Testimony of Stephen Rickard

Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights

Bricks Without Straw: Taking Action
on the Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Before the House International Relations
Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights

March 7, 2001

It is an honor to be invited to address the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights. I would like to begin by offering our congratulations to the new Chair of the Subcommittee. We look forward to working with you and the staff.

I would ask at this time that my full statement be submitted to the record and I will summarize it for the Subcommittee.

By way of background, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights was created in 1988 to support the work of the brave human rights defenders who have received the RFK Human Rights Award. There are today 29 RFK Human Rights Laureates in 16 countries, including Colombia, Sudan, Turkey, China, Indonesia and others. The current RFK Human Rights Laureate is Martin Macwan of India who campaigns on behalf of the 160 million Dalits, the so-called “untouchables”.

I have been asked to discuss the implications of the annual human rights reports for resource allocation within the Department of State and within US aid programs. Before turning to that topic, however, I would like to address several points concerning the reports themselves. You have already heard from several very able witnesses on the reports, so I will not duplicate their excellent testimony. I would, however, like to make a few points about the reports in general and a few points about some specific reports.

First, as has been true in most cases for some time now, the reports are generally strong and accurate; they represent a real contribution. Even on the politically difficult countries – what I call, the “litmus tests for candor” – the reports have generally done a good job. Let’s be frank: there’s little reason to expect anything other than tough reports on the pariah countries like Burma and North Korea, or on countries where there is a political constituency for a tough report, like Iran or Libya. But what about China, Turkey, Israel and Colombia? Again, this year the reports generally pass the litmus test. China’s “poor human rights record
worsened….” In Turkey torture is “widespread” and “[t]he rarity of convictions and the light sentences imposed on police and other security officials for killings and torture continued to foster a climate of impunity that remained the single largest obstacle to reducing torture and prisoner abuse.” Israel's “overall human rights record in the occupied territories was poor” with the IDF “often” using excessive force during demonstrations. The Colombian government’s human rights record is “poor” with senior offices almost never convicted of human rights offenses and military collaboration with violent paramilitaries.

These statements may be serious indictments of US policy towards these countries, but they also represent a commitment to telling the truth in these reports – even when it is politically inconvenient. The Administration and, in particular, those in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) with primary responsibility for preparing the reports, deserve great credit on that score.

There are, however, areas where we did find fault with some aspects of the reports concerning countries where the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights is actively engaged. I will just mention a few such points here. Several of the reports, including the Guatemala report, mention US-funded programs intended to improve human rights without really addressing the question of whether they have had any real impact – the fact of the program itself is reported as if it was a human rights accomplishment, which it is not. The Colombia report notes very early – indeed, in the second paragraph – that the guerrillas raise a substantial portion of their revenue by taxing coca production and trafficking. Unfortunately the report waits nearly a dozen paragraphs before offering the even more damning judgment that many of the paramilitaries are “engaged directly in narcotics production and trafficking.” The report also gives too much weight to the disciplinary actions of the Procuraduria, failing to note the limited nature of the sanctions levied by this office and perhaps misleading American readers by translating the office as that of Attorney General, a position which in the United States typically possesses vastly more authority than the Procuraduria.

We felt that the generally strong report on Liberia overstates the degree of freedom of assembly there – based on reports we have received – and that the report on Sudan failed to capture the full scope and systematic nature of Government atrocities in the Nuba Mountains and failed to give sufficient attention to a number of insurgent forces in the North and South including, especially groups funded by the government in Khartoum.

Areas where the reports might be strengthened include a greater attention to violations of rights to housing, health and education, particularly by states that have ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This is relevant, for instance, in the conflict in the Occupied Territories, where various security tactics and actions have resulted in frequent allegations of interference with the right to obtain medical treatment and collective denial of the ability to carry out many activities, including conducting classes. Greater attention in a number of the reports to the situation of human rights defenders would also be welcome.

What are the implications of these reports for US policy? How can we – and here, I really mean, how can you – help make the information in these reports more relevant?

As the inscription on the National Archives reads: What is past is prologue. Let us then look back for a moment to remember the origin of these reports.

In the 1970’s the Congress – indeed, this Committee – launched a revolution in US foreign policy by deciding that the powerful regional bureaus at the Department of State simply were not devoting sufficient attention to human rights and would not do so unless something was done to institutionalize an interest in the topic within the Department. The Congress created first, the Coordinator for Human Rights and then a full-fledged Assistant Secretary. It mandated the reports on human rights that have evolved into the reports we are considering today. And it placed human rights restrictions on US foreign assistance. 

