WASHINGTON - The global human rights panorama offered a decidedly mixed -- if not mostly negative -- picture in 2007, according to the latest edition of the State Department's annual human rights "Country Reports" released here Tuesday.
Its 19-page introduction, the most closely read part of the reports, appeared to mute criticism of China compared to the editions of previous years, even as it asserted that Beijing's overall human rights record "remained poor."
As it has in the past, however, it reserved its harshest criticism for what it called "the world's most systematic human rights violators," including North Korea, Burma, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, and Sudan, whose government's record was described as "horrific".
For the first time in several years, however, China was not explicitly included on the list of "most systematic" violators. Instead, it was described as an example of "some authoritarian countries that are undergoing economic reform ...but have not undertaken democratic political reform and continue to deny their citizens basic human rights and fundamental freedoms."
The tone of new report's introduction appeared markedly more downbeat about the global situation on democracy and human rights than those of the past few years, particularly the edition that was published just two years ago following President George W. Bush's enunciation in his 2005 inaugural address of his "freedom agenda" and the initial successes of the so-called "colour revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Kyrgysztan.
While this year's introduction insisted that "some countries scored significant advances" on the human rights front during 2007, it seemed hard put to offer specific examples beyond Mauritania's first free elections, relatively transparent voting in neighbouring Morocco, the constitutional referendum and subsequent elections in Thailand, and sharp reductions in violence in Nepal, Iraq, and Uganda.
"In 2007," it said, "the countries that "experienced serious regressions ...captured the headlines," it noted, conceding that the vast majority of countries "struggled somewhere between making incremental progress and suffering setbacks".
It was particularly critical of developments in Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in addition to the "most systematic" violators, and expressed strong disappointment that advances in democratic reform or in ending civil wars had been stalled in Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan.
The latest edition of the Country Reports, which were first mandated by Congress in 1976, covers the human rights situations of nearly 200 countries in 2005 and stretches more than 3,000 pages in length.
The publication, which is based on reporting by other governments, international and local NGOs, journalists, academics and U.S. diplomats, is widely considered the world's single most comprehensive accounting of political and civil rights conditions in specific countries.
As in the past, this year's edition does not address rights conditions in the United States or in U.S.-controlled facilities overseas, including detention centres at the Guantanamo Bay naval base and in Afghanistan where Washington has been holding or interrogating suspects in its "war on terror" in conditions that human rights monitors and many military lawyers, among others, have said violate the Geneva Conventions and even constitute torture.
That omission has been cited by critics as evidence of hypocrisy and double standards.
"Diligent efforts of hundreds of State Department and Foreign Service staff provide objective and, in some cases, hard-hitting assessments of human rights practices of countries around the world," said Maureen Byrnes, the director of Human Rights First (HRF). "The problem is not so much that the reports fail to tell it like it is, but rather that because of the U.S.'s own policies on torture, rendition and detention, the Bush administration is less able to combat human rights abuses abroad."
That view was echoed by Larry Cox, executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International (AIUSA). "The reports provide hard hitting information about deplorable conditions, but words alone are not enough," he said. "Many sceptics read the reports as rhetoric, as the Bush administration has not held anyone accountable for its own disgraceful actions in its war on terror."
The introduction appeared to anticipate such reactions, noting that "as we publish these reports, the Department of State remains mindful of both international and domestic criticism of the United States' human rights record. The U.S. government will continue to hear and reply forthrightly to concerns about our own practices, including the actions we have taken to defend our nation from the global threat of terrorism," it added.
While the country reports themselves avoid comparing the rights practices of different states, the introduction, which is much more of a political rather than descriptive document, routinely singles out specific countries, normally those with which the U.S. has hostile or ambivalent relations, for special censure.
North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus, as well as China, have been included on the Bush State Department's list of worst abusers -- defined as countries where "power was concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers" -- since it invented that category in the 2005 report.
Uzbekistan was added the following year, and Syria and Eritrea, both of which are accused by Washington of supporting terrorist groups opposed to neighbouring pro-U.S. governments, were added to the list this year.
Sudan was also added to the list this year. Previously, it was grouped with countries, such as Nepal, Cote d'Ivoire, and the DRC, in which the most serious abuses are committed within the context of armed conflict.
Along with Russia, the latest introduction also singled out Egypt, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Vietnam, Tunisia and Kazakhstan -- all of which are considered friendly to the U.S. -- for suppressing basic democratic rights, such as freedoms of the press and association, for criticism, although it left some key U.S. allies with anti-democratic records, such as Saudi Arabia, unmentioned.
The report also singled out another bete noire of the Bush administration, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for seeking to consolidate power in the executive branch and "weaken democratic institutions, independent media, and civil society," but it applauded the "vigorous resistance" to such efforts that culminated in the narrow defeat of a Chavez-backed constitutional referendum in December.
One of the introduction's biggest problems, according to HRF, was its failure to mention Washington's own role in perpetuating or even committing some of the abuses catalogued in the report.
While the report notes that arbitrary detention "remains a serious problem" in Afghanistan, for example, it fails to note that U.S. forces there are detaining hundreds of people without due process.
Similarly, while the introduction describes the Egyptian government's attacks against opposition activists, journalists and human rights groups and asserts that "our long-term interests are best served when we show by word and deed our abiding solidarity" with liberal forces, the State Department just last week waived a Congressional hold on 100 million dollars in aid for Egypt -- a hold imposed until Cairo improves its human rights record -- on national security grounds.
© 2008 Inter Press Service