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.