Rights Groups Under Sustained Attack Worldwide

Abusive governments around the world escalated their attacks against local human rights defenders and other independent monitors during 2009, according to the 2010 edition of Human Rights Watch’s annual ‘World Report’ released here Wednesday.

Their attacks have also become increasingly sophisticated, relying in some cases less on brute force than on regulations and other non-violent means to curb or even eliminate the work of human rights defenders, according to the 612-page report by the New York-based group.

"Attacks on rights defenders might be seen as a perverse tribute to the human rights movement, but that doesn’t mitigate the danger," said HRW’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, at the report’s release.

"Under various pretexts, abusive governments are attacking the very foundations of the human rights movement," he added, noting that the same regimes sometimes coordinate their actions, particularly in international forums, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and in efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Roth also expressed some disappointment with human rights-related actions by the one-year-old administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

While there has been a "dramatic improvement in presidential rhetoric" regarding human rights compared to that of George W. Bush, Roth said, its translation into actual practice has often been "incomplete" or, in some cases, virtually non-existent.

This is particularly so in regard to exerting pressure on allies in the Arab world to pursue democratic reform or on Russia to prosecute those responsible for the murder of rights activists, he said.

And while he praised Obama’s prohibition of torture and his pledge to close down the Guantanamo detention facility, Roth criticized his refusal to authorize the investigation, let alone prosecution, of those accused of using or authorizing torture, or to repudiate the use of long-term detention of terrorist suspects without charge or trial.

The positive steps Obama announced during the presidential campaign and in his first days in office "turned out to be not as large as we had hoped," Roth said.

He also criticized Obama’s refusal to endorse last September’s report by a U.N. fact-finding mission headed by former South African Justice Richard Goldstone which charged both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during their conflict in Gaza one year ago.

Welcoming the report, which called for both parties to fully investigate the charges, could have furthered prospects for peace by seeking accountability, he said. Washington "simply wasted this opportunity."

The latest report – which also includes special essays on encouraging respect for international humanitarian law in Middle East conflicts, health providers’ complicity in torture and other abusive treatment, and the plight of unaccompanied migrant children in Europe – covers major human rights developments and trends in more than 90 countries, including the United States, during 2009.

In the introduction, Roth focused on what he called a growing "counter-attack" by abusive governments against an increasingly effective international human rights movement.

"Governments, of course, have long been tempted to attack the bearer of bad news. There is a long-sordid history of human rights defenders being censored, imprisoned, ‘disappeared,’ or killed," according to Roth.

"But now, as the human rights movement has grown more powerful and effective, the silence-the-messenger efforts of many governments have grown in subtlety and sophistication. Murders are committed deniably. Politically motivated prosecutions are disguised by common criminal charges. Censorship is accomplished through seemingly neutral regulatory regimes. Funding streams are blocked," he wrote.

Nor were such efforts limited to classic authoritarian states, such as China, Cuba, Burma, or Eritrea, the report said. Democratic states, such as Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Israel, resorted to measures designed to render the work of national and international watchdogs more difficult.

In 2009, according to Roth, Russia was at the forefront of violence – sometimes murderous – against human rights defenders, especially in Chechnya. Responsibility for these killings was often attributed to "unknown assailants" whose anonymity excused the justice institutions from following up with prosecutions.

Other countries where rights activists were murdered, "disappeared" or seriously assaulted last year included Kenya, Burundi, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Malaysia, India, Uzbekistan, and Yemen, according to the report.

Governments that openly harassed or detained human rights defenders last year included Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Cambodia. In other cases, such as Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka, governments used threats – either explicit or implied – to deter or punish rights activists.

Some governments, such as those in Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, are so oppressive that no human rights movement can exist openly, while others, including China and Sudan, routinely shut down local groups, the report said.

Burma and Iran have small, embattled movements but bar international rights monitors from entering the country, according to the report.

Still others with generally open societies restrict access by outside monitors to certain parts of the country where serious abuses have been reported.

Thus, Indonesia has prevented rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, from entering Papua, while Israel barred both rights monitors and journalists from entering Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Sri Lanka banned both local and international monitors from entering conflict zones during and immediately after the end of its civil war.

Still others, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe, have refused to co-operate with U.N. human rights envoys or procedures.

Regulatory regimes designed to curb monitors range from that used by Russia, which has used auditing and inspection requirements to harass groups engaged in controversial work, to Ethiopia, whose new law governing civil society organizations bars any group that receives more than 10 percent of its funding from abroad from conducting any rights-related activities.

Other governments that use restrictive laws on civil society and human rights groups include Egypt, Jordan, Uganda, Turkmenistan, and Libya, while similar legislation is currently pending in Venezuela, Peru, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, China, Iran, and Syria have taken action to curb lawyers associated with human rights watchdogs, while criminal libel laws have been used by the authorities in Russia, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Chechnya, Serbia, and Indonesia to silence their critics, the report said.

Roth said the eight-year-old ICC has also emerged as a focus of attack for abusive governments, particularly after its issuance of an arrest warrant last march for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with Khartoum’s deadly counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur. Al-Bashir was the first sitting head of state to be charged by the new tribunal.

To the outrage of some in the West, however, the African Union (AU) resolved not to cooperate with it at its July summit in Libya, in part due to the perception of Western double standards. To date, all four of the ICC’s prosecutions have been focused on Africa, as opposed to other regions where major abuses have taken place.

Without excusing the AU’s stand, Roth suggested that the African perception was not unfounded, noting that "the West’s eagerness to see prosecutions for, say, atrocities in Guinea, Kenya, or Darfur contrasts pointedly with its reluctance to press Israel even to bring to justice in its own courts those who may be responsible for war crimes in Gaza."

"The tendency to protect abusive friends only encourages a closing of the ranks on the part of the AU," he wrote.

Similarly, Washington’s rejection of the Goldstone Report in order to protect Israel makes it easier, according to Roth, for "repressive leaders to build a common stance" in other international forums, notably the UNHRC.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.