Together with similar reports issued by non-government groups such as Amnesty International, this one is used as a measuring stick as to how well, or how poorly, nations observe the internationally recognized human rights of their subjects.
Originally, the State Department report covered only those countries that receive U.S. financial assistance but has been expanded for some years now to cover almost all the countries of the world. Members of the U.S. Congress rely on it to help make judgments about how much U.S. cash any given country should receive in foreign aid.
Most importantly, this year's report will probably be the one used by U.S. senators as they formulate their positions on the admission of the Baltics into the NATO alliance.
The reports on each of the Baltics have not changed drastically from year to year, and this year's comments on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are generally similar to last year's. The "big ticket" item for Estonia and Latvia is, of course, the Russian problem, with the conflicts over language and citizenship receiving the most attention.
In the report on Estonia, by far the most of the text is devoted to those conflicts in the section on ethnic minorities, over twice as much as to any other section. Descriptions of issues related to civil rights come next in terms of devoted space.
While laudatory on the whole, the section is too conciliatory toward the Russians by reporting arbitrary Russian points of view on the citizenship and language issues.
But the language does not give enough historical context (barely a sentence or two) on how these two Baltic nations came to be overrun by so many hundreds of thousands of Russians. That is where the core origin of the language and citizenship problem lies.
By avoiding a more complete historical discussion of this problem, the U.S. hinders its resolution.
Were Russia to apologize for the forced Russification of the Baltics, that gesture alone would do very much to relieve the built-up pressures on the citizenship and language debates.
The Latvian section on ethnic minorities is smaller by a third than the Estonian one (odd, since the problem in Latvia is probably more acute). Again, perceived citizenship and language shortcomings are discussed. Second place in terms of space in the Latvian section is given to evaluations related to personal freedoms. The real oddity is the section on Lithuania. It has the least amount of human rights problems to discuss, yet the entire section is comparatively far longer - at 14 pages - than the Estonian (9 pages) and Latvian (10 pages) sections.
The ethnic minority discussion receives little attention, as is proper, with evaluations of personal freedoms in Lithuania coming in for the most attention.
Breaking it down further, the sub-part on torture (torture?) is the longest. But Lithuania is not found guilty of charges of torture, and so the long discussion becomes unseemly. The Russian minority issue aside, the evaluations find some good and some bad in each country. Overall, though, the final tone is positive and recognition is given to the giant strides the Baltics have made, and continue to make, in the realm of human rights observation.
What is sad is the continued appearance in the reports from year to year of human rights shortcomings in trafficking and other methods of exploitation of women and children.
Each Baltic state is guilty on this count. The three countries should see to it that these problems receive the attention they deserve and that a year from now the U.S. State Department's evaluation can have something positive to say in this regard.
The U.S. State Department report is available on the Internet. Janis Bolsteins writes on Baltic affairs from Damascus, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C.