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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 650-677

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How are These Pictures Different? A Quantitative Comparison of the US State Department and Amnesty International Human Rights Reports, 1976-1995

Steven C. Poe
Sabine C. Carey
Tanya C. Vazquez


I. Introduction

The US State Department's annual publication, the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, has been a continuing source of controversy since it was first issued in the mid-1970s. 1 These reports, which assess the degree to which human rights standards are respected in countries around the world, have been examined carefully by policymakers and academics alike. [End Page 650] Particularly in the 1980s, critics frequently charged the State Department with biased reporting. The State Department has been accused of unfairly painting with the tar of repression countries ideologically opposed to the United States, while unjustly favoring countries where the US has had a compelling interest. 2

Commentary on the Country Reports has not all been negative, however. Interviews conducted by Innes 3 and the results of careful, critical examinations over the years (e.g., Lawyers Committee for Human Rights Reports for 1982, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996), tend to agree that the annual State Department Reports are an invaluable resource that accurately reports on the conditions of most of the countries most of the time. Though critical of reports on particular countries, they also have suggested that the reports have substantially improved over the years.

In this study we present the results of our systematic, quantitative examination of the State Department Reports (1977-1996), comparing them with the reports issued by Amnesty International (1977-1996) 4 , to find if existing evidence is consistent with allegations of bias. In conducting this examination we will fill a lacuna in the fast-developing quantitative research on human rights for in spite of the great public and scholarly scrutiny of these allegations, no statistical investigation of them has ever been conducted. We will also examine the historical record to find if evidence does indeed indicate that the reports have improved over time.

II. Why is this Endeavor Important?

Since the mid-1980s researchers have increasingly turned their attention to human rights issues. Most of the quantitative research conducted under the human rights rubric thus far has investigated violations that pertain to [End Page 651] personal (or physical) integrity: the right not to be imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or executed, either arbitrarily or for one's political views. 5 One vein of human rights research has attempted to isolate the impact of human rights considerations on foreign policy outputs, such as foreign aid and immigration policies of the United States government. 6 Another fast-growing line of research seeks a theoretical understanding of why these human rights are violated. Beginning in the 1970s, numerous empirical studies addressed the problem of explaining cross-national variations in the respect for personal integrity rights. 7 In the last two decades, many studies from both of these veins have been based on statistical analysis conducted either wholly or in part with data gathered from the U.S. State Department's Country Reports. 8 Given the large and growing amount of empirical [End Page 652] research based on these reports and those of Amnesty International, a systematic comparison of the two is long overdue.

This study should also be of interest to international relations and foreign policy scholars with a more general orientation. Statements of policymakers made in the introduction of the Country Reports (e.g., 1982) and statements by political appointees 9 suggest that particular presidents' ideological orientations are reflected in the reports. Still, the career officers who are often responsible for compiling the Country Reports may not always be malleable to presidential preferences. Our analysis will also provide a means of assessing whether presidents have successfully reached through the layers of bureaucracy to affect the State Department's evaluations of human rights. And they will also provide us with some indication of whether the...


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