The State Department’s human rights report for 2018 released Wednesday notes Saudi Arabia’s killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi without mentioning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence services believe ordered the premeditated murder.
The annual report catalogs violence, repression and cruelty around the world, under a mandate set by Congress in foreign aid and trade laws. President Donald Trump has defended violators and spent little time addressing human rights. His administration officials have only selectively raised the issue and his State Department has made subtle changes to the annual report that seem to signal human rights and civil liberties are a lower priority.
Where previous administrations’ reports referred to a country’s human rights “problems,” the Trump administration’s reports call them human rights “issues.”
‘Regardless of their record’
This year’s report makes it explicitly clear that a country’s rights record will not be a determining factor guiding US diplomacy.
“The policy of this administration is to engage with other governments, regardless of their record, if doing so will further US interests,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo states in the preface.
As in 2017, the report has a drastically reduced emphasis on sexual and reproductive rights, though it notes the treatment of LBGT communities, and again this year bucks international consensus by declining to identify the West Bank or Gaza Strip as Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.
Speaking to reporters at the State Department Wednesday, Pompeo singled out Iran, Nicaragua and China, noting that Beijing is “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”
Pompeo pointed to China’s targeting of Muslim minorities, saying that Beijing has now imprisoned more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and Kazaks in internment camps.
Ambassador Michael Kozak of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor told reporters that “you haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s of rounding up … some estimations are in the millions of people, and then putting them into camps and … torturing them, abusing them and trying to basically erase their culture and their religion and so on from their DNA. It’s just remarkably awful.”
Kozak said North Korea has demonstrated no improvement and remains “still one of the worst human rights situations in the world.” He also noted the situation in Venezuela, saying it “is terrible …. this report goes through the end of last year, and it’s gotten only worse since then.”
A section detailing the plethora of human rights abuses in Iran, one the Trump administration’s primary foes, was distinguished by an editorial edge that didn’t appear in other entries. “The government’s human rights record remained extremely poor,” the report said. Entries for countries simply list abuses without characterization.
“We used to have ‘remained extremely poor,’ and I think we’ve tried to get away from that” language, said Kozak. “Frankly I don’t know why we missed it in that case, we try not to generally put that characterization in anymore. There was a time that we did 20 years ago and we don’t do it anymore.”
Kozak noted separately that Pompeo was involved in the report’s assembly. “One thing the secretary has been very strong on as we went through the editing process this year is ‘let’s keep it to the facts, ma’am,’ and not draw conclusions, but try to always get back to what are the facts.”
Kozak later said they aimed to “let the reader draw the conclusion.”
‘Even some of our friends’
The report also tied Iran to human rights abuses in Syria and Yemen. But when it mentioned civilian casualties related to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, where the United Nations says both the coalition and the Houthis may be guilty of crimes against humanity, the report takes on a different tone.
It pairs mention of Saudi-linked civilian deaths with references to rights violations by Houthi rebels – in a section meant to focus on the kingdom – and refers to mitigating measures the Saudis are taking, including providing “compensation to affected families.”
Indeed, despite Pompeo’s declaration that abuses will be “meticulously documented” and that “even some of our friends, allies and partners around the world have human rights violations, we document those reports with equal force,” the 2018 document appears to tread lightly in some areas, perhaps most obviously when it comes to the government of Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration has declared Saudi Arabia an essential partner for three foreign policy priorities: containing Iran, combating extremism in the Middle East and funding Palestinian development in support of a potential agreement with Israel.
Kozak did not answer when asked why the report failed to mention bin Salman in connection to Khashoggi’s death, instead talking at length about an ongoing Saudi investigation and saying, “we’re sort of in the middle of that movie.”
Kozak also refused to say whether the State Department had reviewed the CIA assessment on Khashoggi’s killing. Sources have told CNN intelligence agencies have assessed that bin Salman directed the murder, which former Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker has said the prince “ordered, monitored.”
“I’m not going to give you an answer about Saudi,” Kozak said. “but I can say that we, I mean we routinely review intelligence information as part of our daily job.”
‘Judicially administered amputation’
The State Department report notes that the Saudi prosecutor’s office has “not named the suspects nor the roles allegedly played by them in the killing, nor had they provided a detailed explanation of the direction and progress of the investigation. In other cases, the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity.”
In addition, the executive summary on Saudi Arabia does not mention the jailing and reported torture of women activists who had lobbied for the right of all women to drive, though it notes that “new women’s rights initiatives were implemented.” The women were arrested in the summer of 2018 on charges of undermining national security.
On Wednesday, 11 of them were charged under a cybercrime law that carries a maximum of five years in jail, with the prosecutor seeking other charges as a deterrent to others. The UK-based Saudi rights group Alqst said the charges relied on “alleged confessions that the women had been in contact with human rights organizations.”
The report does note that abuses in Saudi Arabia in 2018 included unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced renditions; forced disappearances; and torture of prisoners. It adds that “there were no reported cases of judicially administered amputation during the year.”
CNN’s Naome Seifu and Sarah El Sirgany contributed to this report