Democrats, activists slam changes to State Dept. rights report
Democratic lawmakers and activists are assailing the Trump administration over changes made to the State Department’s annual human rights report, which was released Friday, with many especially unhappy over dramatic cuts to sections on women’s reproductive rights.
Among other changes, this year’s report also appears to devote less space to discrimination by nonstate actors and drops the reference to “occupied territories” in labeling Gaza and the West Bank, according to analyses by rights researchers and POLITICO’s own spot checks.
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The report landed just days before a Senate confirmation vote is expected for Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, whose views on LGBT and other human rights-related issues have drawn significant Democratic opposition. And it once again threw a spotlight on the Trump administration’s mixed messaging on human rights.
“A human rights report that doesn’t fully address reproductive rights is woefully incomplete,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “The State Department’s attempt to characterize this as an effort to ‘refocus’ the report is merely a poor excuse for stripping references to a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health choices.”
The human rights report is a collection of reports from nearly 200 countries and territories worldwide. The massive document is widely used by researchers, activists, lawmakers and others as a reference for human rights conditions globally.
While Rex Tillerson was secretary of state, State Department staffers working on this year’s report were ordered at the last minute to make significant changes, including trimming the amount of space devoted to women’s access to abortion, contraception and other reproduction-related issues, and placing less emphasis on discrimination by nongovernmental entities.
Since POLITICO first reported on the ordered revisions, the State Department has insisted the changes were for “clarity,” to avoid duplicating information found elsewhere, and to adhere more strictly to statutes related to the report. But critics see the changes as evidence of the sway abortion rights opponents and other conservative forces have over the administration.
This year’s document replaced a section usually titled “Reproductive Rights” with one titled “coercion in population control.” Spot checks of several countries’ individual reports showed that the section was far shorter than in the past and did not contain references to the availability of abortion or the societal limits on women’s ability to obtain contraception.
The section on Ireland in last year’s report included a meaty but concise explanation of the country’s strict laws on abortion and the challenges associated with it for women.
In this year’s report, that section is just two sentences long. The first sentence reads: “There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods.” The second sentence directs readers to a link to World Health Organization statistics on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence. Similar two-sentence paragraphs are used for other countries as well.
During a news conference on Friday, State Department official Michael Kozak explained that the cuts in references to the ability to obtain an abortion were in part because there was no international consensus on whether it’s a good thing to have access to the procedure, although it is generally agreed that forcing someone to have an abortion is a violation of the person’s rights.
“We don’t report on it because it’s not a human right,” Kozak said of abortion. “It’s an issue of great policy debate.”
Officials with Human Rights Watch, which launched a Twitter thread to highlight the changes in this year’s report, said they worried that the administration would harm the document’s integrity.
“The administration is undermining a document that has long been relied upon by the Congress, foreign governments and activists alike to assess human rights conditions around the world,” said Andrea Prasow, the group’s deputy Washington director.
The changes to sections on racial, sexual and other discrimination also appear to have been pared back in some cases to focus more on what governments are doing as opposed to nonstate entities.
This year’s report on India, for instance, didn’t include the following sentence, which was in previous reports: “Muslim personal law traditionally governs land inheritance for Muslim women, allotting them less than allotted to men.”
Amnesty International noted that this year’s report didn’t include a longstanding clause in its executive summary about the Dominican Republic: “The most serious human rights problem was widespread discrimination against Haitian migrants and their descendants.”
The preface to this year’s report was written by John Sullivan, who has been serving as the acting secretary of state since Trump’s decision in March to fire Tillerson.
Sullivan singled out the governments of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia for criticism, saying they “violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”
While not denying the validity of the statement, rights activists said it did not bode well that Sullivan criticized only U.S. adversaries by name while not mentioning any U.S. allies that also routinely violate human rights, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“It plays directly into the critique that this administration views the promotion of human rights only as a means to pummel America’s adversaries and competitors,” said Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First. “Hypocrisy is normal when it comes to U.S. rhetoric on support for civil and political rights abroad, but this administration has taken selective application to a new level.”
(In his public remarks introducing the report Friday, Sullivan went beyond the list in his written preface, singling out at least one U.S. ally, Turkey, for rights abuses.)
This year’s report also changed the title of the section once titled “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza.” Other references to “occupied territories” are also replaced with the names of those lands.
The relabeling, which is likely to irk Palestinian officials, was just the latest signal of the Trump administration’s desire to put as little daylight as possible between it and Israel, even as it tries to come up with a framework for a peace deal in the region.