U.S. Reports Decry Curbs on NGOs, Internet, Minorities

Growing government harassment of civil society organizations (CSOs), restrictions on Internet use, and persecution of vulnerable minorities constituted three of the most worrisome trends that slowed the spread of human rights around the globe in 2010, according to latest annual edition of the State Department’s massive "Country Reports."

Setbacks in one or more of these areas took place in many countries last year, including Venezuela, Russia, China, Pakistan, and a number of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who released the reports Friday.

At the same time, she said, important advances were made in several countries in 2010, most notably, in Colombia where the new government began engaging human rights defenders; Guinea, which inaugurated its first democratically elected president; and Indonesia, which acted against religious intolerance and continues building a flourishing civil society, she said.

"In recent months, we have been particularly inspired by the courage and determination of the activists in the Middle East and North Africa and in other repressive societies who have demanded peaceful democratic change and respect for their human rights," she noted, although the Report’s introduction stressed that "we cannot predict the outcome" of the changes that are underway there.

The Country Reports, which were first mandated by Congress in 1976, has become the world’s most comprehensive compilation of human rights conditions around the world. This year’s edition, which covers 194 countries, is more than 7,000 pages long.

The Reports is based on reporting by other governments, international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, academics, and U.S. diplomats based in the relevant countries

As in the past, the latest edition does not address rights conditions in the United States or in U.S.-controlled facilities overseas, including at the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, although Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Michael Posner, stressed that Washington submitted a "comprehensive evaluation of U.S. progress" in complying with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva for the first time last month.

In contrast to the administration of President George W. Bush, the administration of President Barack Obama has also been submitting periodic reports on U.S. compliance with specific human rights treaties.

While virtually all but about two dozen pages of the reports deal with specific country conditions, its introduction, in which the incumbent administration traditionally lays out its major human rights concerns for the year, usually draws the most attention.

Under the Bush administration, for example, the introduction often categorized specific countries as "the world’s most systematic human rights violators" which were almost invariably perceived as highly authoritarian and hostile to the United States.

While, under the administration of President Obama, the introduction to the last two years’ reports has singled out specific countries for criticism, it has appeared less politicized than under the Bush years.

"Obama’s approach seems to be more inclusive by focusing on a broader range of human rights issues, whereas the Bush administration’s approach, at least in some years, put a heavier emphasis on democracy and paid less attention to some of the other issues," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

This year’s introduction argues that two key trends of recent years – the "explosive growth of nongovernmental advocacy organizations" and the "dramatic growth of the Internet, mobile phones, and other connective technologies that allow instantaneous communications to billions of people across the globe" – have contributed to the expansion of human rights.

But these advances have provoked counter-measures by repressive governments, according to the introduction. In the last several years, for example, more than 90 governments have worked to pass restrictive laws and regulations designed to hamper the work of NGOs. The introduction singled out efforts by the governments of Cambodia and Ethiopia to restrict NGOs as the most recent examples.

"The NGOs and civil society and oppression of human rights activists and defenders are key gauges of societies’ openness and human rights situation overall," said HRW’s Hicks. "We very much welcome this emphasis."

Similarly, more than 40 governments are currently using a combination of regulations and technical controls to curtail access to the Internet and similar technologies, according to the introduction, which cited such efforts in 2010 by Saudi Arabia, Sudan, China, and Vietnam.

A third negative trend that escalated last year was "violence, persecution, and official and societal discrimination of members of vulnerable groups, often racial, religious, or ethnic minorities or disempowered majorities," such as women, according to the introduction.

It cited blasphemy laws and related killings in Pakistan; continuing restrictions on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia; repression and discrimination against minorities in China; discrimination and sometimes violence against gay individuals in Honduras and Uganda, among other African and Caribbean nations; and worker exploitation in Uzbekistan and Bangladesh as examples.

The introduction also offered "thumbnail sketches" of significant developments and trends in 24 countries "where abuses were especially serious."

In Africa, those included Cote d’Ivoire and the violence that followed – and that has escalated sharply in the past month – November’s disputed presidential elections; the Democratic Republic of the Congo where human rights defenders were attacked and violent conflicts over control of mineral resources continued in the East; Nigeria, where security forces were responsible for serious abuses in the Niger Delta and elsewhere, and ethno-religious violence that killed hundreds in the central part of the country.

Sudan and Zimbabwe were also cited.

In Asia, countries with "especially serious" abuses included Burma, Cambodia, China, North Korea, and Vietnam.

In Europe, the introduction cited Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, while, in the Islamic world, it named Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, and Uzbekistan as countries with the most serious abuses.

In Latin America, it noted that, despite the release of more than 40 political prisoners, Cuba continued to suppress fundamental freedoms and harass activists. Respect for human rights and democratic institutions also deteriorated over the past year in Nicaragua and Venezuela, it said.

Rights groups praised the reports’ release but insisted that both its rhetoric and findings should play a bigger role in making policy.

"The U.S. government has a tremendous opportunity to provide human rights leadership throughout the world," said Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations for the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International.

"To do so, policy makers must put greater emphasis on addressing the issues identified in the reports. Historically, however, these findings have had only miniscule impact in shaping U.S. foreign policy," he added.

"The key issue for us is what they do the rest of the year with the issues they’ve identified in the report," said Hicks. "In our view, for example, the U.S. hasn’t brought the same level of attention and vigor to support for human rights activists in Bahrain, who are facing a brutal crackdown, as it did in Egypt."

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.