On April 12, the US Department of State released its annual country reports on human rights. The reports are a key resource for human rights scholars and governments, both meticulously researched and neutrally reported by diplomats on the ground, and carefully massaged by key State Department bureaus. They provide an invaluable window on the human rights situation within individual countries, and occasionally the politics of the administration that produced them. This year’s reports, covering 2021, document glaring violations of human rights throughout the Middle East, but are not expected to have much of a direct policy impact.
Originally mandated by Congress to drive decisions on security and development aid to countries accused of violating human rights standards, the reports have never actually been used that way, let alone emerged as a potent policy tool more generally. This partly has to do with the bureaucratic history of the reports and the process by which they are produced. But more importantly, it has to do with the powerful interests and equities of diverse government agencies that, for various reasons, want to keep human rights the unloved stepchild of US foreign policy.
This is particularly true of the Middle East, where great value is placed on regional stability, and therefore on stable relations with authoritarian states that help safeguard American interests, particularly in terms of military cooperation, counterterrorism assistance, and oil supplies to global markets. A closer look at the background of the human rights reports will contextualize the State Department’s 2021 examination of the Middle East, explain why their policy impact will be limited, and suggest how their undeniable authority can nevertheless be leveraged.
The State Department’s human rights reports were created in the mid-1970s as a result of growing congressional concern about human rights abuses overseas, many of which were inflicted by some of America’s closest foreign allies. A 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961, subsequently strengthened two years later, aimed at prohibiting US assistance to foreign nations that displayed “a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” In 1975, another amendment was enacted aimed at extending this restriction to recipients of American development aid. These amendments included language mandating an annual report to Congress by the State Department on human rights violations by recipients of US aid, extended in 1979 to require reports on all foreign countries. Thus, the annual State Department human rights reports were born.
While the reports have rarely, if ever, been used as the basis for withholding US security assistance or development aid, the fact that they could be has sufficiently alarmed generations of US diplomats.
While the reports have rarely, if ever, been used as the basis for withholding US security assistance or development aid, the fact that they could be has sufficiently alarmed generations of US diplomats. The production, editing, and release of the reports is an annual exercise in bureaucratic knife fighting involving diplomatic missions; the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (which edits the reports); regional bureaus; and the staff of the National Security Council, all of which are involved at various stages in the drafting, approval, and release of the reports.
In the early years, as a result of diplomatic trepidation, the reports were often superficial and lacking in serious appraisal of countries’ actual human rights practices. After heated criticism, the reports were standardized and professionalized over the decades to the point that today, the wide-ranging and detailed analyses they provide are considered an apex resource for the human rights community, scholars, journalists, Congress, and other US officials, and are regarded by many other governments as the “gold standard” for human rights reporting.
That hasn’t stopped the infighting, though. Diplomatic missions and regional bureaus often battle to constrain or palliate conclusions that would jeopardize business as usual with target states, and presidential administrations occasionally overhaul the reports in fundamental ways to reflect basic shifts in their approach to human rights as a whole. This was certainly the case with the Trump Administration, which downgraded discussion of gender issues in the reports and altered them in more subtle ways as well to reflect its world view.
Repairing Damage from the Trump Years
The Biden Administration, which had pledged to place human rights at the “center of US foreign policy,” soon turned in the opposite direction, moving quickly to undo what it saw as the Trump Administration’s debasement of the human rights report process. A detailed analysis by the Asylum Research Center (ARC) in 2020 shows why. ARC’s line-by-line analysis demonstrated how Trump’s State Department omitted key issues from the reports, in particular women’s reproductive rights, LBGTQ rights, and civil and political liberties, while in general downplaying the severity of human rights abuses in a number of cases.
In his remarks rolling out the 2020 human rights report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took aim at former Secretary Mike Pompeo’s “hierarchy” of human rights that elevated religious freedom and property rights as the two most important human rights. Blinken also denounced the previous administration’s selective approach that appeared to hold only US adversaries accountable. Further, he bemoaned the “silence” during the Trump years when it came to repression of human rights defenders, and indicated future human rights reports would restore parts of the report that Trump had excised, including the issue of women’s reproductive rights.
This year’s reports, which cover 2021, largely made good on Blinken’s promise. The sections on the Middle East proved hard-hitting, and have put a number of countries, including key US allies and partners, on the spot.
The Middle East in the 2021 Human Rights Reports
The Middle East section of this year’s iteration comprises 18 reports covering every country and territory (Israel, Gaza, and the occupied West Bank are discussed together in one report, as are Morocco/Western Sahara in another). These are exhaustively documented, based on observations and assessments by US missions overseas as well as a wide range of other named sources, including various arms of the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights First and other international advocacy organizations, and local human rights groups in each country. Few punches are pulled.
A sampling of key Middle East reports gives a good sense of what was covered, how it was covered, and why the reports attract both praise and criticism.
The Egypt report, for example, documents in detail the climate of political intimidation, restraints on civil society, torture in custody, denial of medical care to prisoners, forced disappearance, and numerous other abuses. Such abuses are contrasted with the rights guaranteed in the law and constitution, highlighting the gap between legal frameworks and the harsh reality. Numerous individual cases are highlighted to illustrate the direct impact of Egyptian government practices. Secretary of State Blinken singled out Egypt and its efforts to repress human rights defenders in his April 12 remarks rolling out the document.
