For U.S., a mini mea culpa

ON TUESDAY -- to ritualized hoots of derision from around the globe -- the U.S. Department of State released its 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The annual reports detail “the status of internationally recognized human rights” in virtually every country in the world -- except, of course, the U.S. itself.

At first glance, this year’s reports contain few surprises. The State Department laments the genocide in Darfur, notes that Russia has experienced a “further erosion of government accountability” and reminds us that Cuba denies its citizens “the fundamental right to change their government peacefully.” The reports also document rights abuses in China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea -- in fact, pretty much all over the place. Even tiny Monaco is rebuked for denying its citizens “the right to change their government or denounce the royal family.”

Although the State Department announces the annual reports with fanfare, the rest of the world rarely responds with enthusiasm. This year is no exception. China, a perennial target, declared that “the United States has lorded it over other countries by condemning other countries’ human rights practices while ignoring its own problems.” Other foreign commentators also complained about U.S. hypocrisy. After Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other highly publicized human rights controversies, they wondered, where does the U.S. get off casting stones at others?

There’s nothing inherently sinister about the State Department’s failure to include a chapter on U.S. human rights abuses in the reports. Originally intended for internal government consumption, the reports were designed to help Congress determine which lucky nations would receive foreign aid. (Back in the day, Congress had a quaint tradition of insisting that the U.S. not provide security assistance to foreign governments responsible for “gross violations” of human rights.) Because -- by definition -- the U.S. doesn’t provide foreign aid to itself, there was traditionally no reason for the reports to detail U.S. human rights lapses.


But over the years, the country reports have evolved far beyond their original purpose, becoming a high-visibility part of U.S. public diplomacy. As a result, they’re inevitably scrutinized with care, both for what they say and what they don’t say.

On close examination, this year’s reports are notable for several major omissions -- and one intriguing inclusion.

First, the intriguing inclusion: This year’s reports contain an unusual -- if elliptical -- acknowledgment of serious U.S. failings. “We recognize that we are writing this report at a time when our own record, and actions we have taken to respond to the terrorist attacks against us, have been questioned,” notes the introduction, which goes on to insist that “U.S. laws, policies and practices governing the detention, treatment and trial of terrorist suspects have evolved considerably over the last five years.” It ain’t much, but it’s significant.

In the sausage factory of the executive branch, phrases like those only end up in the annual country reports after months of interagency slicing and dicing. Those unprecedented sentences survived because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fought for them -- and won, beating back opposition that came mainly from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. No one should view this as a dramatic turnaround, but it suggests a growing administration awareness of just how much U.S. credibility has suffered as a result of post-9/11 human rights abuses.

Still, those important sentences are undermined by some glaring omissions in the country reports.

The report on Iraq, for instance, contains harsh words for the government, decrying “overcrowding and lack of judicial oversight” in Iraqi prisons and detention centers, incidents of “arbitrary arrest and detention” and “instances of torture and other abuses by government agents and by illegal armed groups.” Not mentioned at all: The U.S. itself holds about 14,000 detainees in Iraq. Although some U.S. officials acknowledge that many of these detainees are probably innocent, most have never had any meaningful opportunity to challenge their detention. Meanwhile, credible allegations of detainee abuse persist.

Similarly, the report on Afghanistan highlights serious abuses by the Taliban and the Afghan government but makes no mention of the hundreds of detainees still held in Afghanistan by U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Reports on Poland, Romania, Germany and Italy contain no references to investigations into secret U.S. detention facilities or the illegal U.S. abduction and transfer of terror suspects to third countries that use torture.

But in the end, though their omissions expose the U.S. to charges of hypocrisy, the annual country reports remain valuable. Not least, the reports represent an ongoing U.S. acknowledgment that core human rights norms ought to be respected by all -- even though the U.S. has lately been a notorious violator.


In 1655, La Rochefoucauld wrote that “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” If that’s true, there’s hope for the U.S. government yet.