The US government's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices is an annual summary of human rights in countries around the world, submitted to Congress by the State Department. Congress passed laws requiring the State Department to report on human rights abroad as part of the Foreign Assistance Act. The first report covering internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements, came out in 1977, covering the previous year.

The 1970s was a formative period for human rights-related legislation in America, as Congress sought to enshrine human rights as a priority in US foreign policy. A 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act sought to withhold U.S. security assistance from countries in which the government engaged in "a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights."

A further amendment to the same act the following year imposed similar restrictions for recipients of US development assistance. From this we get a sense of why the U.S. government takes it upon itself to issue these reports. In the beginning, the legislation required the Secretary of State to submit a report every year on the human rights conditions of aid-recipient countries; a 1979 amendment broadened the reporting requirement to cover all other foreign countries.

Despite the legislative origins of the reports in connection with US foreign assistance, the role that they have actually played with regard to assistance decisions or US foreign policy more broadly is debatable, to say the least.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the first reports were criticised for being biased and thin on substance. Over time, with improvements in the breadth, quality, and accuracy of the reports, many observers have come to recognise them as authoritative. But of course, governments of countries whose human rights conditions are criticised in the reports will often dismiss the findings, even as civil society groups acknowledge their accuracy. That roughly corresponds to the situation we now witness in Bangladesh.

Although the reports are not concerned with the actions of the US government or even the effect of those actions, you do get subtle reflections of domestic politics in the US in them. For example the most recent reports have started containing information on reproductive rights once again, something that started during the Obama administration, although they were left out of the reports produced during the Trump administration.

Obviously no nation takes kindly to being identified as a human rights violator by the US government - to that extent, the human rights reports may help incentivise better human rights practices in some cases. Beyond this possible "name and shame" dynamic, the reports have in practice more often served as a reliable source for informing US policy, than as an instrument for restricting US foreign aid.

Sceptics point out that none of the legislative provisions actually require the State Department to characterise in their reports if a government's actions meet the statutory standard of "a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights." Similar annual reports that Congress mandated in later years, such as those on religious freedom and human trafficking, feature mechanisms to publicly designate problematic governments, flagging them for potential punitive action.

The State Department has generally contended that the reports serve as "a valuable tool in informing US policy on human rights as well as decisions on foreign aid, asylum, and other matters". Human rights advocates on the other hand have often argued for the reports to play a more concrete role in influencing US relations with foreign governments. But policymakers have resisted tying US policy too closely to human rights, recognising that it can overly constrain Washington's flexibility to address other challenges affecting US interests.

Possibly no US president in recent decades has arrived in office promising to make human rights such a central plank of US foreign policy, as Joe Biden did. The sanctions imposed on Bangladesh's elite paramilitary force RAB in December 2021 certainly reflected the new US president's seriousness in this regard.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, at a press conference to launch the report last Monday (Mar. 20) as he launched the annual U.S. country reports on human rights said he recognised that the United States was itself not perfect on human rights. But he said the difference was that the US system of government accepted such criticism and actively tried to correct identified problems.

"While this report looks outward, to countries around the world, well, you know, the United States faces its own set of challenges on human rights," he said. "Our willingness to confront our challenges openly, to acknowledge our own shortcomings - not to sweep them under the rug or pretend they don't exist - that is what distinguishes us."

It would be interesting to learn the secretary's thoughts on a rival report on human rights and democracy in the United States, which was released by China's Foreign Ministry on the same day. At his regular weekly press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also accused the United States of engaging in "power politics and the law of the jungle" by applying human rights-based economic sanctions on other countries, which he claimed was "gravely violating other countries' human rights."

On Bangladesh

It is widely perceived in Bangladesh these days, that the incumbent Awami League government is visibly under pressure from the Biden administration to mend its ways on certain issues that can be broadly categorised under the rubric of human rights. It is widely expected that in the coming year, or even less now, things may come to a head on the issue of the people's right to franchise, which has been diminished through the last two parliamentary elections.

The release of the 2022 human rights report on Bangladesh was met with a wide range of reactions. The government and its apologists appeared defiant, and sought an audience with the US ambassador, which they immediately received. A delegation led by General Secretary Obaidul Quader met embassy staff at the residence of the ambassador, and came away having communicated to them that any caretaker government provision to oversee the next elections is off limits. Short of having that on the agenda, they are even ready to initiate a dialogue with the BNP. The BNP on the other hand has said they would not participate in any election under the AL government, while the US embassy's official position is that they would like the election to be 'participatory'. Given that no election in Bangladesh without either the BNP or AL could in truth be described as participatory, this would still seem to be an unresolved issue. Watch this space in the months ahead.

While that is about the coming election, the US report this year, as in every year, starts off each country report with a description of the type of government in each country, alongwith how it came about. In that context, the 2018 election came in for severe criticism, as it always has, for failing to live up to standards.

"This election was not considered free and fair by observers due to reported irregularities, including ballot box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters.During the campaign leading to the election, there were many credible reports of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence that made it difficult for many opposition candidates and their supporters to meet, hold rallies, or campaign freely," said the report.

The Awami League also used law enforcement to bring cases and charges against opposition leaders, the US report said, adding, "BNP claimed police implicated thousands of BNP members in criminal charges related to political demonstrations during the year and detained many of the accused. Human rights observers claimed many of these charges were politically motivated."

You would think the various transgressions of the Bangladesh Chhatra League and the effect they're having on the higher education system in particular merited greater attention in the report. The ruling party's student wing did face some scrutiny in the report, but given the disturbances they have caused to the public peace and sentiments, they almost got off easy with the assessment: "[BCL] reportedly carried out violence and intimidation around the country with impunity, including against individuals affiliated with opposition groups."

There were numerous reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses and corruption throughout 2022. The State Department report said the government took few measures to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials or security force members who committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption.

Besides, the government took few measures to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials or security force members who committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption, which the report said remained a serious problem in 2022. "Freedom House's annual report noted 'corruption is endemic, and anticorruption efforts have been weakened by politicised enforcement'," it said.

Abuse of power and process by police of course is mentioned prominently in the report. It cites a Centre for Governance Studies analysis of extrajudicial killing between 2019 and 2021. The report claimed police, particularly the Detective Branch, were involved in more extrajudicial killings (51.2 percent of cases) than the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) (28.8 percent of cases). It almost seems to be acknowledging the US sanctions got the wrong guys. It neglects to consider the relative size of each force, or even that while deputised to RAB, officers are obliged to work as part of the police, under overall command of the IGP.

"Law enforcement raids occurred throughout the year, primarily to counter terrorist activity, drugs, and illegal firearms. Suspicious deaths occurred during some raids, arrests, and other law enforcement operations. Security forces members frequently denied their role in such deaths," the report said.

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