S. law and are used by a variety of actors, including the U.S. Congress, the Executive branch, and the Judicial branch as a factual resource for decision-making in matters ranging from assistance to asylum.”

“The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes that corrupt and weak governance threatens global stability and U.S. interests. Some governments are unable to maintain security and meet the basic needs of their people, while others are simply unwilling. States that restrict freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly; that allow and commit violence against members of religious, ethnic, and other minority groups; or that undermine the fundamental dignity of persons are morally reprehensible and undermine our interests. The Governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, for example, violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”

“Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Remarks by Acting Secretary of State  Sullivan[2]

The Acting Secretary noted that this was the 42nd year of such reports, which “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad.”

“Promoting human rights and the idea that every person has inherent dignity is a core element of this administration’s foreign policy. It also strengthens U.S. national security by fostering greater peace, stability, and prosperity around the world. The Human Rights Reports are the most comprehensive and factual accounting of the global state of human rights. They help our government and others formulate policies and encourage both friends and foes to respect the dignity of all individuals without discrimination.”

“This year, we have sharpened the focus of the report to be more responsive to statutory reporting requirements and more focused on government action or inaction with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, each executive summary includes a paragraph to note the most egregious abuses that occurred in a particular country, including those against women, LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and members of religious minorities.”

Sullivan then had comments about some countries “with the most egregious human rights records:” Syria, Burma, North Korea (DPRK), China, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. He concluded by noted three countries with improvements: Uzbekistan, Liberia and Mexico.

Briefing by Ambassador Kozak[3]

Responding to a journalist’s question whether the U.S. issuance of this report could be regarded as hypocrisy because of U.S. human rights problems, the Ambassador said that this would be an unfounded charge. The report criticizes some country’s revoking licenses of media that criticize the government and even killing journalists; the U.S. does not do that. He also said the U.S. has laws to protect foreigners from being returned to countries where they are likely to face illegal persecution.

Nozak rejected the notion that the report was weakened by President Trump’s calling the U.S. press an enemy of the people and suggesting changing U.S. libel laws to protect politicians like him from unfounded reporting. In contrast he said independent journalists in Cuba “are routinely slapped around, they also get called names, “

This year’s report omitted a special section on women’s reproductive rights because it is not a term derived from an international treaty or from the U.S. statute requiring these annual reports; the latter refers to coerced family planning, coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. In addition, the new U.S. report has a hyperlink to a WHO report on the subject.

Kozak rejected the notion that this report was undercut by President Trump’s meetings with leaders of countries with poor human rights records.

The U.S. as a matter of policy supports NGOs around the world  that are working to improve human rights.

For  North Korea, the U.S. is concerned about the nuclear issue and about human rights. The report “pretty starkly [discusses] the kinds of abuses, and over the last year or two, we’ve supported . . . a commission of inquiry on North Korea, we support NGOs that are working on North Korea and exposing the human rights abuses that occur in the camps there and so on. But some of the stories that are contained in the report are just overwhelming. There’s one about 11 people who were arrested for supposedly making a pornographic film and they were executed by shooting anti-artillery weapons at them, and then they brought out tanks and ran over the bodies, and this is supposed to be a civilized country.”

The Preface to the report calls China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as “forces of instability.”  This is not a defined term, but refers to situations where internal actions generate international problems like refugee flows and humanitarian crises.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface to Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017 (April 20, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018).

Developments Regarding the Summit of the Americas 

Later this week the Summit of the Americans takes place in Lima, Peru. Interesting  developments regarding the Summit have taken place from the U.S. and Cuba.

U.S. Developments[1]

On April 10 President Trump cancelled his scheduled attendance at the Summit of the Americans in Peru. The stated reason was his need to attend to the new crisis in Syria: the Syrian regime chemical weapons attack on some of its citizens and President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was considering a military response.

The New York Times reporter, Julie Davis, said, “Scrapping the trip spared Mr. Trump potentially unpleasant interactions with leaders of Latin American nations whose citizens have been insulted by his harsh language about their countries as sources of illegal immigration, criminal gangs and illicit narcotics. White House officials said Vice President Mike Pence would attend the summit meeting in the president’s place.

