- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2017

A major review published by the State Department on Friday cited serious “human rights problems” in North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Turkey and a host of other nations — including many with close economic and military ties to Washington.

As it does annually, the review, known as the “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” cited political executions, media oppression and other tyrannical activities occurring around the world.

But the low-profile manner in which the State Department chose to present this year’s assessment — the first since President Trump took office — has drawn swift fire from critics, who say Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the new administration as a whole have missed a key chance to take a public stand on human rights.

Sen. Marco Rubio chastised Mr. Tillerson on Twitter for failing to personally unveil the review to reporters — something previous Republican and Democrat secretaries of state have gone out of their way to do with the goal of drawing as much media attention to the document as possible.

“For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State. I hope they reconsider,” Mr. Rubio tweeted Thursday, before the release of the review.

The Florida Republican tempered his criticism Friday, saying on Facebook that while he was “disappointed that the secretary of state did not personally present the latest report, this report remains a critical tool for the U.S. to shed light on foreign governments’ failure to respect the fundamental human rights of their citizens.”

The advocacy group Human Rights First also chided Mr. Tillerson for not publicizing the report.

“Today’s decision by Secretary Tillerson to break with bipartisan tradition and forego a public, senior-level rollout of the Human Rights Reports is yet another troubling indication that the Trump administration intends to abandon U.S. leadership on human rights and universal values,” the group’s senior vice president, Robert G. Berschinski, said in a statement Friday.

“Such a decision sends an unmistakable signal to human rights defenders that the United States may no longer have their back, a message that won’t be lost on abusive governments,” Mr. Berschinski said.

The Trump administration had no immediate comment. But a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity with reporters Friday, staunchly defended Mr. Tillerson, arguing that the former ExxonMobil CEO was “very clear about our commitment to human rights” during a Senate hearing in January on his nomination to be secretary of state.

“We do not face an ‘either/or’ choice on defending global human rights,” Mr. Tillerson testified at the time, prior to his confirmation. “Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance.”

The senior administration official who spoke with reporters Friday noted that this year’s rights report also included a “secretary’s preface” signed by Mr. Tillerson.

“Standing up for human rights and democracy is not just a moral imperative but is in the best interests of the United States in making the world more stable and secure,” the preface stated, adding that the report itself demonstrates America’s “unwavering commitment to advancing liberty, human dignity and global prosperity.”

Almost every corner of the world

Friday’s review was the 41st produced by the State Department. The document, posted on the department’s website, is a country-by-country assessment of nearly every nation of the world — the U.S. being a notable exception.

While the document cannot force the U.S. government to cut ties or military aid to rights abusers or to impose sanctions upon them, it is generally regarded as a prime source for tracking human rights abuses by governments around the world and often sparks harsh responses from its named targets.

This year’s assessments hit the usual suspects.

On China, the review said government “repression and coercion of organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy as well as in public interest and ethnic minority issues remained severe” in 2016.

It also pointed to “torture” in Chinese jails, citing “former prisoners” as saying “they were beaten, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, raped, deprived of sleep, force-fed, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse.”

The “most significant” human rights problems in Iran, meanwhile, stemmed from “severe restrictions on civil liberties,” including the freedoms of assembly, association, speech, religion and press. The review chided the Iranian government for “reportedly commit[ting] arbitrary or unlawful killings, including, most commonly, by execution after arrest and trial without due process.”

Despite much media scrutiny during recent months of the Trump administration’s perceived closeness to Russia, the review also leveled harsh criticism at Moscow.

In addition to asserting that the 2014 annexation of Crimea continues to “affect the human rights situation significantly and negatively,” the review said Russian authorities have “passed repressive laws and selectively employed existing ones to harass, discredit, prosecute, imprison, detain, fine and suppress individuals and organizations critical of the government.”

There was also notably harsh language in this year’s section on the Philippines. The report said so-called extrajudicial killings “increased sharply over the past year” in the nation, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s bare-knuckle war on drugs has drawn criticism from human rights advocates and the international community.

“Since July police and unknown vigilantes have killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers and users,” the review said of the situation that has prompted calls for the U.S. to be more careful about aid and weapons transfers to Philippine police.

Mr. Tillerson offered only guarded remarks on the matter during his confirmation hearing in January. The administration official who spoke with reporters Friday suggested it remains a sticky one for the State Department.

“We obviously have a very strong and longstanding alliance with the Philippines and our efforts to promote human rights there are vital to that long term alliance,” the official said, adding that Mr. Tillerson would “continue to review each arms transfer notification for the Philippine police and armed forces on a case by case basis.”

“It’s the right thing not to provide arms to units that are undermining … the value of human life,” the official said.

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