Human rights and the US as global judge

April 15, 2011

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

WASHINGTON — Every year since 1976, The U.S. Department of State has published an extraordinarily detailed report on the state of human rights in the world. The latest, out in April, runs to more than 2 million words. Printed out from State’s website, it would run to more than 7,000 pages. The report covers 194 countries.

That’s every country in the world, except one: the United States.

Which gives rise to a few questions. Is the United States the one and only country on the planet with a perfect record of observing human rights, at home or in the countries where it wages war? If not, why does the government feel entitled to scrutinize the human rights practices of others? The report discovers blemishes even in countries that rarely come to mind in the context of human rights violations.

Switzerland, say, where in 2010 “police at times used excessive force, occasionally with impunity.” Or Canada, where “human rights problems included harassment of religious minorities, violence against women, and trafficking in persons.” Or the tiny South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu, where American human rights checkers found “police violence, poor prison conditions, arrests without warrants, an extremely slow judicial process, government corruption, and violence and discrimination against women.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes the annual report as “the most comprehensive record available of the condition of human rights around the world” and its attention to detail is indeed impressive. The Vanuatu chapter, for example, runs to almost 5,000 words, a lot considering there are only 220,000 inhabitants.

Given the effort that goes into the report, the only global assessment of human rights by a government (as opposed to private advocacy groups), one might assume that its findings play a major role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. But that is not the case. Where U.S. national interests are at stake, human rights violations are not necessarily obstacles to normal or even close relations.

“It’s easy to see the whole exercise as holier-than-thou preening that alienates even countries sympathetic to the cause,” wrote David Bosco, a professor at American University’s School of International Service, in a comment in Foreign Policy magazine. Among some countries, American criticism produces not alienation but red-hot fury.

Russia, heavily criticized in the latest U.S. report, shot back by describing the document as “obvious evidence of the use of ‘double standards’ and the politicization of human rights issues.” Russia’s foreign ministry pointed to “odious special prisons in Guantanamo and Bagram, still functioning despite promises to shut them down” as part of the reasons why the United States should clean its own house before criticizing others.

China, another target of American rebuke, has been so angered by the human rights reports that it began publishing an annual counter-report in 2000, focused solely on the United States. The latest came out just two days after the U.S. report which highlighted China’s intensifying crackdown on dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers.


China’s response: “The United States ignores its own severe human rights problems, ardently promoting its so-called ‘human rights diplomacy’, treating human rights as a political tool to vilify other countries and advance its own strategic interests.”

The Russo-Chinese-American sniping brought to mind the old adage that people in glass houses are well advised not to throw stones but China’s point about human rights as a political tool and the primacy of strategic interests merits closer attention than it tends to get in the United States.

In a just-published, thought-provoking book, Ideal Illusions — How the U.S. Government Co-Opted Human Rights, the historian James Peck argues that beginning in the 1970s, Washington began shaping human rights into an ideological weapon for reasons that had more to do with promoting America’s global reach than with furthering rights.

In the words of its introduction, the latest U.S. report provides “encyclopedic detail” on human rights for 2010, before the turmoil that has swept North Africa and the Middle East in the first three months of 2011. “However, our perspectives on many issues are now framed ” by these changes.

The changes provided yet more evidence that the universal values Washington officially espouses are not universally applied and that self-interest can trump human rights considerations. After mass protests swept from power the autocratic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, other countries reacted to popular uprisings with violent repression. In Libya, the United States has sided militarily with the opposition. In Yemen, the United States called for the president to step down.

No such calls for the royal rulers of Bahrain, where pro-democracy demonstrations prompted the imposition of martial law, more than two dozen people were reported killed and 400 arrested in a ruthless crackdown supported by neighboring Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is of key importance to the U.S. — it’s the base of its Fifth Fleet which patrols vital oil shipping lanes.

“We hope that this (human rights) report will give comfort to the activists,” Clinton said on April 8.  To those in Bahrain probably not.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters)


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Posted by Human rights and the US as global judge | Report as abusive

What we need are more countries, besides China and Russia, to publically come out and details some of the real big violations in the US.
Sooner or later, even the US media will not be able to ignore them.
These include:
1. Extremely high incarceration rates
2. Credit checks and data gathering on individuals applying for jobs that do not require handling money
3. Age, race, and sex discrimination.
4. Students loans that are not dischargeable and leave someone indentured and in poverty.
5. Gun deaths by the thousands each year.

