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US State Department applies different methodology in its Israel/Palestine human rights report

[24 April 2018] – On 20 April 2018, the US State Department published its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017. These reports are mandated by Congress and document human rights conditions in nearly 200 countries and territories. Staff in US embassies around the world compile the information contained in the Report. This is the first human rights report covering a full calendar year under the Trump Administration and its recently appointed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Two developments are worth noting. 

First, for the first time since the US State Department commenced issuing human rights reports in 1999, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are no longer referred to as the “Occupied Territories” – this appears to be a departure from international law and US policy. However, in relation to the report on Russia the State Department states that:
“The occupation and purported 'annexation’ of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula continued to affect the human rights situation significantly and negatively.”
The State Department has not explained why it has used different terminology in respect to the Russian occupation of Crimea and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in circumstances where there is no relevant legal distinction.
Secondly, for reasons unexplained, the US State Department has used a different methodology in the Israel/Palestine report than in the reports prepared for nearly 200 other countries. For example, in the Executive Summary on the report on the “West Bank and Gaza” the US State Department provides the following caveat:
“This report contains data drawn from foreign government officials; victims of alleged human rights violations and abuses, academic and congressional studies; and reports from the press, international organizations, and NGOs concerned with human rights. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases.”
The State Department then added one additional caveat:
“We have sought and received input from the government of Israel (and, where relevant, the Palestinian Authority) with regard to allegations of human rights abuses, and we have noted any responses where applicable. Because of timing constraints, the Israeli government was not able to provide a detailed response to every alleged incident, but it did maintain generally that all incidents were thoroughly investigated and parties held accountable, as appropriate, according to due process of law.”
Military Court Watch has reviewed the Executive Summaries prepared by the US State Department in its reports on RussiaChinaSaudi ArabiaUnited KingdomEgyptCanadaGermanyAustralia and Iran. In none of these reports were the same caveats expressed or was it stated that the subject governments were given an opportunity to respond to serious allegations, as was afforded to the government of Israel.
These developments not only weaken the international rules-based order established after the Second World War by blurring the principles of belligerent occupation and potentially derogating from the principle of non-acquisition of territory by force, but also potentially diminishes the status of the human rights reports and of the US State Department itself. To maintain credibility it is essential that next year’s report uniformly applies the same objective, rules based methodology to all country reports, be they friends or not.