Congress is sometimes accused of “micromanaging” the State Department, but these actions were, in fact, a necessary corrective and an important step toward overcoming entrenched bureaucratic interests. In creating the human rights bureau the Congress performed its most essential role: it gave voice to the desires of the American people, who have indicated in poll after poll that they want values, decency and the rule of law to be at the heart of American foreign policy.

And in giving voice to the desires of the American people, the Congress gave a voice to human rights victims. As someone who has – at least a few times – sat at the Secretary of State’s morning staff meeting, I can testify to the significance of what Congress did. You quite literally – not figuratively as the phrase is generally used – gave human rights a seat at the table. In creating the bureau and the reports you insured that the voice of the victim could not be pushed out of the room.

That’s the good news. But the bad news is that the voice of the victims is still too often ignored in setting policy. For that reason, today Congress needs to launch another revolution. It created these structures. They have had a positive impact. The reports have flourished. Moreover, congressional mandates assigned to the human rights bureau have certainly flourished. In each of the last two Congresses, for example, major new initiatives on international religious freedom and combating sexual trafficking have been adopted. The 106th Congress also created a new commission on US-China relations to be supported by DRL among others, and adopted a host of other resolutions and mandates calling for increased human rights actions on a wide variety of countries and issues. 

What has not flourished is the bureau that this Committee launched. Despite the recent very important funding increases that, again, this Committee fought to provide to DRL, let me give you some examples of the continuing marginal status of DRL within the State Department:

¨ It remains one of the smallest bureaus in the Department – significantly smaller, for instance, than the Bureau of Public Affairs.

¨ It receives approximately one-third of one penny out of every dollar the Congress provides to the State Department for its operations.

¨ Its budget is actually slightly smaller than several government-funded centers like the US Institute of Peace and the East-West Center and it has less than half
the budget of the US section of Amnesty International.

¨ There are country desk officers in DRL responsible for covering as many as 33 countries.

¨ The annual travel budget for the entire bureau is, I understand, in the range of about $250,000.

¨ In a typical year, DRL must fill about one-third of its positions with interns, fellows and detailees from outside of the career foreign and civil service.

¨ Career Development Officers, I’m told, routinely warn promising young officers against serving in the Bureau because of the perceived negative consequences for their acceptance in other bureaus.

¨ And adding insult to injury, it was, I believe, the very last bureau in the Department to have its antiquated Wang computers put out to pasture.

So the time is ripe for the Congress – and it would be fitting if it began with this Committee – to launch another revolution in US human rights policy by directing that the Department of State adequately fund what is manifestly an important congressional priority.

DRL needs adequate funding to be able to help formulate and fight for human rights policies within the Department.

It needs funds at its disposal to be able to assist in human rights and democratization emergencies and to leverage US and multilateral human rights opportunities.

It needs to be able to break out of its “orphan” status within the Department by having the ability to post human rights officers abroad in key posts.

Fortunately, all of these elements have already been embodied in legislation offered in the last Congress by the honorable Chairman Emeritus of this Committee, Mr. Gilman. The Human Rights Investment Act, HR 5196, introduced with the then ranking Democrat of the Committee provided DRL with the tools to do the job Congress created it for and the jobs that Congress adds to the human rights portfolio on an almost monthly basis.

The Human Rights Investment Act would:

¨ Mandate that one penny out of every dollar spent at the State Department be devoted DRL.

¨ Give DRL the authority to post officers in embassies overseas in order to advance the human rights agenda.

¨ Significantly expand DRL’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF) to $32 million.

The Act also authorizes increased funding for the National Endowment for Democracy and sets up a fund to monitor the use of US military assistance and licensed weapons sold by the United States. The monitoring fund would consist of one penny out of every dollar of US military assistance.

The simple fact is that Congress has demonstrated over and over again – in a bipartisan fashion – that it is committed to human rights. It made a revolutionary decision a quarter century ago to direct that an entire bureau be created – whether the State Department liked it or not – to support US human rights policy. Now it is time to mandate that the bureau receive resources consistent with the congressional commitment to this area.

