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Getting It Down: Reporting and reviewing human-rights the world over

Nina Shea

Today, representatives of foreign tyrannies and some of their victims will crowd together in a congressional hearing room presided over by Congressman Chris Smith (R.., N.J.), chairman of an international-relations subcommittee. What brings together this remarkable gathering is Congress’s annual review of the State Department’s newly released Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Issued every year since the Carter administration, this is an extensive and detailed compendium, hundreds of pages in length, that systematically describes the human-rights policies and practices of every country in the world.

The reports owe their importance to the fact that they are the official record of the status of worldwide human rights as documented by the United States government. They are read and relied upon for a variety of reasons by government offices, and also by those in the private sector, including the media, investors, businesses, civic-society organizations, teachers, as well as ordinary individuals. They are also read closely by the foreign governments under study.

This year’s document reflects a monumental effort on the part of the State Department’s Bureau on Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the hundreds of Foreign Service officers who did the drafting. It scrutinizes friends and foes alike.

The section on China, 64 pages long, doesn’t mince words about the untold numbers of political and religious prisoners there. Here’s one example: “On July 7, Protestant Pastor Cai Zhuohua, his wife, and two other relatives were convicted of operating an illegal business, stemming from their large-scale publishing of bibles and Christian literature without government approval. Cai and two family members were sentenced to three years, two years, and 18 months in prison, respectively, while a fourth defendant was released after the trial for time served.” Another: “During the year there were reports of persons, including Falun Gong adherents, sentenced to psychiatric hospitals for expressing their political or religious beliefs. Some were reportedly forced to undergo electric shock treatments or forced to take psychotropic drugs.” The imprisonment of people as diverse as Internet webmasters to Catholic and Tibetan nuns is detailed.

Nor do the reports gloss over an increasingly violent and chaotic situation in Iraq. Here is just one of the many examples provided: “Christians in Basrah reportedly were forced to pay protection for their personal welfare. Women and girls reportedly often were threatened for not wearing the traditional headscarf (hijab), assaulted with acid for noncompliance, and sometimes killed for refusing to cover their heads or for wearing western-style clothing.”

With respect to Saudi Arabia, the reports find there is “no religious freedom,” “no right to change the government,” “arbitrary arrest,” “denial of fair public trials,” “political prisoners,” and a catalogue of other horrors.

Well-known atrocities, such as the genocide in Darfur in western Sudan, are covered in the reports, but so are obscure ones — such as the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Regarding the latter, a roving band of marauders that preys on children, the reports relate that, since it was founded in the 1980s, the group has kidnapped an estimated 38,000 children to serve as fighters, porters, and sex slaves. The LRA is responsible for an estimated death toll of 200,000 from fighting and disease and the displacement of two million Ugandans. These figures are identical to those given in updates for the Darfur genocide, yet the Lord’s Resistance Army has received scant international attention.

There is always room for improvement in any undertaking of this size, and I will be among those presenting testimony at today’s hearing that — in the main — criticizes the reports and points up information that was overlooked in them. But overall, these shortcomings are relatively limited and should not obscure the fact that this publication has become indispensable to the study of international human rights.

This annual exercise — the State Department’s issuance of the “Country Reports,” and the congressional hearings that review them — is uniquely American. No other nation produces anything comparable. It powerfully communicates, to the whole world, that the American people are not indifferent to acts of genocide, torture, unjust imprisonment, religious persecution, and other human-rights violations, wherever they may occur.

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