Well, the list can get really long fast.

Posted by my2cents_jgeoff | Report as abusive

Because the mafia Don need not be questioned!

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

The emperor has no clothes. But the majority of the US population has not figured it out yet, like the rest of the world.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

The US government seems to reflect the modus operandi of the large corporations, with concerns about the image of “Brand America”, and sell points, and how to overcome objections.
It seems a bit like BP doing nice floral emblems and nice Beyond Petroleum research, and doing what it takes to hit cost and schedule targets to get the bonus.
The way US mainstream media and sponsored pollies sell overseas actions to their own democratic audience often seems sinister, grotesque, absurd, comical, perverse, unbelievable, insulting, … to non Americans, but thats just the State Departments problem, and creates more opportunities for military advancement and good returns.
But Pericles Athenian democracy was built on slave labour and predation on other Greek cities,
so on it goes.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Bernd, you’re one of but a few who has the balls to write truth anymore. The fact is, we’re a country of lawyers, prisons, bomb builders, and fast food restaurants for the little people. There’s a better chance your kids will go to prison, than to college. In the U.S. nowadays, all citizens that don’t have millions, are only one mistake away from a prison cell, and there is no second chance! you’re done! game over!
It’s an unbelievable shame how massive the game is here! Every area in society is crumbling and funds are being cut to the bone for schools, teachers, roads, etc. But law enforcement and Prisons continue to hire. There’s no way in hell this is sustainable or right for humanity!!

Posted by schmetterling | Report as abusive

People forget, America IS the center of the world. It even says so in the Book of Mormon.

Posted by torakism | Report as abusive

Then there’s the issue of nuclear prohibition that excludes Israel, and America’s support of its miltary with arms and finance to that odious nation. The U.S. support of despotic Caspian Sea nations closely tied to the oil and gas there, and, the utter hypocrisy of U.S./Saudi relations. The weilding of power across the globe through organisations that are created soley for the representaion of American corporate interests, like the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and WHO (World Health Organisation) and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), not to mention the influence exerted on the IEA (International Energy Agency) to downplay energy shortfalls – especially related to peak-oil supply. Ultimately though the complexity of control breaks down and empires fall on their own swords as limits to expansion are met, which is what we are seeing now.

Posted by icub412 | Report as abusive

Mr Debusman, perhaps you’d consider making a token effort at objectivity (yes, even in an EDITORIAL). Something along the lines of that observed in The Economist. Global perfection in human rights is a fantasy, which is precisely why documents such as the SD’s report are so essential. A constant effort is required for even the most modest of progress. One reading of your piece could be: “Since the US is not PERFECT itself, it has no business criticizing the Chinese for locking up artists or the Russians for jailing inconvenient captains of industry.” Personally, I am disgusted by the (reckless) use of the death penalty in this country, but I still expect the US to exert pressure on other nations to at least pretend like they care about human rights.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Most pertinent issue, Mr. Debusmann. The U.S. is hardly in a position to criticize other countries, what with its outrageous military expenditures and its own history of human rights abuses…

“Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.”

–Noam Chomsky

Posted by w.burton | Report as abusive

icub412, you’re off your rocker. The IAEA exists “solely for the representation of American corporate interests”? I suppose the IAEA inspectors are actually undercover salespeople for GE, working feverishly to sell the Iranians and North Koreans new nuclear reactors. The world sure is a confusing place, isn’t it? It’s all so mysterious.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

There was a time when the US walked softly and carried a big stick. Now there’s way too much “talk” and remarkably little action – this is just another example of it. If we can’t back up our words with action, we should keep our colletive mouth shut. Of course there are problems in the world, both in our country and in other countries. We can’t fix them all, and we don’t need to spend money we don’t have to belabor the obvious. One doesn’t need to look past this SD report to know where a first strike against the budget deficit should be made. It is irresponsible for the Secratarly of State to allow such waste.

Posted by John-B | Report as abusive

Fact remains that rule, absent the rule of law, isn’t rule at all. Rather, this form of governance represents the epitome of delusional impotence. In this category of supreme impotence derived delusion, fostered, aided & abetted buy the mating of intellectual, political & economic impaction, the United States unquestioningly ranks #1. In the matter human rights, American policy, and that of the major and most minor powers are simply rendered an industrial waste byproduct of conspicuous corruption. No small wonder Viagra is a top selling drug of the age.