I spent two years at the State Department. I was not in the human rights bureau, but in one of the “regional” bureaus, South Asian Affairs. In that relatively short time I developed a great respect for the dedicated people who represent this country. During my tenure two of my colleagues at the US Consulate in Karachi were gunned down in a terrorist attack. I strongly support Secretary Powell’s pleas for a well-founded foreign policy, including continued increases in funding for diplomatic security. And I hasten to add that I do not mean to imply for a moment that the men and women who serve in our embassies abroad or in bureaus other
than DRL are indifferent to human rights. Still, it is one of the great truisms of life that “where you stand depends upon where you sit” and there is, I think, no disputing that DRL is a more consistent, reliable and vocal champion of human rights than any regional bureau over the long haul.

I am also very mindful of the legitimate concerns that will be expressed by the Department that carving out a one-percent mandate for human rights will short-change other priorities unless the overall budget grows. But there are two separate issues here: how big is the pie, and how is it being sliced. As I have said, I support enlarging the pie. But whether the pie grows or not, one-third of one percent is just too thin a slice to devote to human rights. I would urge the members of the Committee to tell Secretary Powell just that.

Let me now turn to the subject of democratization aid. First, there are many outstanding experts in this area that I would urge the Committee to hear from, including Jennifer Windsor, currently the Executive Director at Freedom House and until recently the head of the Democracy Center at AID. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment has also studied this subject closely and has written a highly regarded study called Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve. 

I also note in the interest of full disclosure that the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights administers a relatively small AID democratization grant in Indonesia, although this is not a typical situation for us and we have no present plans to seek any additional AID funding.

I will confine myself to just a few observations and one strong recommendation in this area before drawing my testimony to a close. First, I am struck by what seems to me to be the staggering gap between the amount of money now being spent on democracy promotion – about $750 million – and the amount currently spent on the entire human rights bureaucracy at the State Department (less than two percent of that sum). As Thomas Carothers notes in his study, “[t]he State Department’s part in democracy promotion is concentrated on the policy side rather than the aid side – deciding when to apply economic or diplomatic carrots and sticks to discourage democratic backsliding or to reward democratic progress.” With DRL country desk officers responsible for covering every human rights issue in as many as 33 countries, it’s hard to imagine how they can be expected to weigh in effectively on when and how those carrots and sticks should be used.

Second, there is an extremely important need for both AID and State to have some designated entity with the role of thinking globally. The Democracy Center and DRL currently play that role for their respective organizations, along with some other entities. Along with some other observers, I believe that this is extremely important. Likewise, the Office of Transition Initiatives at AID gives the US an important ability to respond to evolving situations around the globe and has been a very useful office.

Third, the DRL Human Rights and Democracy Fund provides an ability to respond quickly to emergencies and opportunities and to leverage interagency and multilateral assistance in ways that are not remotely duplicated by any other actor handling democratization funds. Having democracy funds at its disposal is a relatively new phenomenon for DRL and it has had to learn and adjust to handling. One of the first uses by DRL of the new funding which this Committee spearheaded was to increase and enhance the programmatic background of the staff overseeing and administering the HRDF. But has been the strong view of the last two Assistant Secretaries that the HRDF was an extremely valuable human rights tool, and I strongly agree. If the Human Rights Investment Act is adopted, just under 5% of US democracy aid will flow through DRL. This seems to me to be an extremely modest, but also highly prudent contingency fund with which to respond to democracy and human rights emergencies.

Finally, with the advent of a new administration this would seem like a perfect opportunity to conduct a sweeping review of the now very substantial democracy-building portfolio. Some form of interagency review – whether chaired by the NSC, DRL or some other entity – is definitely in order given the exponential growth in these programs and the various anomalies that have developed both between and within regions.

Let me close by repeating something I said last year when I appeared before the Committee. When the Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), an important piece of legislation on an important human rights topic, I was struck by the gap between the desire to see much more work done on religious freedom and the absence of additional funding for DRL to carry out this work. That, in turn, brought to mind a passage from the book of Exodus, in which Pharaoh

… commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “you shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks…. [L]et them go and gather straw for themselves. But the number of bricks which they made heretofore you shall lay upon them, you shall by no means lessen it….” (Exodus 5:6-8 Revised Standard Version)

The Congress wants the Department of State to build a strong foundation for US foreign policy, and for human rights in particular. It needs to give the Department and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor straw to make bricks. This effort will not be in the headlines like the latest crisis in Indonesia.  It will not seem as pressing as helping the latest political prisoner sentenced to China’s laogai. But in the long run, I hope and trust that the members of today’s Congress will see, as your predecessors did, that we ignore the fundamental issues of resources and structure at our peril and to the detriment of all our human rights efforts.

Thank you again for the invitation to testify before you today. I look forward to responding to any questions you may have.