May 7, 2021, 7:32 p.m.
On March 30, the US State Department released its 2020 Human Rights Reports – key work that activists and scholars do to document human rights abuses and ensure government accountability. This year's release comes after former President Donald Trump years of undermining the quality and scope of the documents, including restricting reproductive rights coverage. Now Foreign Minister Antony Blinken has promised to reverse course by expanding the coverage of women's issues in the reports – but he needs to go further to make human rights and the fight against sexual and gender-based violence a strategic priority.
Since the mid-1970s, the United States has demonstrated its global leadership by using these annual briefings to systematically monitor the status of human rights around the world. Although the reports are sometimes controversial, they play a crucial role in raising the profile of human rights and strengthening the work of organizations that prevent abuse. By drawing international attention to violations and publicly identifying abusers, these reports also help hold governments – who care about these reports and their reputations – accountable for their actions.
However, the quality of these reports declined under the Trump administration. Not only did Trump curtail it and cut its coverage, it also made less reference to women, procreation, racism, sexual violence and abuse, LGBTQ rights and refugees compared to reports from previous governments.
This deterioration in quality has had a devastating effect on the protection of human rights around the world. For example, the 2019 Nigerian country report omitted significant amounts of information about human rights violations by state security forces. The report suggested that Boko Haram was more likely to commit sexual violence than state security forces than the Nigerian military and Special Anti-Robbery Squad police reportedly have committed rape, torture and extrajudicial killings at higher rates for years. With this omission of information, the Nigerian government was able to enter into an arms trade with the Trump administration and bypass a moratorium imposed by the Obama administration over human rights violations by the Nigerian military.
In some cases, the reduced quality of reporting has also led to a misrepresentation of the improvement on site. The Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict dataset, based on the United States Human Rights Reports, Amnesty International reports, and Human Rights Watch reports, shows that the proportion of states reported to have committed conflict-related sexual violence between 2016 and 2019 The trend contradicts the data for the past 30 years, which shows that state forces are most often reported as perpetrators of sexual violence during the war. With Trump truncating reports by excluding information about discrimination, social abuse, and human trafficking, we likely believe that decline was partly due to those abbreviated reports – more than actual progress made in ending sexual violence during the war. A false sense of progress hinders efforts to end sexual violence during the war. A decline in the quality of reports also undermines confidence in existing reports and damages the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' credibility.
More importantly, poor coverage hinders efforts to hold perpetrators accountable and help survivors. Gathering data on wartime sexual violence is already a notorious challenge. Often, because of stigma, survivors are reluctant to report abuses – and even when they do, local law enforcement agencies rarely prioritize sex crimes and are often ill-equipped to handle their cases. Many criminal justice systems that functioned at all during the war rarely prosecute and punish rapists. All of these challenges mean that we lack hard numbers on conflict-related sexual violence, a broad term that encompasses rape, sexual mutilation, forced sterilization, and other atrocities. This hinders humanitarian organizations and researchers who rely on these data to respond to survivors and analyze sexual violence during the war.
In addition to publishing these human rights reports, the United States has also worked to mitigate sexual violence by advancing the agenda for women, peace and security in the United Nations Security Council. Washington played a leading role in passing resolutions recognizing sexual violence during the war as a war crime and a threat to international peace and security. In today's Hillary Doctrine, the United States was one of the first countries to recognize sexual and gender-based violence as an international security problem.
But that agenda lost momentum under the Trump administration. Trump displayed misogynist behavior and expanded policies, such as Mexico City's policies – often referred to by critics as the "global gag rule" – which threatened women's rights. Although Congress passed the first law on women, peace and security in 2017, Trump undermined its agenda by trying to get rid of the message on global women's issues. When these efforts failed, he left the position vacant for nearly three years.
Women are moving into positions of power at an unprecedented rate under the Biden administration – but President Joe Biden needs to go further to make gender equality and human rights a strategic priority. Gender equality is not just a domestic problem. it is also a global concern. Biden's agenda for women is to "protect and empower women around the world," but unlike the other goals on the list, it's vague and unspecified. The United States must renew its commitment to the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and work to implement it.
To make human rights a strategic priority, the State Department should first reinforce its annual human rights reports so that they are more comprehensive, detailed and nuanced. In particular, reports should include incidents of sexual violence and harassment. Sexual violence often requires different policies to address survivors' needs, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent further abuse. By systematically documenting all incidents of sexual violence, these reports can help provide the nuances states, activists, and organizations need to tackle the problem.
The Biden government should also increase its funding for international and national non-governmental organizations that focus on the fight against human rights. Although the State Department relies on these local organizations to provide its reports with information, a lack of funding often limits its work.
The State Department's human rights reports depend on good investigative journalism. It is therefore imperative for the United States to support journalists at home and abroad. Human rights defenders and academics alike depend on this obligation of reporting and factuality, and the State Department must show both material and ideological support for a free press that holds governments accountable. While social pressure and fear of retaliation often prevent survivors from reporting abuses, an independent press can help raise awareness of sexual violence and advocate for the protection of human rights.
Finally, the State Department must work to remove bias in its reporting. US allies and recipients of foreign aid are often portrayed more favorably in Washington human rights reports than in international surveillance organizations. However, this hinders activists' efforts to hold these governments accountable and undermines the credibility of the reports. To effectively protect against human rights violations, Washington should identify all potential violators, regardless of whether they are allies or enemies.
After the Trump administration looked the other way on international human rights violations and at the same time compromised the quality of its annual reports, the Biden administration inherited a State Department in need of restoration. It is time for Washington to restore and strengthen its commitment to human rights and once again make the United States a world leader in the campaign to end sexual and gender-based violence.