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Human Rights Reporting and U.S. Foreign Policy


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. Since 9/11, many states have sharply criticized the United States for singling out their records when Washington has itself been under scrutiny for its actions at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At the same time, many rights activists say the annual U.S. report shines a useful spotlight on abusivenations. Since the U.S. Congress mandated the reports in 1976, policymakers have sought to balance the need to engage friends and allies while acknowledging the human rights shortcomings cited by the State Department. 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. Carter said in a June 1977 speech at the University of Notre Dame that a commitment to human rights was a "fundamental tenet" of U.S. foreign policy. He said: "For too many years, we've been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs." Nonetheless, Cold War concerns kept the U.S. aligned with dictators and military regimes in the Philippines,...

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