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World: Observers Debate Importance Of Annual U.S. Rights Reports

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. State Department yesterday released its annual report on the state of human rights around the world. It spoke frankly about abuses in many countries, including former Soviet states. But there are lingering questions about whether Washington takes these lapses seriously, especially in countries with which it wants to develop military or commercial relationships.

Washington, 1 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- During a press briefing yesterday held to release the study, a reporter asked if the United States was ignoring human rights abuses in China in order to improve bilateral ties.

Michael Kozak, the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, replied that such considerations do not affect U.S. human rights policy.

"There were a lot of people, for example, who thought that when we made allies in Central Asia that that would be the end of any criticism of those countries for their human rights record, that it would be the end of efforts. In fact, it's had just the opposite effect, that we've paid more attention to [the] human rights situation in places like Uzbekistan, for example, and been more active in trying to side with people who are pushing for change there," Kozak said.

Kozak said the point of issuing the annual reports is not to publicly point out blame, but to help guide the State Department and the White House in formulating policies.

The Bush administration is using the reports well, said Rose Gottemoeller, an analyst with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based policy research center. Speaking with RFE/RL, she pointed to U.S. President George W. Bush himself, who confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin on human rights during their summit on 24 February in Slovakia.
"There were a lot of people, for example, who thought that when we made allies in Central Asia that that would be the end of any criticism of those countries for their human rights record, that it would be the end of efforts. In fact, it's had just the opposite effect." -- Michael Kozak, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor


"The United States tries to calibrate its policies, remaining very clear about our own standards and our own desires to see democratic reform move forward in these countries. We just saw President Bush speaking very clearly about that to President Putin last week in Bratislava. So U.S. policy is to try to be very firm and clear about what our views are of the necessity of reform, but at the same time working with these countries," Gottemoeller said.

Gottemoeller was asked about complaints that the United States does not always make equal demands for human rights from all countries. She says Washington's response depends on the extent of the violations and the kind of relationship it is trying to establish. Consistency, she said, is not always relevant.

That may be so, said Allison Gill, the Uzbekistan researcher for the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch. But she said the United States can do more to promote civil liberties in countries such as Uzbekistan without jeopardizing the bilateral relationship.

For example, she noted that when preparing for the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001, the Bush administration courted Uzbekistan, which shares a 120 kilometer border with Afghanistan.

The United States quickly secured rights to use Uzbek territory for air bases. Now, Gill says, the Bush administration seems unjustifiably afraid of offending Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, thereby losing that military advantage.

"The U.S. influence in the region, and in Uzbekistan in particular, is kind of a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, because of the deepened relationship between Uzbekistan and the U.S., the U.S. has more leverage. On the other hand, [the United States] becomes more reluctant to use that leverage for fear that it will harm the security relationship. And I think that's a false fear. I think the U.S. has a lot of influence and it needs to be less tentative about using it," Gill said.

Gill noted that the U.S. Congress recently responded to Uzbekistan's poor human rights record by cutting about $18 million in development aid to Karimov's government. But, she said, the Pentagon essentially nullified that by granting Tashkent around $21 million in military aid.

Money isn't the only way for the United States to exert influence on a country like Uzbekistan, Gill said.

Gill said this behavior is reminiscent of the relationships the United States had with repressive right-wing governments during the Cold War. She said the major difference is that in those days the U.S. goal was to fight communism. The goal today, she said, is to fight Muslim militants.
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