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Posted by Los derechos humanos y Estados Unidos como el juez global – Nuevo Orden | Report as abusive

A country that tortures innocent civilians obviously can’t sit in judgement on others.

Posted by PAndrews | Report as abusive

Lets not forget That the United States still owns one of the, if not the only colony left in the world hostage of it’s own freedom… Puerto Rico. Why? because of a system that was developed that allows big businesses to demolish local business competitors who have fewer resources and were caught blindsided by the globlization paradigm. This inevitably contributed to the obliteration of the weakest, allowing them total control of the local markets, while our goverment gives them extremely attractive tax exceptions and incentives. So the local economic infrastructure is eroded while at the same time this big businesses do not contributes in peanuts.

Posted by Fulanito | Report as abusive

Bernd, nobody with any sense would trust a report on human rights in the US if it came from State, nor indeed from many other single source. Yet the US does quite a good job on reporting on everybody else and it’s a good collation. Mostly, it’s not judgement, it’s fairly factual and based on in-country or reputable sources. So, we just accept the hypocrisy which is self-evident, utilize the great value of their expose of others, and move on. When we want detail and analysis on the many and significant human rights violations in the US, including economic and health rights, we know the places to go and it’s not State.

Posted by Sweetcorcoran | Report as abusive

The reason most countries don’t criticize the US is because of the repercussions. The US is a vengeful beast and must always have revenge against those it sees as the enemy, and any nation that does not agree with the US is the enemy.
A good example is New Zealand A small peaceful democracy with good human rights standards tried to make the South Pacific a nuclear free zone.
The only nuclear power to have any interest in the South Pacific is the US.
The Russians and Chinese have no military presence that far south and were agreeable. The US had other ideas however and put numerous financial sanctions on New Zealand which had been a faithful ally for nearly 50 years. The US sanctions nearly destroyed the New Zealand economy.
Eventually the New Zealanders relented under the US pressure.
So only Countries like China and Russia have the military political and financial clout to tell the US to back off, anybody else will be destroyed.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

It’s a report people! Brought to us by the same US diplomats who gave us Wikileaks documents–so it’s probably fairly objective. If a government has to be “perfect” to produce a report, there wouldn’t likely be much reliable info out there. Take a chill pill.

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The United States is nowhere near being as free as it can realistically be, but irregardless, the U.S. Congress still needs the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” in order to stay informed about human rights issues abroad.

If the POTUS signs a treaty then Congress, particularly the Senate, needs to know everything it can about the country that it is engaging with. If Congress seems apathetic to the rights of other nations’ citizens sometimes then only U.S. voters have much of a shot at changing that; in the meantime it remains the case that the U.S. government is not an agent for the citizens of other countries.

One more thing, the columnist tried to stress the fact that the U.S. is the only country not included in the reports. Of course the U.S. isn’t included! The State Department implements foreign policy, not domestic policy.

As for domestic, Congress is supposed to keep itself informed about human rights at home, and serve to improve them. No, I don’t think they do a good job of it. I think this is because too many American voters are used to what they have, and they can’t wrap their imagination around how much better of a country the U.S. could be so they vote for the best cheerleaders in the field.

All that being said, I think Debusmann cost the article its legitimacy from the beginning by punctuating the fact that the U.S. isn’t included. That line really reeked of yellow journalism.

Posted by thistle163 | Report as abusive

War in Afganistan, war in Iraqi, Drones in Pakistan, Bombs in Libya. Sure take a chill pill. It does not matter that these people die!

Posted by Tellthetruth | Report as abusive

USA has no business to talk about others record of human rights when it’s own recorded violations at home and abroad stink.
For USA, Human rights has been another stick for bashing up it’s opponents.
It is no surprise that US govt. twisted the European countries and put it’s armed forces outside the purview of International court before invading Iraq and Afganistan – goes to prove that USA had cynically preplanned violation of Human rights. What is their business in Libya? How is it different from Bahrain, where unarmed civilians were butchered by using gun ships, tanks with in a shouting distance from US military base?
They don’t say much about the friendly Saudi Arabia and other barbaric regimes of the middle east and Africa either.
In short US Govt. is outdoing GOEBBELS!

