by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Releasing its annual Country Reports on human rights practices around the world Feb. 25, the State Department claimed Afghanistan and Iraq as successes in an otherwise bleak human rights picture.
In an introductory overview, the report singled out several countries for poorer performances during 2003, including China, North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Russia.
Rights groups praised the report as generally fair and comprehensive, but stressed that the administration of President George W. Bush was failing to take it seriously in formulating policy.
''The content of this report has little correspondence with the administration's foreign policy," said William Schulz, executive director of the U.S. chapter of Amnesty International (AIUSA).
''Indeed, the U.S. is increasingly guilt of a 'sincerity gap', overlooking abuses by allies and justifying action against foes by post-facto reference to human rights. In response, many foreign governments will choose to blunt criticism of their abuses by increasing cooperation with the U.S. war on terror, rather than by improving human rights."
Neil Hicks, international director for Human Rights First -- formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights -- agreed, insisting the report will fuel charges that the administration is being hypocritical.
''On the one hand it's calling more vocally for other states to improve human rights," he said, ''and at the same time it's backsliding in terms of its own record on human rights at home, and making alliances with states that the report makes clear are serious human rights violators -- all in the name of the 'war on terrorism.'"
Anticipating the criticism, the report made a special point of denying that it was more tolerant of authoritarian allies in the war on terrorism.
''Not surprisingly, some authoritarian governments from the Middle East to Central Asia to China have attempted to justify old repression by cloaking it as part of the new 'war on terror,'" it said.
''American policymakers rejected and rebuked, often publicly, such attempts to label those peacefully expressing their thoughts and beliefs as 'terrorists.'"
The latest edition of the reports, which were first mandated by Congress in 1976, covers the human rights situation in almost 200 countries in 2003, and stretches well over 2,500 pages in length.
The reports are widely considered the world's single most comprehensive source for human rights conditions. They 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 to the document, authored by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Lorne Craner, often singles out specific nations for praise or blame.
In this year's edition, it highlighted what it claimed were advances in both Afghanistan -- notably its production of a ''moderate'' constitution by the country's Loya Jirga, or assembly of notables, early last month -- and in Iraq, whose ''liberation by coalition forces in April ended years of grave human rights violations by Saddam Hussein's regime."
But in blaming continuing violence and insecurity in Afghanistan on the Taliban and drug traffickers, the introduction failed to mention the role played by regional and factional warlords who, until recently, received U.S. backing.
''That's a rather important omission," noted Tom Malinowski, who heads the Washington office of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Similarly, the Iraq report simply confines itself to a recitation of abuses committed during Hussein's regime and ignores abuses reportedly committed by U.S.-led coalition forces or their Iraqi allies since they occupied Baghdad last March.
On the negative side of the ledger, the introduction accused China of ''backsliding on key human rights issues'' during 2002, particularly with respect to its treatment of Muslim Uighurs, Tibet and Hong Kong.
It accused North Korea, with which Washington is currently engaged in multilateral negotiations over the country's alleged nuclear programmes, as ''one of the world's most inhumane regimes," and noted that Burma's ''extremely poor human rights record worsened in 2003'' with the attack on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters.
In Cuba, abuses ''worsened dramatically'' with the sentencing of 75 dissidents to prison terms averaging 20 years for meetings with a U.S. diplomat, while Zimbabwe's government ''continued to conduct a concerted campaign of violence, repression and intimidation," said the report.
On Russia, the State Department accused the government of President Vladimir Putin of staging unfair elections in Chechnya and for parliament, and of exerting pressure on the media, the opposition and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in ways that ''weakened civil society and raised questions about the rule of law."
HRW's Malinowski told IPS that the bluntness of the remarks about Russia came as ''something of a surprise'' to him.
As to the other former Soviet states, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia, some improvements were noted in creating space for civil society, but the overall picture, with the exception of Georgia, remained bleak.
Fraudulent elections and harassment and repression of opposition figures remained the norm throughout the formerly Communist region, according to the State Department.
Georgia, where Washington helped negotiate the resignation of former President Eduard Shevardnadze, making way for Jan. 4 elections won by U.S.-backed Mikheil Saakashvili, was the one bright spot, it added. Coincidentally, Saakashvili held his first meeting with Bush in the White House shortly before the report was released.
But if the states of the former Soviet Union proved disappointing in light of the widespread applause after they were supposedly freed from Moscow's yoke, the report insisted that a number of advances in Africa and the Arab world were worth noting, including the creation of power-sharing arrangements in Burundi and Liberia.
It also signalled a ''slight'' improvement in the otherwise ''poor'' human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where an estimated three million people have died as a result of six years of conflict and foreign intervention backed by Western interests.
The introduction was especially enthusiastic about human rights reforms and anti-corruption measures in Kenya, the adoption of a new constitution in Rwanda, and progress in stabilizing Sierra Leone, although it noted that elections in that country, Nigeria and Mauritania failed to meet international standards.
It also insisted that ''change continued across much of the Arab world," most notably the approval of a new constitution by popular referendum in Qatar; parliamentary elections in Yemen; consultative council elections in Oman; municipal polls in Morocco; an increase in representation of women in Jordan's senate; and the creation of a high-level human rights commission in Egypt.
At the same time, despite talk of reforms in Saudi Arabia, many remained vague, while there, as in many other countries in the region -- notably Syria, Tunisia and Egypt -- torture continued to be practised, said the report.
It also harshly criticized Iran's ''poor'' human rights record, particularly the harassment of opposition figures, including reformist members of parliament.
The report also condemned Israel's record in the Occupied Territories, including ''continuing abuses, the use of excessive force by security forces, the shelling, bombing and raiding of Palestinian civilian areas, and demolitions of homes and property."
On Asia, the introduction labelled the human rights situations in both Cambodia and Vietnam as ''poor." While Indonesia experienced improvements in some regions, it said, conditions in Aceh Province, where security forces are fighting an insurgency, ''deteriorated rapidly'' during the year.
Both sides in Nepal's civil conflict were faulted for abuses, although the introduction noted that the record of the Maoist insurgents was ''worse'' than that of the government.
On Latin America, the report praised the reduction in kidnappings, killings and forced disapearances in Colombia, and the purported prosecution of military commanders there, while it pointed out several reforms undertaken by Guatemala.
The introduction blamed what it called the ''political impasse'' in Haiti -- which has resulted in violence and chaotic conditions in much of the country since earlier this month -- on President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and ''his supporters, henchmen and civilian opposition attaches."
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