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Watchdog Slams UN, EU's Human Rights 'Cowardice'

BRUSSELS - The UN and EU were accused of "cowardice" for claiming to tackle human rights abuses in places like China or Uzbekistan through quiet dialogue and cooperation, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report Monday.

Highlighting its claim, the HRW report on global human rights violations was issued in Brussels the same day the European Union hosted controversial Uzbek President Islam Karimov amid a flurry of protests from campaigners.

The New York-based non-governmental organisation's executive director Kenneth Roth lambasted "the failure of the expected champions of human rights to respond" to violations in an introduction to the 600-page report covering 100-plus regimes.

In his eyes, the fundamental error made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other leading voices is to place the accent on quiet diplomacy, which he says is often a euphemism for "other interests at stake."

Roth cites a "tepid" response from Asian partners to repression in Myanmar, with the report saying the Burmese junta's release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on November 23 was preceded by no significant steps on 2,100 other political prisoners.

The UN meanwhile is criticised for adopting a "deferential" attitude towards Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, alongside Myanmar's Than Shwe or Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir, with Ban said to have placed "undue faith" in the impact of his corridor diplomacy.

The EU's top diplomat, the much-criticised English baroness Catherine Ashton, is said to hide behind an "obsequious approach to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan" where large energy interests dominate trade and political links.

"Near-universal cowardice," meanwhile, marks efforts at confronting China's "deepening crackdown on basic liberties," with huge yuan investments -- whether in African natural resources or US and eurozone public debt -- ensuring silence is the preferred approach.

The EU cancelled a press conference at the end of a summit with China last year when Beijing's premier refused to be questioned by banned reporters in Brussels.

The Obama administration has "seemed determined to downplay any issue such as human rights that might raise tensions in the US-China relationship," the report says.

Ashton's "quiet dialogue and cooperation often look like acquiescence" leading rights defenders to "sense indifference rather than solidarity," Roth wrote in a column for the International Herald Tribune teeing up Monday's release.

Britain, France and Germany are all cited as appeasing Beijing.

As the report only covers the period up to the end of November 2010, France's controversial diplomatic stand over events leading up to Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution this month do not figure.

HRW says it is only when a government's behaviour is so outrageous that it overshadows other interests, as in Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe, that Western leaders step in, noting that "their own counterterrorism abuses" have made them much more discreet.

Roth highlights US President Barack Obama's "misplaced faith in rubbing shoulders with abusive forces," extending military aid to governments that use child soldiers -- in Chad, Sudan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

From the North Korean gulags, where some 200,000 people are said to be held in appalling conditions, to the Congo, which tops the charts for impunity in crimes of rape (some 8,000 from January to June last year), HRW details abuses round the globe.

They examine Colombia, where new paramilitary, drug-backed terror groups have emerged, or Russia, which has shown more openness to international cooperation on rights but where the general rights climate is "deeply negative".

The United States meanwhile sets a dubious world record with 2,574 minors serving life sentences at the time the report was written.

In Europe, the continent's biggest minority, the Roma, face discrimination and marginalisation as well as extreme poverty, the report said, citing the expulsion from France last year of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma.

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