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Human Rights Report Sets Global Standard

New categories include rights of disabled, indigenous peoples

WHEN the State Department delivers its annual Human Rights Report to Congress on Jan. 31, it will include new categories for evaluating conditions in 189 countries: rights of the disabled, rights of native peoples, and attacks on human rights monitors.

This report, the first under the Clinton administration, will also expand sections on violence against children, abuses against women, and prisoners' and workers' rights, a State Department official said.

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Despite the growth of the Human Rights Report since the mid-1970s into a widely respected review, it is not clear that it has had a decisive effect on US policies toward rights violators or that it causes those violators to change their policies.

``We have made efforts over the years to get administrations to declare a country a `gross and consistent violator,' but so far no administration has ever done so,'' the State Department official said. Such a declaration would lock the government into cutting off aid and preferential trade privileges. Even Sudan, Burma, Iraq, and China - which have received highly negative reports for human rights abuses - have avoided this label.

``The perennial problem is that the Human Rights Report has little or nothing to do with US policy,'' said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Asia Watch's Washington director.

Fifteen years ago, when Congress mandated human rights reporting, it was derided by some as a tool to criticize enemies in Cuba and Moscow while glossing over abuses of America's friends in South Korea and Iran.

``In the early Reagan years, the report was skewed to reflect the strategic views of the administration; but it has evolved and is much more objective, especially since the end of the cold war,'' Mr. Jendrzejczyk said. Indeed, the State Department has increasingly turned to Asia Watch and other groups as an information source.

But he added that reports may downplay abuses in nations like China and Indonesia to placate US business interests or to use quiet diplomacy instead of public embarrassment. Countries like Israel, with open access to media and diplomats, get intense scrutiny; while China, Iraq, and Syria are largely closed to outside observers, though hundreds or thousands may be killed, imprisoned, or repressed for political views, ethnicity, or religion.

Nevertheless, Jendrzejczyk said: ``We are the only government that does this in-depth analysis of the world.''

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``Human rights has become an authentic, peaceful world revolution,'' said George Lister, State Department senior policy adviser for human rights and humanitarian affairs. The report is a valuable indicator of the revolution ``as long as [it] is kept honest and criticizes right-wing and left-wing governments with the same standards.''

Since draft reports are prepared by US embassies in each country, they had sometimes been tainted by ``clientitis - the tendency of a US ambassador to get too friendly with the local dictator,'' Mr. Lister said, although he added that that now happens less often.

The reports can also be influenced by regional officials in Washington who add their own spin. The 1992 report on Haiti, for example, contains a section added by the Latin America department that accused President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of ordering the murder of a former government ``minister.'' The accusation, which Mr. Aristide denies, fails to explain that the ``minister'' led the paramilitary Tonton Macoutes, which killed thousands during the 1957-86 rule of the Duvalier dictators.

While reports have targeted Bosnian Serbs for ``ethnic cleansing'' and the worst abuses ``since Nazi times,'' they have also criticized allies like Australia for its treatment of Aborigines and Israel, where Palestinians were killed by security forces.

The report, however, fails to answer the charge by some third-world nations that Western values don't apply universally and that fighting poverty and illiteracy justifies suppression of rights. ``The tough question of economic justice versus human rights has not been resolved,'' Lister said.

The report is also used by the US immigration service for political-asylum applications, and by businesses to guide investment risk.

But it can only go so far: ``One must judge our performance by what we say and what we do. There are ... violations in every country,'' Lister said.

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