Saudi Arabia, another close regional partner with a troubling human rights record and a tense relationship with Washington, was likewise treated harshly. The 2021 report highlights “credible reports of: executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture…; [and] arbitrary arrest and detention,” as well as “serious abuses” in Yemen. The report also goes into considerable detail concerning efforts to harass and intimidate dissidents abroad, using the example of the kingdom to highlight one of the key themes of Blinken’s rollout remarks: cross-border repression. In this regard, the report noted various developments last year surrounding the case of the murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but neglected to mention the US release of a 2021 CIA report pinning responsibility for the murder on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi advances toward expanding women’s rights in 2021 are described, while noting the many cultural and other restrictions they still face in society, business, and the law. Overall, the report leaves the impression of a kingdom striving for modernity, but seriously hampered by repressive politics and heavy abuse and intimidation of its own citizens.
The report on Saudi Arabia leaves the impression of a kingdom striving for modernity, but seriously hampered by repressive politics and heavy abuse and intimidation of its own citizens.
An erstwhile democracy now sliding back rapidly toward autocracy, Tunisia came in for an unsparing look in the 2021 report. The report documents the full range of government and security force abuses, including torture, arbitrary arrest, closure of media outlets, and the use of military courts to try civilians, as well as other restrictions on public and political life. President Kais Saied’s self-coup was duly noted, albeit in studiously neutral language, and his reasons for the suspension of parliament and his timeline for a return to constitutional democracy were also noted. But the report fails to describe the full impact of Saied’s dismantling of the constitutional order and his efforts to repress those who object, giving a somewhat erroneous impression of business as usual rather than democracy in crisis.
Perennially the most scrutinized report in the Middle East section, the annual overviews of human rights in Israel (which covers one part of this section) and the West Bank and Gaza (covered separately) bends, and sometimes topples over backwards to strike a tone of relentless neutrality and even-handedness. The 2021 report is no exception. It carefully describes abuses committed by Israeli security forces against both Palestinians and Israelis, including journalists covering demonstrations. It details the harsh treatment of Palestinians in jails and prisons as well as the troubling legal regime to which Palestinians are subjected if arrested and incarcerated. Restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement throughout the West Bank as well as their right to reside in Jerusalem are also covered in detail, as are numerous other troubling practices, including house demolitions, that have rightly caught the attention of international human rights groups.
Much of this information, however, is disaggregated throughout the report, some of it falling under the Israel section while much more detail is provided in the West Bank/Gaza portion, which also includes a scathing discussion of abuses by Palestinian Authority security forces, as well as by Hamas. Part of this is due to the prescribed format of the report. But the result of this, and the disinterested tone, is a dissolution of focus on occupation practices that gives the reader no sense of why respected organizations such as Amnesty International and the Israeli rights group B’Tselem were driven to conclude that Israel’s legal and military control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem amounts to a system of “apartheid.”
In fact, if there is a criticism to be made of the State Department’s human rights right report overall—and it has been made regularly—it is that the reports are fastidious to a fault, free of judgement, interpretation, and recommendations that could drive effective policy choices and push back against the odious practices they document.
The Reports Are Damning. Why Not Act on Them?
The human rights reports could be effective catalysts for change if the US government were to use them as the basis for strategic human rights dialogues—that is, intensive discussions with governments aimed at generating specific steps for improvement, genuine measures of accountability, and consequences for failure, as was envisioned when the reports were first required. After all, other governments often rely upon the reports for some of their own consequential decisions; both the British and Dutch governments, for example, refer to the reports when making decisions on political asylum. But rarely do the reports directly shape the US government’s relations with sometimes problematic allies and partners.
Rarely do the reports directly shape the US government’s relations with sometimes problematic allies and partners.
Why not? For one thing, US administrations seek maximum flexibility in their foreign policy decision-making and are gun-shy about tying their choices to the mandates of reports or even laws (which is why legislation imposing human rights requirements on foreign assistance typically includes national interest waivers, of which every administration has made liberal use). In fact, the more comprehensive, honest, and detailed human rights reports common today became possible not only because of the criticism leveled at the early ones, but because they would not be used to mandate decisions on withholding aid to human rights abusers who happen to be US allies. Such decisions, when they happen (which is rarely), usually stem from a presidential decision and not a congressional mandate (see, for example, Trump’s 2017 decision to suspend $195 million in military aid to Egypt).
Another, and even more important consideration is the US government’s culture of valuing “hard” interests, such as counterterrorism and military cooperation, over “soft” issues such as human rights. This is, in fact, a driving force in American policy toward the Middle East. The Department of Defense, US Central Command, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency assume that to raise—or even mention—human rights as a priority equal to or above these other concerns would jeopardize cooperation on vital issues. Thus, foreign affairs and defense agencies are largely satisfied to regard the human rights reports as interesting curios rather than vital policy tools.
This does not mean the reports are without their uses. In addition to informing public and congressional debate, the real value of the human rights reports is their admonitory power. In this, the reports’ painstaking striving for objectivity is perhaps their greatest strength. Most countries seek to avoid being credibly shown up as serial human rights abusers by the United States through a meticulously documented report considered the “gold standard” by many governments and human rights observers. Whether this threat has actually resulted in changing any given country’s domestic practices is an open question—there is not much evidence that it has—but the reports certainly have the power to touch a nerve. China, for example, issues an annual response by means of a “human rights report” of its own alleging massive US violations.
Regarding the Middle East, the reports have certainly set off alarms in regional capitals and have no doubt set Washington lobbyists’ cash registers jingling as they scramble to help their clients counter the damage on Capitol Hill. In their severity and detail, the reports have alerted key partners such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to what the United States will focus on if the administration chooses to pursue a serious human rights agenda as part of bilateral relations. The odds may be against it at this moment of geopolitical and energy crisis, but US allies in the region might do well to look for ways to start cleaning up their act now before the Biden Administration’s focus returns once again to the issue it insists is at the center of its foreign policy.