“Skipping the Summit of the Americas sends a terrible message about U.S. disengagement in our hemisphere, compounding negative message of Trump’s Cuba, NAFTA and immigration policies,” was the opinion of Benjamin J. Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser in Mr. Obama’s White House and who was the principal negotiator of the U.S.’ opening to Cuba in December 2014.

A similar opinion was voiced by Richard E. Feinberg, a senior Latin America fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He said, “Trump’s dropping out of the Lima summit is an appalling demonstration of disrespect for Latin America. “This has to be seen in the context of a president who has been ranting and railing against Latin America continually for the last several years. They’re his bête noire. They’re his scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in America, from immigration to narcotics to alleged loss of jobs from trade.”

A more nuanced opinion was offered by Christopher Sabatini, executive director of Global Americans, a group promoting better engagement in the region. He said,  “The truth is, given the level of discourse on trade, immigrants and intervention coming from this administration, not paying much attention to the region may be welcome by a number of governments as they search for their own alternatives. The question though is what it means for U.S. leadership, not just now but over the long term.”

The region’s leaders  seemed to be taking the U.S. decision in stride, reflecting some of the unease generated by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and growing economic self-confidence in a region long resentful of Washington’s dominance.

The U.S. State Department announced that Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan will accompany Vice President Mike Pence at the Summit, where the U.S. “will promote priorities of mutual interest to the region, including supporting democracy; addressing the political and humanitarian crisis and restoring democracy in Venezuela; stemming corruption and transnational crime, and promoting economic prosperity.” Sullivan will meet separately with leaders from Peru, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The State Department noted that Sullivan “will also engage with members of Cuban and Venezuelan independent civil society.” Apparently he will avoid meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro.

In another release the Department said it had “received numerous, credible reports that the Cuban government prevented, and continues to prevent, members of independent civil society from traveling to Peru to participate in the Summit . . . .  Cuban authorities prevented these individuals’ travel through arbitrary stops at the airport, short-term detentions, and visits to individuals’ homes to warn them against trying to leave the island.”

The Department’s release further stated that the U.S. “condemns these actions. We call on the Cuban government to facilitate full, robust participation in the Summit by allowing the free and unrestricted travel of its citizens, a universal human right.” As a result, the U.S. “stands with the brave activists facing repression by the Cuban regime. We are working with the Government of Peru and civil society to promote a Summit that features open, inclusive dialogue with the full participation of independent civil society representatives from Cuba and the hemisphere.”

At the Press Briefing the same day, the Department said that on April 12 Sullivan would be meeting with “with Cuban NGOs and opposition leaders,” but there was no meeting scheduled with Castro.

Cuba Developments[2]

Cuba has an official delegation of people from its purported civil society, who already are in Peru to attend the alternative Peoples Summit that has been organized by Peru’s General Confederation of Workers (CGTP). Its leader said it would express “support for the Cuban Revolution and reaffirm the commitment to progressive and left governments of Latin America and the Caribbean currently being ‘sabotaged by imperialism.”’ On April 12 they have planned an anti-imperialist rally called “Trump out of Peru,” but with Trump not coming, they will have to have a different theme.

The official Cuba delegation of civil society has criticized “attempts by mercenaries and groups with links to terrorists to pass for supposed representatives of Cuban civil society.” The official delegation’s official statement expressed their desire “to contribute the experience of the Cuban Revolution that has, over almost 60 years, constructed a consensus in favor of our political, economic, and social system, forged through participative, socialist democracy, in which human beings constitutes the highest priority, and in which government is exercised by the people.”

These Cubans vandalized a Lima billboard that said in Spanish (here in English translation): “Cuba, enough of corruption, repression and impunity, stop human rights violations.”

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[1]  Davis, Trump Cancels Trip to Latin America, Citing Crisis in Syria, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); Assoc. Press, Latin America Takes Trump’s Forgoing of Summit in Stride, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Acting Secretary Sullivan Travel to Lima, Peru, To Participate in the Summit of the Americas (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, On Cuba’s Restriction of Civil Society Participation in the Summit of the Americans (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 10, 2018.

[2] Gómez, People’s Summit kicks off in Lima, Granma (April 10, 2018); Statement from Cuban delegation to 8th Summit of the Americas parallel forums, Granma (April 9, 2018); ‘Shock troops’ of the Cuban regime in Lima vandalize the fences that denounced the repression, diario de Cuba (April 11, 2018); “CUBA in #Cumbre”, Cuba Debate.