The U.S. State Department is defending the low-profile release of its annual human rights report Friday, amid criticism of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's break with tradition by failing to publicly present the report.
A senior Trump administration official briefed reporters on the 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and rejected criticism from some human-rights groups and lawmakers that the briefing was not announced a day in advance, was not on camera and did not feature Tillerson.
"The report speaks for itself. We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here," the senior official said Friday. "Secretary Tillerson spoke quite clearly in his confirmation hearing about his views of the impact of human rights on, and the importance to, U.S. interests."
The official noted Tillerson’s remarks during the hearing were "very clear about our commitment to human rights and the guiding principle that our values are our interests in the conduct of our foreign policy."
When questioned by reporters, the senior administration official did not explain why Tillerson did not unveil the report, but did say that the State Department wanted to get it out without delay.
Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First both issued statements sharply criticizing the low-key rollout of the report, which reflects thousands of hours of painstaking work. The annual effort is read carefully by both governments and human-rights defenders around the world.
However, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, wrote in a tweet that while Tillerson may not have wanted to face reporters’ questions, he still laid out his department’s basic commitment to human rights in the report’s preface: "Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights. The production of these reports underscores our commitment to freedom, democracy, and the human rights guaranteed to all individuals around the world."
Sarah Margon of Human Rights Watch noted in a statement that Tillerson’s absence "reinforces the message to governments, rights activists and at-risk minorities that the State Department might also be silent on repression, abuse, and exploitation."
Late Thursday, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted out his disappointment in the way the report was released.
"For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State. I hope they reconsider," the Republican senator wrote.
In an overview, the 2016 report did not specifically highlight any countries. As is customary, it does not rank or compare countries' human-rights records.
The senior administration official who briefed reporters said the report shows the global human-rights situation is mixed, with progress in some areas and worse abuses in others. The official highlighted torture, extra-judicial killings and gender discrimination as particular human-rights problems.
The report offers country-by-country analysis of 199 countries, and it paints a devastating picture of conditions in Syria:
"The government arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured and detained persons on a wide scale. Government and pro-government forces conducted attacks on civilians in hospitals, residential areas, schools and settlements for internally displaced persons [IDPs] and refugee camps; these attacks included bombardment with improvised explosive devices, commonly referred to as 'barrel bombs.'"
The State Department noted that the United Nations reported increased use of incendiary weapons in Syria during 2016, including napalm, white phosphorus and chlorine gas, and added, "The government continued the use of torture and rape, including of children."
The U.S. report also detailed a grim situation in Venezuela, including the "systematic, politicized use of the judiciary to undermine legislative branch action and intimidate and selectively prosecute critics; indiscriminate police action against civilians leading to widespread arbitrary detentions, unlawful deprivation of life, and torture; and government curtailment of freedom of expression and of the press."
With the new administration’s views on Russia in the spotlight, the report says Russia has "a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin."
It also outlined the suppression of dissent in Russia, restriction of access to free and fair elections and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT community and migrant workers.