Trump administration's first human rights report sparks fierce criticism

PHOTO: Acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan speaks on the release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at April 20, 2018, in Washington, DC.Win McNamee/Getty Images
Acting U.S. Secretary of State John Sullivan speaks on the release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at April 20, 2018, in Washington, DC.

The U.S. State Department has released its first human rights report fully compiled under the Trump administration, and it's generating controversy for several changes and omissions - including eliminating references to "reproductive rights" and dropping use of the term "occupied territories."

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The report – which is mandated by Congress – is published every year and details human rights in virtually every country and territory around the world. It's compiled by diplomats at posts on the ground over the course of the previous year.

Last year, there was controversy because then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not publicly appear to roll out the report, which critics say signaled his disinterest in promoting human rights early in his tenure.

This year, acting Secretary John Sullivan spoke briefly at the launch, explaining the importance of the report and taking a moment to call out certain countries – Syria, Myanmar, Venezuela, Turkey, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia – the last four of which were labeled "forces of instability" because of their human rights abuses.

Here are some of the headlines from this year's report and from a briefing with Amb. Michael Kozak, the senior official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

ELIMINATING REFERENCE TO 'REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS'

Generating the most attention is the replacement of sections on "reproductive rights" with ones on "coercion in population control" – a sign of the Trump administration's anti-abortion push that spreads beyond the U.S., like reinstating the so-called Mexico City policy and reportedly trying to remove references to contraception, abortion, and sex education at the United Nations.

In 2012, under Hillary Clinton, the department first included "reproductive rights," but the term has been misconstrued to mean abortion rights, according to Amb. Kozak, so the Trump administration wanted to dispel that notion: "It's not a diminishment of women's rights or a desire to get away from it. It was to stop using a term that has several different meanings that are not all the ones we intend."

PHOTO: President Donald Trump holds an executive order titled Mexico City Policy, which bans federal funds going to overseas organizations that perform abortions, Jan. 23, 2017.Ron Sachs/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Donald Trump holds an executive order titled "Mexico City Policy", which bans federal funds going to overseas organizations that perform abortions, Jan. 23, 2017.

The U.S. has never taken a position on whether there is a right to an abortion because there's no internationally recognized standard, Kozak added – but there is one that no one should be forced to have an abortion or be sterilized, and that's what the reports are meant to target.

Still, the omission has been decried by some rights groups. "Reproductive rights are human rights, and omitting the issue signals the Trump administration’s latest retreat from global leadership on human rights," Amnesty International said in a statement. Human Rights Watch pointed out that the report is silent on the obstacles many women face in countries from Bolivia to Poland to Nepal on reproductive issues.

DROPPING USE OF THE TERM 'OCCUPIED TERRITORIES'

This year's report uses the section title, "Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza," as opposed to last year's "Israel and the Occupied Territories" – a first, according to Amnesty International.

Within the 2017 section, the Golan Heights is still referred to as 'Israeli-occupied,' but not the West Bank, as in years past.

When a journalist tried multiple times to ask a question about the Palestinian territories, he was shut down by spokesperson Heather Nauert, who called on others and then whisked Amb. Kozak away at the end.

DEPARTMENT'S REPORTS VS. TRUMP'S WORDS AND ACTIONS?

The report is tough on many countries, but its impact has been called into question given President Donald Trump's own behavior – both his embrace of some of the world leaders called out and his use of some of the bad behaviors called out – in particular, denigrating the press, his travel and refugee bans, and transgender military ban.

Should the Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte, for example, take notice of the report's condemnation of his brutal war on drugs – or of Trump's "great relationship" with him, as Trump said in November?

PHOTO: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and President Donald Trump, speak during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center, Nov. 13, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. Andrew Harnik/AP
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and President Donald Trump, speak during a bilateral meeting at the ASEAN Summit at the Philippine International Convention Center, Nov. 13, 2017, in Manila, Philippines.

Amb. Kozak said Trump's engagement with world leaders is "complementary" to the reports because "usually part of your policy is engaging with the people whose behavior you’re trying to change at some level."

"The fact is, these other governments and their populations do read the report, and I don’t think they discount it because the President speaks with their leader or otherwise," he added, noting that Trump raises these issues in his conversations.

In particular, Amb. Kozak was pushed on freedom of the press and Trump's attacks on 'fake news' media, but Kozak distinguished between tough talk and physical threats to media outlets overseas: "We make quite a distinction between political leaders being able to speak out and say that that story was not accurate or using even stronger words sometimes, and using state power to prevent the journalists from continuing to do their work."

GOING SOFT ON U.S. ALLIES?

The U.S. is always accused of going easier on its allies than its adversaries, but this report, in particular, is getting heat for that.

One example: Last year's report cited several "human rights problems" in Japan, most notably "lack of due process for detention of suspects and poor prison and detention center conditions." But this year the report said: "There were no reports of egregious human rights abuses."

But more notably, in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom the Trump administration is particularly close, is making advances on women's rights but flouting the rule of law with his detention and extortion of other princes.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, March 14, 2017.Evan Vucci/AP Photo
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, March 14, 2017.

While that's detailed in the report, Amb. Kozak was softer on the detentions than similar crackdowns elsewhere, saying they were "connected, ostensibly anyway, to more concern about corruption, which is another one of our issues... We're trying to encourage that kind of movement on the part of the Saudis."

The report also went lighter on Saudi's airstrikes in Yemen, according to human rights groups. It notes that their airstrikes "caused disproportionate collateral damage" – but makes no mention that they're also "indiscriminate and appeared not to sufficiently minimize collateral impact on civilians," as last year's report pointed out.

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