`Report' Card: The State Department's Annual Human-Rights Report Now Is the `Document of Record' for Assessing the Decency of U.S. Allies and Adversaries and for Basing U.S. Foreign Policy on American Values

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In late February, for the 26th time in as many years the State Department will issue its annual country report on human-rights practices around the world. As in other years, the report will take to task U.S. allies and foes alike for practices ranging from abetting the trafficking of persons to unfair labor practices to the torture, disappearance and killing of their fellow citizens.

The document likely will take on new significance in the war environment that has followed Sept. 11, diplomats and rights activists say, with one likening it to a "test under fire" because of the changed political and military climate. What is said in the report about which countries, and how that information is presented, will be scrutinized widely for insight into future U.S. foreign policy.

Friends and critics of U.S. foreign policy will glean the report for information and insights to buttress their arguments about U.S. counterterrorism strategy generally, as well as U.S. alliances with suspect countries that were forged after the al-Qaeda outrages. Some may find what is not found in the report as telling as the truths it contains.

Human-rights advocates say that they will be focusing special attention this year on the reporting about Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Israel and Egypt to determine whether punches were pulled on human-rights issues in those countries as a means of accommodating U.S. policy interests. Noted one U.S. diplomat: "You can be sure that rights activists, as well as officials of other governments, will be poring over it line by line to see how it was changed from last year."

At the center of the brewing information frenzy is Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. His office is responsible for preparing the report, which in a quarter-century has grown from a slender volume to two weighty tomes. Human-rights activists give Craner generally high marks for his openness and responsiveness in his nine months in office but say ultimately his credibility, and the continuing credibility of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, rest with the quality of the report being readied for release.

No one is more aware of the heightened scrutiny the report is likely to receive than Craner himself, who tells INSIGHT that his "bedrock pledge" is to maintain and, if possible, improve the bureau's human-rights reporting (see "The Standard-Bearer for Human-Rights Report").

The degree of interest in this year's report reflects the impact it has achieved, to the point most consider it to be the "document of record" for measuring international human-rights performance against which other analyses are matched. The report's most enthusiastic consumers include a broad spectrum of members of Congress, as well as advocates and activists from around the world. In past years, publication of the document on the State Department's Website (ummzstate.gov) has resulted in hundreds of millions of "hits" by avid readers, a phenomenon repeated on U.S. embassy Websites around the world.

"The report" noted one human-rights advocate who has worked inside the State Department, "is a very frank document that many of our friends around the world don't particularly like, especially when once a year the U.S. government goes on record to say things like, `They mutilate, torture and kill their citizens.'"

The usefulness of human-rights studies to policymakers appears undeniable. "The rights reports do an outstanding job of covering issues that are not covered anywhere else," says Charles Brown, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. "No one else does this kind of consistent reporting. There is a wealth of information [in the report] that you can't find anywhere else."

However, producing the report frequently generates complaints by U.S. diplomats who remain hostile to the idea of having to explain to foreign presidents and other senior officials why the United States says it wants to improve relations, but at the same time feels compelled to issue critical reports. …