Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

Archive for the category “Nations of the World”

Human rights country reports (State Department)

Human rights country reports (State Department) – http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are some real life cases of torture involving electric shock?
  • What are some documented cases of torture from Uzbekistan?
  • What are some countries that torture lawyers or journalists?


Believe it or not, there are government officials in the State Department whose job it is to judge other countries’ adherence to universally acknowledged human rights. From the website:

The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are submitted annually by the U.S. Department of State to the U.S. Congress in compliance with sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended, and section 504 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. The law provides that the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, “a full and complete report regarding the status of internationally recognized human rights, within the meaning of subsection (A) in countries that receive assistance under this part, and (B) in all other foreign countries which are members of the United Nations and which are not otherwise the subject of a human rights report under this Act.”

Reports on several countries are included that do not fall into the categories established by these statutes and that thus are not covered by the congressional requirement.

The reports cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The reports are arranged by year, then by country. Each country report has the following sections:

  • Overview
  • Respect for the Integrity of the Person
  • Respect for Civil Liberties
  • Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
  • Official Corruption and Government Transparency
  • Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
  • Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
  • Worker Rights

Each section has fairly specific, if short incident reports, like these incidents of torture from the 2010 reports:

Saudi Arabia

During the year Suliman al-Reshoudi remained in prison on charges of financing and supporting terrorism and was “in and out” of solitary confinement, according to the ACPRA. The royal family-funded NGO National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) confirmed that al-Reshoudi had been indicted and tried. In October 2009 the ACPRA wrote an open letter to King Abdullah highlighting that the 73-year-old al-Reshoudi, a member of the ACPRA, was subjected to “severe physical and psychological tortures,” including tying his feet to a bed frame with two separate chains and being forced into a sitting position throughout the day and shackled at night. The prisoner has been in solitary confinement for three years because of his reform advocacy and activism, according to ACPRA.


On May 27, in Masvingo security agents abducted and tortured two ZINASU leaders, Alec Tabe and Godfrey Kuraune. Tabe and Kuraune were organizing a demonstration against high examination fees at Masvingo Polytechnic. They were picked up by Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) agents, who then tortured them on their chests and genitals with a pair of pliers before leaving them at a nearby police station. Tabe and Kuraune were released after paying an admission of guilt fine to the police.

Probably surprising to some, the State Department is willing to call out US allies on human rights violations, as in the Saudi Arabia example above.

Search Tips:

Here’s another Google trick for writers. You can use the “inurl” operator to search for particular types of abuse, body parts or profession. Use [words of abuse here] inurl:drl/rls/hrrpt in your favorite search engine. For example, using (“electric shock” inurl:drl/rls/hrrpt) at Google produced about 857 results at the end of 2013, including mentions of the use of electric shocks in 2010 in Cambodia, Russia, Venezuela and Pakistan. For some particularly horrific sounding stories from 2010, try the search (nipples inurl:drl/rls/hrrpt). I’d prefer not to discuss them in this book.

Since you are an educated writer, you know that the United States own record on human rights has been controversial since 2001. It is beyond the scope of this book to offer an opinion, but you might find it instructive to take words from stories of documented US abuses (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, sexual humilation) and search them against inurl:drl/rls/hrrpt.

Overall, this will be a good resource for writers of torture and crime stories. It will also be useful for stories set in foreign countries in terms of what sort of actions are likely to draw the unpleasant attentions of the local security authorities.


Foreign Information by Country (Univ Colorado at Boulder)

Foreign Information by Country (Univ Colorado at Boulder) – http://libguides.colorado.edu/CountryResearch

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • Where can I find official government websites for Haiti?
  • Where are the World Heritage Sites in Laos?
  • What are the basics for Americans wishing to conduct business in Oman?


The University of Colorado at Boulder has put together an impressive set of “Country and Territory Guides.” This would be a great site for people who feel the US Federal Government has a jaundiced view of some countries as UC Boulder draws its country backgrounds from several national and international governmental organizations. When available it also links directly to a country’s official web presence.

Each of the guides is divided into the following sections:

  • Government Information – websites from the country’s government.English language websites provided when they exist.
  • Country Profiles – Drawn from multiple governments including Australia, UK, United Nations and nongovernmental organizations.
  • Articles and Databases
  • Diplomatic Relations
  • Health
  • Peacekeeping & Military Information
  • Resources in the Catalog
  • Related Topics – Guides of border countries and related topics.

Because the CU Boulder guides link to outside resources, be prepared to do some extra digging. You won’t get instant answers as you would with Background Notes or Country Studies. You will get a broader and often more current view of a country with this resource.

Library of Congress Country Studies

Library of Congress Country Studies – http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/cshome.html

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What are some distinctive social institutions in Israel?
  • Who is the Commander in Chief of Iran’s armed forces (hint – Not the President)?
  • What do herders and other pastoral nomads in Mongolia do?
  • What are some bloody periods of Columbian history prior to the drug wars?