Posted by kvkschoudary | Report as abusive

Such a report is only for domestic consumption. It provides a ready list of countries where America can send troops and gunships to liberate the oppressed or a politician can point a finger when American senators and congressmen want to exercise their political ambitions – either for re-election or the presidential ambition.

Posted by jlpeng | Report as abusive

Nobody but Americans live in houses or wear clothes. Those other poeple cannot be trusted and need watching! Only America is perfect, as are Americans. (Guffaw)

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive

As a Chinese,i totally welcome the report published by U.S. government

Posted by lovegcc | Report as abusive

The report should also more focused on India which its armed forces have routinely been killing hundreds of people in Northeast part of the country, Kashmir and Central area. Most of the Northeast states have been demanding independent from ‘imperialist and colonialist’ India since 1950. India is just playing a double standard – one in the name of non-violence taught by Gandhi and other taught by British imperialist.

Posted by Kullajit | Report as abusive

Bravo Mr. Debusmann. There are already numerous unbiased International Human Rights watch dogs that produce such reports. One has to visit China to see how open and free are their newspapers compared to USA.

Posted by Superstar416 | Report as abusive

The US is imperfect, and of course there are many areas that could be improved–but, there ain’t no such thing as a perfect government and never will be. As has been said before, democracy is the worse form of government, except for all the others…
The truth is that, despite its imperfections, the U.S. is extraordinary, offering more opportunity and having improved more lives throughout the world than any other nation in history.

Posted by wallydragon | Report as abusive

Why do we have so many prisoners? Do they not violate other people’s (human) rights? What has the government do about it? A word to the Department of State: Check you own backyard weeds before complaining about your neighbor backyard lawn.

Posted by mcright | Report as abusive

Does Guatanamo prison has human rights?

Posted by mcright | Report as abusive

Unfortunately I am not a Mormon, so don’t preach me with the book. Did the book say one can have many wives?

Posted by mcright | Report as abusive

Did the report mention Human Rights violations in Palestine?

Posted by Superstar416 | Report as abusive

i am glad to see a brilliant and smart report like this on reuters. whenever we see human right reports published by U.S we should not take it for granted. they(U.S)should stop policing others and start judging themselves. its sad to see how they manipulated U.N.O to start iraq war. people seemed to forget that. may be replacing those head quarters away from U.S soil would be a good start for mankind.

Posted by saidulsarder | Report as abusive

I have to give credit where it is due. Mr. Debudsmann, sir, you really know how to stir the pot. I completely agree with your point that the US must be as critical with its own record as it is with all others. However, I’m certain that you where aware that your editorial would simply reinforce the opinions of the political fringe that will always find it en vogue to be critical of everything the US does regardless the intent. How many of those leaving comments here have been in China, Cambodia, throughout the Middle-East, North Africa, the sub-continent, Eastern-Europe and the former Soviet States, South and Central America, the South Pacific, or anywhere else besides their comfortable homes in this terrible country which they so easily condemn? I know you have. So have I. How many have only seen the world through the colored lenses that you and others of your ilk offer as your version of an unbiased window on the world? The truth is that the world can be an ugly place in which to live. You and I have seen it firsthand. One cannot go through life with completely clean hands. Neither can a nation. We must demand that as individuals, and as nations, we strive to make good decision, for the right reasons, and act in the best interests of the whole of humanity. With all of the US’s missteps, mistakes, and failings, I think it is has come closer to that ideal than any other nation in history. Criticism is easy. Action is not. This was best expressed by President Theodore Roosevelt in his speech “Citizenship In A Republic”, delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910, and I think it is germane to this discussion,
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I know that my comments will likely receive all manner of satirical and venomous bashing. That’s ok. I’m used to being in the arena…

Posted by dwc | Report as abusive

Nice article. Nice point. Nice prose. Nice comments. Problem solved. You ignorant non-US whiners deserve the silence, the absence, the apathy, the free will and ultimately the decision of the US to just leave you alone to your own vices. Stay home and deal with your lives without US. I’ll never support YOUR wars and self-inflicted tribal justice. Careful what you hope for. Because a growing majority of America, the greatest force for freedom EVER known, is coming to the same conclusion. We move farther away every time you whine with your hand out.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

