Human Rights: State Department Followed an Extensive Process to Prepare Annual Country Reports

GAO-12-561R Published: May 31, 2012. Publicly Released: May 31, 2012.
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What GAO Found

State has an extensive process designed to make the country reports on human rights as comprehensive, objective, and uniform as possible. This process includes annually issuing detailed instructions, consulting and assessing information from multiple sources, and collaboratively and iteratively drafting and reviewing the reports. State issues instructions for preparing the country reports each year, outlining a consistent structure and describing, for example, the topics that should be included in each subsection. The instructions also, among other things, indicate that the country reports should build on the previous year’s reports and specify guidelines for new and updated content. In addition, the instructions state that staff preparing the country reports are to use and assess multiple sources, including host governments, local and international human NGOs, labor unions, and host country media as well as classified information. State officials told us that they also obtain information from business leaders and industry groups, although there is no legal requirement to do so. In general, according to State officials, Foreign Service officers—often on their first or second tour of duty—prepare first drafts of the country reports with the assistance of other embassy personnel, and at some embassies, officers with expertise in labor-related issues draft the report sections on worker rights. DRL editors and subject matter experts lead the editing and reviewing of the draft reports, aiming to ensure that the reports are as comprehensive, objective, and uniform as possible; accurately reflect the status of human rights in each country; and treat issues consistently among countries. During this process, DRL obtains and addresses comments from reviewers within DRL as well as from other State bureaus and offices and from Labor.

State generally followed its process for making the country reports comprehensive, objective, and uniform by obtaining expert reviews, consulting a variety of sources, and using a consistent structure in the worker rights section of the 25 country reports we analyzed. In addition to submitting the worker rights sections of each country report for general reviews as outlined in its production instructions, State submitted the sections to DRL’s Office of International Labor Affairs and Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs. To make these sections as comprehensive and objective as possible, State cited or attributed information to a variety of sources—including governments, UN entities, labor groups, and human rights groups—consistent with its instructions. We found that all the worker rights sections of the 25 country reports we reviewed cited or attributed information to such sources. Our analysis showed that State also cited information from businesses or regarding business specific activities in 9 of the 25 reports (36 percent) we reviewed. To make the worker rights sections as uniform as possible, our analysis also showed that the worker rights section of all 25 county reports followed a consistent structure, addressing the required elements of the worker rights section as outlined in State’s instructions. Officials at Labor, USTR, the International Labor Organization, labor groups, and human rights organizations told us that they viewed the country reports as accurate and objective and that they had not identified significant errors or problems with reported information. Many of these officials said that they would prefer more in-depth coverage of labor issues but that they have other sources of information. They also recognized that worker rights are not State’s sole focus and that State must consider the length of the country reports in determining how much detail to include.

Why GAO Did This Study

Human rights are a central concern of U.S. foreign policy. Each year, in response to congressional mandates, the Department of State (State) issues its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, an important source of information on human rights worldwide. The country reports—collectively known as the Human Rights Report (HRR)—cover internationally recognized civil, political, and worker rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State’s 2010 HRR included country reports covering the status of human rights in more than 190 countries and spanning more than 7,000 pages. The 2010 report noted that State attempted to make the country reports as comprehensive, objective, and uniform as possible in both scope and quality of coverage.

Regarding State’s procedures for preparing the country reports, particularly the worker rights section, we examined (1) State’s process for making the country reports as comprehensive, objective, and uniform as possible, and (2) the extent to which State followed its process in preparing the worker rights section of the 2010 country reports. All U.S. free trade agreements signed since 2000 include provisions related to worker rights. Moreover, as we have previously reported, enforcement of labor laws continued to be a challenge in some countries with which the United States has free trade agreements. State defines comprehensive as omitting no information of significant value; objective as including information impartially, regardless of whether a country is an ally or adversary; and uniform, as reporting similar types of information across country reports.

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