This is a premier place to go if you are looking for an in-depth overview of a particular country. These Country Studies and a small number of Area Handbooks were produced between 1988 and 1998 by the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division under contract to the US Army. They focused on lesser known parts of the world or places the Army anticipated deployments in. There are currently 101 countries and regions available through this series. A few notable countries with profiles are: Afghanistan, Austria, Columbia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Romania, South Africa, Uganda and Vietnam.

In a few cases, such as Iran (2008) and Columbia (2010), an updated Country Study was made. The Federal Research Division plans to update other countries as funding becomes available. Apparently, one of the effects of a smaller government is having less detailed information on potential troublespots. What could go wrong?

For the most part, writers will find the age of the series less of a handicap as they are usually looking for a basic background, which doesn’t change or setting their stories in an earlier era, which the books can easily accommodate.

Each Country Study is divided into the following chapters: Historical setting, Society and Its Environment, Economy, Government and Politics, National Security. Appendices include political parties and organizations. The Country Studies are heavily footnoted and usually include extensive bibliographies. In the Country Studies I’m the most familiar with (Columbia and Iran), information is provided in a balanced manner. If you’re doubtful of a given Country Study’s objectivity, use the bibliography as an exploration point.

This is a resource that you can quote in your books or draw photos from. As stated in the FAQ section of the website, “With the exception of some photographs, which are clearly marked in the photograph’s caption, text and graphics contained in the online Country Studies are not copyrighted. They are considered to be in the public domain and thus available for free and unrestricted use. As a courtesy, however, we ask that appropriate credit be given to the series. If you or your publisher require specific written permission for the record, queries should be directed via e-mail to frds@loc.gov.”

Search Tips/Story ideas:

Like the Background Notes above, the Country Studies can be mined with Google for specific topics of interest before you have decided on a country to set your story in. Two examples are:

slavery inurl:frd/cstdy
civil war inurl:frd/cstdy

For some reason, Google initially returns a single result, along with the message, “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 1 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.” Accepting Google’s offer will provide a larger list of different results.

Some Country Studies could be used to design stories set in the near future. For example, the Political Dynamics section of the Columbia Country study documents how party membership turned into armed factional fighting:

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the most consistent features of Colombia’s political system have been the elitism and dualism of party politics. Elites from the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal–PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador–PC), which in 1987 changed its name to the Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador–PSC), have dominated the nation’s political institutions. Consequently, the majority of Colombians had little input in the political process and decision making. The formation of the life-long party loyalties and enmities of most Colombians traditionally began at an early age. Campesinos adopted the party affiliations of their master or patron (patrón). Being a Liberal or a Conservative was part of one’s family heritage and everyday existence. During the period of la violencia, party membership was sufficient reason to kill or be killed. Families, communities, and regions have identified with one or the other party. The PL traditionally dominated, the main exception being the period of Conservative hegemony from 1886 to 1930. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives have been able to gain power only when the Liberal vote was split.

The Columbia Country Study describes La Violencia this way:

La violencia claimed over 200,000 lives during the next eighteen years, with the bloodiest period occurring between 1948 and 1958. La violencia spread throughout the country, especially in the Andes and the llanos (plains), sparing only the southernmost portion of Nariño and parts of the Caribbean coastal area. An extremely complex phenomenon, la violencia was characterized by both partisan political rivalry and sheer rural banditry. The basic cause of this protracted period of internal disorder, however, was the refusal of successive governments to accede to the people’s demands for socioeconomic change.

If Republicans and Democrats took up arms in this country, what might the result be? Something like La Violencia?

Background Notes (State Department)

Background Notes (State Department) –http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/

Representative questions that can be answered with this resource:

  • What does the flag of Andorra look like?
  • When did Hungary join NATO?
  • What ethnic groups exist in Pakistan?
  • What are some events in the effort to reunify North and South Korea?



Background Notes are the Cliff notes version of a country. The advantages to Background Notes are that they are up to date and available not only for every recognized sovereign country, but also for some dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.

Each Background note contains the following:

  • National Flag
  • Official Name
  • Map
  • Statistical Profile (including life expectancy and ethnic groups)
  • Geography
  • People
  • History
  • Government
  • Political Conditions
  • Economy
  • Defense
  • Foreign Relations
  • U.S. Relations
  • Travel/Business

The government section lists the current top officials in a given country and the US Relations section lists the current US Ambassador and key embassy staff.

Search Tips:

The use of the “inurl” with Google and other search engines can help you locate real-world countries that fit desired conditions. A few examples:

  • Need a country with a monarch as head of state? Use “Executive–monarch” inurl::/r/pa/ei/bgn/
  • A country with an authoritarian past or present? Use authoritarian inurl::/r/pa/ei/bgn/
  • Need to know what countries have “Islamic Republic” in their names? Use “islamic republic” inurl:/r/pa/ei/bgn/


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