And so, pursuant to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, and...the Trade Act of 1974, as amended (I'll spare you the various paragraphs and subsection citations), the State Department in 1977 issued its first report to Congress, just 137 pages in length, covering 82 countries (all those which received U.S. assistance).
Friday, ever faithful to its Congressional mandate, the State Dept. issued its 1999 report on human rights to Congress. This year it weighed in at more than 6,000 pages and covered 194 countries.
On one hand, just another example of bureaucratic inflation. On the other hand, Friday's report indicates a significant shift in foreign policy priorities.
"Serious and repeated abuses of human rights are everybody's business," says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "In today's transformed world," Albright continued, "ignorance of atrocities is barely possible and therefore no excuse."
These annual reports now result from the gathering of information from many sources. In the first instance all U.S. embassies abroad contribute in great detail with reporting in all of the areas which make up the report, including human rights, religious freedom, press freedom, rights of women, rule of law, workers rights and the trafficking of persons in various parts of the world.
U.S. officials in the embassies write the first draft of the annual document.
Reports are also gathered from non-governmental organizations specializing in human rights, from international and regional organizations and from press reports.
After information is gathered, it goes through a process of being sifted and verified to the extent possible in Washington, although Department officials concede "it is often difficult to evaluate the credibility of reports of human rights abuses."
The nature and tone of the annual reports have changed over the years. Concern for the rights of women have been highlighted in recent years and in the 1999 report, for the first time, a special section in each country's report addressed the challenge posed by trafficking in human beings. The report calls this a "growing, global problem," mostly affecting women and children.
Secretary Albright concluded her introduction of the report by saying "there was a time, not that long ago, when it would have seemed beside the point to raise the issue of human rights in a diplomatic or foreign policy setting. Today, promoting democracy and human rights often is the main point."
The report can be read on the State Department's website.
By Charles Wolfson