Conflict & Justice

State Dept. report on world human rights ignores US abuses


Palestinian youths wave flags and escape tear gas during clashes with Israeli forces following a protest against the confiscation of Palestinian land to expand the nearby Jewish settlement of Hallamish.



From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the State Department's annual report card on human rights in most of the countries in the world, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011, is detailed and thorough, except for one thing – the United States' actions seem to be missing. 

Besides the obvious lack of self-reflection, the Atlantic called the report "a must-read for its reporting and candor." It's well organized, easy to navigate, uses a universally applied template, and often cites information from NGOs and human rights organizations. 

However, reading through the report, it became obvious that the State Department cannot accurately issue a report on abuses around the world if it's not willing to admit to its own abuses, or even controversial actions it has come under fire for.

Here are some of the confusing holes we found in the annual report. 

Israel and the occupied territories

In the subsection titled, "Political Prisoners and Detainees," a simple paragraph says: "There were no reports of citizen political prisoners or detainees. NGOs alleged there were noncitizen political detainees, but the government maintained that it only held prisoners on criminal and security grounds." 

According to Human Rights Watch's annual report covering the same time period, "As of September 31 Israel detained 164 Palestinian children under 18-years-old, and also held 272 Palestinians in administrative detention without charge."

In addition, take the case of peaceful protester Bassem al-Tamimi, who has been arrested by Israeli forces numerous times. He was last arrested in March 2011 after Israeli forces allegedly coerced testimony from a fifteen-year-old. Tamimi was released on probation this week. The State Department report said of Freedom of Assembly Rights in Israel, "The law provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government respected these rights in practice."


The chapter on Afghanistan's second paragraph begins, "...human rights problems included extrajudicial killings by security forces-- for example, the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Kandahar was implicated in several cases of torture and extrajudicial killings" and sets the tone for a chapter full of reports of extrajudicial killings. In the entire Afghanistan report, there is no mention of "U.S." "US" or "United States."

News of President Obama's so-called "Kill List," a take-no-prisoners plan for combating terrorism in Afghanistan in the New York Times this week, certainly pokes holes in claims of Afghan security forces acting alone in extrajudicial killings and begs the question, "who else is involved?"

The State Department report's first sub-section in every country chapter is called "Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life." While Afghan police and security forces, as well as the Taliban, have been implicated in these kinds of killings, as the report makes clear, the war's biggest news in March, 2011 was of U.S. military personnel killing civilians for "sport" (arbitrarily) and posing with their bodies.

Rolling Stone magazine broke the story and went into disturbing detail on a number of instances of unwarranted murder, such as troops posing for photos with the body of a young boy. Those soldiers have since faced court martial. This and all other well-known and well-documented instances of U.S. abuses in 2011 go unmentioned in a series of paragraphs about atrocities committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

And when it comes to prisons, it's common knowledge that torture has been an on-going problem in the war in Afghanistan. 

"Most prisons and detention centers, particularly Ministry of the Interior (MOI) detention centers, were decrepit, severely overcrowded, unsanitary, and fell well short of international standards," says the State Dept. report, continuing, "In October UNAMA reported that widespread mistreatment and torture of detainees occurred in NDS and ANP detention facilities. Security forces used suspension; beatings, especially with rubber hoses, electric cables, or wires and wooden sticks, most frequently on the soles of the feet; electric shock; twisting of detainees’ genitals; stress positions; removal of toenails; and threats of sexual abuse."

Human Rights Watch's report on Afghanistan makes it clear that the U.S. prisons in Afghanistan are little better, and reported torture and abuse at Bagram Prison, which is under shared U.S. and Afghan control has recently come to light.

According to the AP, unnamed U.S. military sources said, “suspected terrorists are still being held under hazy circumstances with uncertain rights in secret, military-run jails across Afghanistan, where they can be interrogated for weeks without charge.”

Ultimately, as HRW puts it, "For many international actors, particularly the US, a desire to bow out of what increasingly appears to be an unwinnable war has entirely overshadowed concerns about human rights."


The Atlantic published an article about drone strikes in Yemen going unmentioned in the State Dept. report yesterday. That article pointed out the covert yet open-secret level of U.S. involvement in drone strikes that hit civilians. 

According to the State Dept., "The government also employed air strikes against AQAP and affiliated insurgents in Abyan, with some strikes hitting civilian areas. Although some accused the government of intentionally striking civilians in Abyan, most if not all noncombatant casualties from these bombardments were attributed to a lack of air force training and technical capability."

But, according to the Atlantic, "The United States gave $326 million in (overt) security assistance to Yemen between 2007 and 2011, which has had negligible impact on the government's ability to combat AQAP. In that same time period, AQAP has tripled in size and expanded its geographic reach and influence. According to Air Force General Ali Abdullah Saleh Al Haymi, 'U.S. assistance was used to kill Yemeni people, not to kill al-Qaeda.'"

The government also targeted "rebellious tribes," according to the report, and the villages associated with them, according to human rights organizations, resulting in civilian casualties. 

This practice comes on the heels of the Kill List article in the New York Times, which mentioned the Obama administration's redefining the word "combatant" to be "military-age males in a strike zone." Redefining innocence based on physical location is a practice some aren't particularly excited about, least of all Glenn Greenwald, who recently wrote a scathing post about drone deaths in Yemen. 

"This practice continues even though key Obama officials have been caught lying, a term used advisedly, about how many civilians they’re killing," writes Greenwald. 

Human Rights Watch said of the deteriorating situation in Yemen in 2011, "The US reportedly conducted more than a dozen drone strikes and piloted air attacks on alleged AQAP militants in Yemen, including one in September that killed the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, editor of AQAP’s English-language magazine Inspire. Another suspected drone strike in October killed nine people including al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abderrahman. Both Awlakis and Samir were US citizens. US President Barack Obama called Awlaki the 'leader of external operations' for AQAP, but the killing of three Americans outside a traditional battlefield heightened a controversy over the US targeted killing program."

For more country chapters and for the full text of the State Deptartment Report, read it here.