The US should look at its prisons, the behavior of its police departments nationwide. Arizona now has figured that it is okay to stop anyone a police officer deems potential illegal alien. Maybe the world should publish the state of human rights in the United States.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

No worries, in about another 50 years, the US will be broke and unable to push anyone around.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

Mr Debusman on a slow news day: “Hmmm, how can I criticize the United States today?… Oh, here we go, the State Dept publishes a detailed report every year with the apparent intention of improving human rights around the world! We can’t have THAT! Awesome! The report contains every country in the world except the US. I can really stir up my frustrated anti-American readership with this one.” What rubbish.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Hey Debusman, I hear they’ve stopped beating foreign reporters in Beijing. Why don’t you go for a walk about in Tiananmen and conclude it never happened for us.

That’s what they’ll tell you when you get there anyway. Why doubt it?

Posted by dzoo35 | Report as abusive

But there’s no ‘I’ in Team America….oh wait,(checks spelling and thanks a teacher) yes, there, is!

It’s a crazy thought, but maybe this is an example of why there is such general hatred of

“USA – World Police”

Posted by Foztah | Report as abusive

US human rights is not bad, especially about Bradley Manning that his superiors; instead of praising him, they take him down for the inherited dirty war. Human rights in reality are just lies and cover-ups for activists as pay jobs. Drone bombs are perfect weapons enhancing civilian rights in war zones. Zionist’s cluster bombs in Gaza prolongs the enjoyments of oppressing neighbors. We should write really write more about human rights. We cannot help it because it is a pay job to feed the family every often. Govt budget cuts are good so more people will become vulnerable and willing to lie like GOP Tea parties. We need this kind of human rights for all people of this world. Don’t blame us.

Posted by beancube2101 | Report as abusive

What an intellectually simplistic ‘analysis.’ Talk about phoning it in . . .

By excluding the U.S., the State Department isn’t saying the U.S. is perfect, just that the State Department isn’t delegated the authority to provide diplomatic services, analysis or anything else to the United States itself. To assume otherwise for Bernd’s rhetorical convenience is just silly.

And to imply some bizarre Chinese moral relativism to human rights is itself intellectually dishonest. We’re looking at the most basic thresholds here, not some nuanced distinction.

Posted by PapaDisco | Report as abusive


Well said. A very good story. If more Americans were as keen as you are, concerning our Country’s Human Rights, we probably could become a better country. In the mean time our National Interests, come first.

Posted by Av8ts | Report as abusive

@dwc, yours was the best comment here!

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

I agree with iflydaplanes (i fix em’). DWC was right on. Teddy R. was one the greatest leaders of Men. Colonel Roosevelt’s words will live in infamy! I ve reminded Bernd a few times about history and what will be. Bernd maybe change gears a bit, lets hear how terrible….ummm…Maybe Britian is? or hmmm…how about China? Or ummmm….what about Russia? Oh…never mind…stick with the U.S.A. Any thing less than that would be, just that, less than….
I gotta get a gig like that….lol:)

Posted by Av8ts | Report as abusive

It is not the role of the State Department to report on the United States.

Posted by Nen | Report as abusive

The United States spends more on its military than the entire world combined. Before WW1, we had a token military. Then Europe, that stable place of harmony, peace, and wisdom that it is, plunged the world into war. After the war, the US got rid of it’s military almost entirely and went home. Twenty years later Germany, Russia (USSR), and Japan decide to start killing millions of people….again. After WW2, Stalin kills MILLIONS more and threatens all of Western Europe, after devouring the East. Without the US all of Germany, France, and Britain would have become a part of the USSR, in addition to the Middle East.

That’s how we became the world’s cop. It’s a lousy job and Americans hate it. We have all seen the consequences for humanity if we quit. And we get as much credit as a beat cop in a gang neighborhood, but the moment someone needs us, we are told that if we don’t go in we’ll be responsible for the carnage.

When was the last time Europe effectively used military power? The US had to put out the Bosnia fire in Europe’s back yard. 400 Swiss “peace-keepers” watched as Sbrenica happened right in front of them. I guess that’s how you acquire a feeling of moral superiority. You’d better pray that America doesn’t decide to let you fend for yourselves. Because you CAN’T.

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