EDITOR'S NOTE: The United States has been striking a delicate balance between promoting human rights and pursuing foreign policy interests. Further challenges lie ahead for the Obama administration, says Robert McMahon, deputy editor of the Council for Foreign Relations. For the full article, please visit the Council for Foreign Relations Web site. A few excerpts:

The annual U.S. State Department report cataloguing the human rights failures and progress of nations around the world regularly arouses controversy as well as acclaim. Nations that receive poor ratings in the report, sometimes important U.S. partners, bitterly resent the exercise and often accuse Washington of hypocrisy. The Obama administration has stressed a commitment to improving the United States' own record, but already has grappled with reconciling strategic interests with China and other partners against the human rights concerns.

Human rights and foreign policy

For more than three decades, U.S. administrations have projected human rights as an important part of their foreign policy. Two presidents in particular - Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican George W. Bush - made the promotion of rights central to their foreign policy objectives, although both were accused of uneven fidelity to their rhetoric.

Some experts trace the rising prominence of human rights in U.S. foreign policy to the end of World War II, a response to the traumas caused by mass conflict and the Nazi genocide. Security and human rights underpinned the founding of the new United Nations, engineered in large part by the United States. The United States was a champion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, which spelled out for the first time in an international document that fundamental elements of human dignity and freedom trumped concerns about national sovereignty.

But it was congressional assertiveness in the 1970s that institutionalized human rights within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Following a series of scandals-including the Watergate affair-revelations about U.S. involvement in or support for brutality in Southeast Asia and Latin America emerged in a series of congressional investigations, including the panel led by Sen. Frank Church into the activities of U.S. intelligence services during the Cold War.

In 1976, the legislative branch also mandated an annual report by the secretary of state concerning "respect for internationally recognized human rights in each country proposed as a recipient of U.S. assistance." The mandate, contained in an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, led the Carter administration to create a new post for coordinating human rights and humanitarian affairs, which became the assistant secretary of state of democracy, human rights, and labor.

A report originally targeted at countries receiving U.S. aid began in a relatively modest number of pages into what is now a vast document that covers the globe, as the 2008 report indicates. Each year, U.S. embassies from Andorra to Zimbabwe compile reports on their countries, in many cases distilling information from a range of government bodies, non-governmental rights watchdogs, academics, jurists, and the media. The reports for each country follow a similar template, providing data on norms for civil and political rights like:

  • Respect for the integrity of the person, including torture, arbitrary arrest, denial of fair trial;

  • Respect for civil and political liberties, including freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly, and ability to participate in the political process;

  • Government attitude and record regarding international and non-governmental investigations of alleged violation of human rights;

  • Discrimination, societal abuses, and trafficking in persons, including discussion of the rights of women and children, and indigenous peoples;

  • Worker rights, including the right to organize and bargain collectively, the prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, and the prohibition of child labor.

The annual release of the report, usually in late winter each year, raises the ire of many countries. Some experts say considerable debate, and sometimes friction, is also vented internally in the State Department, especially between the human rights bureau and specific missions, before the reports are finalized. "The different bureaus continue to have tremendous controversies over how to characterize human rights situations in different countries," says Roberta Cohen, a former deputy assistant secretary in the Carter administration's human rights bureau and now a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That indicates these reports matter and have influence."

Countervailing influences

The question of how to respond to especially dark allegations in the report about partners has vexed administrations both Republican and Democratic. Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state for Presidents Nixon and Ford in the 1970s, when congressional activism on human rights hit a peak, has warned against placing too strong an emphasis on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy. "However powerful America is, no country has the capacity to impose all of its preferences on the rest of mankind," he wrote in his 1994 book Diplomacy. "Priorities must be established."

Hillary Clinton reflected the challenge in balancing priorities during her first trip as secretary of state to Asia, which included a stop in China, the largest holder of U.S. debt and each year subject of a detailed catalogue of rights abuses reported by the State Department. When asked about the role of human rights in her upcoming discussions with Chinese officials, Clinton told reporters: "We have to continue to press them but our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises."

CFR Senior Fellow Elliot Abrams, who served as the Reagan administration's first assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs, is credited with making the reporting in the annual rights surveys more thorough during his tenure. But on the policy side, he has also faced criticism from some rights groups for not following through and holding to account brutal military dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala in the early 1980s that received U.S. military aid.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says if rights reports fail to perceptively move an administration's policy, they remain an admonishment to authorities. "It just makes it harder for senior policy officials to avoid dealing with issues," Malinowski says. "With [these] human rights reports, senior government officials can still choose not to act but they can't choose not to know."

'We don't have a Guantanamo' camp

Countries ranging from dictatorships to democracies have long chafed at the U.S. rights report card as an intrusion in their internal affairs, or at the very least rank hypocrisy. The reactions to the 2008 report, released in February 2009, are typical. China, cited for a poor record, including repression of ethnic minorities in its Tibet and Xinjiang regions, continued its recent practice of responding with its own critique of U.S. human rights performance. It cited figures on violent crime and poverty, for instance, in the United States as signs of the "widespread human rights abuses on its own territory."

Reaction was also sharp among U.S. allies like Turkey and Chile, one of Latin America's leading democratic voices. In response to a report that was generally positive but critical of Chile's treatment of indigenous people and overcrowded prisons, a government spokesman said (Valparaiso Times) "We do not have a Guantanamo [prison camp.]"

Yet many rights watchdogs, including groups like Human Rights Watch, which has regularly condemned U.S. abuses of human rights in its post- 9/11 "war on terror," still reserve praise for the annual State Department reports.

CFR's Abrams, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, noted the blow to America's image caused by the abuses committed by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib but cautioned against exaggerating the impact. The more salient argument, he says, comes from rights activists, such as those in Egypt, who believe the U.S. government abandoned their cause after initially pushing the freedom agenda in Cairo.

A new human rights footing?

The Obama administration has acknowledged concerns raised by other states about the annual State Department report. In releasing the 2009 report, officials reiterated U.S. adherence to rights practices, citing new orders to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay and review policies on detention and interrogation. The administration also revived U.S. observer status at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2009 and announced it was making itself a candidate for election to the council for the first time.

But many challenges await the administration in setting forth a human rights agenda, including the trajectory of the rights dialogue at the United Nations. The United States has announced it will not attend the April 2009 UN conference on racism, known as Durban II, because of disproportionate focus on Israel. In addition to managing its relationship with China, the administration has announced a "reset" in relations with Russia that could involve some difficult compromises on rights issues, and may face tough policy choices in regard to Sudan, whose president has just been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged abuses toward the people of Darfur.

Amid such policy considerations, the State Department's annual reporting, while perceived as a nuisance in some quarters, can also prove a useful database. "It's not just a report card but a really good indicator of a nature of a regime," says Brookings' Cohen. "It says how trustworthy a government is to deal with on a range of issues."

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