State Department Report Assails Usual Suspects

Releasing the latest edition of its annual human rights Country Reports, the U.S. State Department Monday hailed the progress it said had been achieved over the past year in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine.

However, it also assailed North Korea, Belarus, China, Syria, Iran, and Venezuela, among others, for authoritarian rule or backsliding during 2004.

In a 22-page introduction, the Country Reports also sharply criticized two key allies in the "war on terrorism" – Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan – although it stressed that both nations’ governments had taken some positive steps over the past year.

"The record of human rights abuses and violations for Saudi Arabia, however, still far exceeds the advances," according to the introduction, which noted "credible reports of torture and abuse" of prisoners, and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions of foreigners and citizens alike.

It also said torture in Uzbekistan was "routine" but added that the government had taken some initial steps toward reducing the practice.

Most attention in the introduction, however, was focused on what the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, called "outposts of tyranny" during her confirmation hearings – North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Burma – as well as several other countries of concern.

The latest edition of the Country Reports, which were first mandated by Congress in 1976, covers the human rights situation in almost 200 countries in 2004, and stretches more than 3,000 pages in length.

The publication is widely considered the world’s single-most comprehensive assessment of human rights conditions, although it is focused almost exclusively on political and civil rights and the rights to personal integrity. The United States has never ratified the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

The Country Reports, of which there are 196, are based on information collected by international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as on the local press and reporting by U.S. diplomats.

While the Country Reports avoid comparing the rights practices of different states, the introduction, authored this year by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Kozak, often singles out specific countries, normally those with which the U.S. has ambivalent or hostile relations.

As in the past, this year’s edition also did not address human rights conditions in the United States or in U.S.-controlled facilities overseas, such as Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 and most of 2004 and the detention center at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, where Washington has been holding suspects in its "war on terror," an omission that was cited by some observers as evidence of hypocrisy and double standards.

The introduction, for example, cites the "widespread use of torture" by the government of Syria but fails to note the case of a terrorism suspect, Canadian/Syrian national Maher Arar, who, after being detained at a U.S. airport, was "rendered" to Damascus where he was allegedly severely tortured for months and then held in inhumane conditions until his repatriation last year to Canada.

"It’s a clear indication of the absolute hypocrisy of a policy that would seek diplomatic assurances that someone won’t be tortured in a country like Syria that the report holds out as an example of ‘widespread use of torture,’" said Jumana Musa of Amnesty International USA, who noted that detainees have also been "rendered" to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, other countries where torture of prisoners is common.

"Renderings," as well as other documented abuses, including torture by U.S. military personnel against prisoners in U.S.-controlled facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, contributes to cynicism about U.S. human rights reporting, according to Human Rights First (HRF).

"While we welcome the generally forthright and accurate reporting on human rights conditions around the world, the U.S. government will find it increasingly difficult to be a credible and persuasive advocate for change while it persists in the same practices it rightly criticizes other governments for," said Raj Purohit, HRF’s legislative director.

"For example, U.S. vulnerability to criticism from Russian President Vladimir Putin was evident in public exchanges between the two presidents in Bratislava last week, and senior Russian officials had explicitly threatened to highlight U.S. violations in pre-summit comments," he noted.

Criticism of Russia in the report’s introduction was relatively muted, suggesting that legal changes permitting the president to appoint regional governors who were previously elected, as well as greater restrictions on the media and political pressure on the judiciary, were reducing citizens’ control over their government.

Meanwhile, it said, the "expanding" conflict over Chechnya, including the fatal siege of the school in Beslan, North Ossetia, last September, showed that both sides held "little respect for basic human rights."

This year’s introduction, however, leads with the most positive spin on recent developments, particularly October’s presidential elections in Afghanistan; the December election of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko after popular demonstrations against the initial vote in Ukraine; and preparation of the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, which the report itself does not cover.

"We believe events like these elections will increase the prospects for peace, provide a solid grounding for self-government in these countries, and help create momentum for the improvement of human rights practices for all people participating in them," the report states, cautioning that elections do not by themselves guarantee improved human rights practices.

It notes as an example that the recent successfully conducted referendum in Venezuela – where President Hugo Chavez is seen increasingly as a threat by Washington – was followed by attempts to pack the judiciary and restrict the media. It said respect for human rights in Venezuela, which received more space in this year’s introduction than Cuba (where "Fidel Castro added another year to his record as the longest serving dictator in the world"), "remained poor" in 2004.

The introduction also focused on the successful resolution of the North-South conflict in Sudan. That step forward, however, is overshadowed by the greater coverage given to the violence in Darfur, which the administration notes was termed "genocide" by former Secretary of State Colin Powell last September.

As to so-called problem states, the introduction accused North Korea of "brutal and repressive treatment of its people," and cited the lack of "any fundamental rights" in Burma/Myanmar.

"China’s cooperation and progress on human rights during 2004 was disappointing," according to the report, which accused the government of Zimbabwe of conducting "a concerted campaign of violence, repression, and intimidation."

It accused the government of Iran of committing "numerous killings during the year, including executions following trials that lacked due process" and conducting parliamentary elections that "were widely perceived as neither free nor fair."

It assailed Damascus, another major Bush administration target, for torture and a crackdown against the Kurdish population in which "dozens were killed," as many as 2,000 arrested, and 300 are still awaiting trial.

The introduction also devoted considerable attention to Rwanda and the Great Lakes region, accusing the former of having "greatly circumscribed political rights" and closing leading human rights groups, although it also noted that Hutu forces that fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide are among "the most worrisome groups" in the area.

"Prospects for peace" in the region are "promising" it said, but noted that human rights abuses – particularly the recruitment or abduction of children by armed groups – are "almost routine."

It blamed continuing violence in Haiti one year after the U.S.-assisted ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on forces sympathetic to the exiled leader, accusing them of waging a "campaign of destabilization" that included kidnapping, decapitation, and the burning of police officers and civilians.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.