Why We Issue the Human Rights Reports

Posted by Tom Malinowski
June 25, 2015
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Today, Secretary Kerry will release the State Department’s 39th annual Human Rights Reports, a comprehensive review of human rights conditions in 199 countries and territories around the world.  Mandated by Congress, these reports are the United States’ factual and authoritative statement on the progress of international human rights and the most widely read document issued by the State Department.

The Human Rights Reports detail the violence and abuse suffered both at the hands of governments and of non-state actors by people all over the world.  In some cases, as a result of civil society groups and sustained international pressure, conditions have changed for the better.  Yet in others, human rights violations continue unchecked or have worsened.

We issue these reports to underscore America’s commitment to the protection and advancement of human rights. We use the reports to shape American foreign policy, including our determination and allocation of foreign aid and security sector assistance. But they are not just an annual bureaucratic gesture. Rather, the reports serve as our moral baseline. With them, we say, these are the values and principles for which the U.S. stands; these are the universally recognized human rights of all people. The reports also help promote awareness of the human rights abuses and violations committed over the past year and they identify where and when human rights are well protected.

Sometimes we have to work with governments with which we disagree: the truth is that these are tough issues; there’s no single approach or remedy, and change does not happen in the span of a few news cycles. But we must and do press for change because our hopes for peace, security and prosperity depend on respect for human rights.  With the human rights reports, we make it clear that this is the standard toward which we as an international community must strive.

We also issue the reports to provide a voice for the voiceless. Most people are familiar with the human rights abuses that make headlines, and when you scan the headlines—from Syria to Russia—it is clear the 2014 was a tough year for human rights. But as the reports reveal, there are many more human rights abuses that do not make headlines. We have an obligation to ensure that these abuses are not buried, that these people are not forgotten, and that violators of human rights will be held accountable for their crimes.

And as we issue these reports, we recognize that American history, too, has been marked by human rights failings. The United States does not speak from a position of arrogance or self-righteousness. As President Obama explained last week, “America never makes a claim about being perfect. We do make a claim about being open to change… It’s precisely because we’re imperfect that we believe it’s appropriate for us to stand up.” We speak, in short, from knowledge of our own history and our own struggle for progress. As President Obama added, “When Dr. King was in jail, people outside the United States spoke up on his behalf. And I would be betraying our history if I did not do the same.”

The true test of a nation’s commitment to human rights is not whether problems exist but whether its laws and institutions allow those problems to be solved. We issue the human rights reports with the hope that government, civil society leaders, activists, and citizens will reflect on the state of human rights in their respective nations and on how we can work together to further the protection of human rights for all people in all cultures and all communities.

About the Author: Tom Malinowski serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  For more from the Assistant Secretary, follow @Malinowski on Twitter.

Secretary Kerry will release the Human Rights Reports on June 25 at approximately 1:15 PM EDT.  Watch a livestream of his remarks and a question and answer session with Assistant Secretary Malinowski on video.state.gov/live.  For more on the U.S. government’s engagement on international human rights issues, visit www.humanrights.gov.  

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