Just the facts: The State Department’s annual human rights reports

The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are the State Department’s most-read publication by far. Over 1 million readers access them online every year.

And, says Michael Kozak, the senior bureau official in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, those readers can sort the accompanying online database by country or by issue, like the human rights of women or minority groups, or freedom of expression, or prison conditions.

Man standing behind wire fence (© AP Images)
An Iraqi prisoner at al-Muthanna prison in Baghdad in 2010. (© AP Images)

Who uses this information, and how?

The annual reports are not about passing judgment on other countries. Instead, Kozak says, they’re “to inform ourselves so that when we are making decisions, we are doing it with our eyes wide open about who we’re dealing with.”

The State Department identifies six other ways the reports are frequently used:

  • The information in the reports can be used to brief President Trump and senior government officials, including the secretary of state, before meeting with foreign heads of state and civil society figures.
  • Nongovernmental organizations rely on the reports’ data to inform their reporting and programming.
  • The United Nations and other international bodies use the reports in evaluating human rights records of other countries.
  • Academics use them as a research and teaching tool.
  • Businesses and other commercial organizations use them to perform risk analysis for international investment and business development.
  • The U.S. Department of Justice and human rights lawyers refer to them when adjudicating asylum cases.

The U.S. Congress passed a law over 40 years ago requiring the secretary of state to prepare these reports and transmit them to the Congress each year so lawmakers can take the information into account in creating legislation, approving treaties, and making other policy decisions.

Guided by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights treaties, the country reports don’t draw legal conclusions, rate countries, or declare whether they failed to meet standards.

“It’s giving the reader the information … to make that judgment,” Kozak says. “It just lets the facts speak for themselves.”

How does the department get its information?

“We ask the same questions of every country,” and each one is held to the same standards regardless of its relationship with the United States, Kozak says. Every U.S. embassy has a human rights officer who gathers information from the host government, media reports, local nongovernmental organizations and others who care about human rights conditions in the country.

It seems ironic that countries with good human rights records often have long reports, but Kozak says there is simply more information available because their societies are more transparent more likely to have a free press reporting on abuse allegations, an open legal system, and active labor unions and human rights advocates.

To keep the report size manageable, the U.S. human rights officer identifies a representative example of each abuse, rather than list every instance.

The reports reflect the importance of human rights in the overall U.S. national security strategy. Kozak observes that even if the “just the facts” approach doesn’t produce a change in U.S. policy toward a given country, “it means that we know who we’re dealing with and are not pretending to ourselves that just because another government is cooperating with us on some issues, it must be respecting the human rights of its people.”

A version of this article was previously published on March 2, 2017.