Michael Posner, the State Department’s assistant secretary in charge of human rights, met this week with nongovernmental organizations to talk about the department’s annual report, released April 8, on the state of human rights around the world. As part of the meeting, officials also toured a new platform where advocates can access the report — a Web portal, humanrights.gov, that went online this past week.
The project is part of the State Department’s response to President Obama’s Open Government Directive, a push to make public information across all agencies more accessible online. The site is streamlined and attractive — and thankfully void of the government’s traditionally aggressive red-white-and-blue color scheme. As its centerpiece, it offers hundreds of searchable government reports related to human rights that might otherwise be lost in a web of multilingual United Nations outlets. Among the suggested “hot topics” to browse right now: China, Côte d’Ivoire and Internet freedom.
“It’s not human rights for dummies, but it definitely makes it much quicker and much easier to access this information,” said Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International USA's managing director of advocacy and government relations, who attended the debriefing. “It puts in one place all of the U.S. government reports and other documents, so you don’t have to go to different pages of the State Department website to look for a report on trafficking, then have to look somewhere else for religious freedoms. Having it all consolidated is a step forward.”
The reports, along with speeches and official statements, are also searchable by region, type and country. And Hillary Clinton has stressed that the site will be “safe” — visitors don’t have to register to use it.
“It’s definitely a new world in which technology and access to information is critical,” Akwei said. “And there’s nothing you can do except say ‘bravo.’ Let’s hope this is the beginning of further access, improvement and documentation.”
Maria McFarland, the deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch, also praised the idea of the site, apart from its actual content.
"It’s very important for the U.S. to show that human rights are a priority for it in foreign policy,” she said, “and in that sense, creating a whole website for human rights is a good signal to send. But at the same time, it’s very important to back that up with content.”
Currently, the human rights website mostly has reports from the State Department, although the government says it plans to expand the trove to include documents from other federal agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as historical documents.
Humanrights.gov isn’t likely, though, to post some other content McFarland and Akwei would like to see — outside reports from NGOs and responses critical of official U.S. publications. After all, the State Department human rights website is meant to serve not just domestic human rights researchers but also burnish America’s image abroad.
“One of the things that did come up was their desire to basically keep the report a factual representation of what the U.S. says, and what the U.S. analysis is,” Akwei said of the discussion this week between the NGOs and government officials.
Also admittedly absent will be any discussion of human rights issues … within the U.S. itself. The site instead refers visitors curious about that topic to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
“Obviously if you really want to have an influence on foreigners’ perception of the U.S. when it comes to human rights, you also have to show that you’re aware of what’s going on in your own house,” McFarland said. “And you have to address that.”
The website pre-empts the question by specifying that it’s meant to be a portal for international human rights-related information (the URL, however, is not internationalhumanrights.gov). The extent to which this dilutes the government’s message in cyberspace — as it often has in the real world — remains to be seen as more users get to know the site, and more content is uploaded to it.
“For us,” said Akwei, “the fact that we’re still not having the U.S. acknowledge that it should be reporting about itself in a much more outward manner is an ongoing challenge.”