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World: Monitor Criticizes Economic Approach To Human Rights

  • Kevin Foley



Washington, 4 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A well-known international human rights monitor contends that some of the world's leading economic powers are willing to selectively ignore human rights violations for the sake of lucrative trade deals.

In its 8th annual report on human rights around the world, the independent organization Human Rights Watch says this policy of selective neglect was prominent in relations with China and some former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Human Rights Watch is an organization headquartered in New York City. It was formed in 1978. Its original purpose was to monitor compliance in North America, Europe and the Soviet Union with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Since then, it has expanded its scope to cover rights monitoring in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The organization also critiques the responses of the world's leading democracies and international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank to rights abuses.

This year's edition covered significant human rights developments in sixty-five countries, including 23 nations in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Unlike the U.S. State Department, which submits an annual report to the U.S. Congress on human rights in every country of the world, Human Rights Watch and its divisions report only on selected countries where abuses are alleged to have occurred. Many European countries were omitted in this year's survey.

Liz Reynoso, a spokeswoman for the organization, says the omission of a country does not mean that concerns about human rights in that nation do not exist. She said the organization has limited resources and that it tries to concentrate its efforts in countries where it feels it will have the greatest impact.

In the report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch concluded that during the past year, "the major powers have shown a growing tendency to ignore human rights when they proved inconvenient to economic or strategic interests."

The report said that, "the universality of human rights -- the fundamental premise that they apply to all nations without exception -- came under sustained attack in 1997." It said that the "marked tendency of the major powers to ignore human rights when they proved inconvenient to economic or strategic interests posed a growing threat to universality."

The organization charged that the U.S., as well as France, Germany, Spain and Italy were, in its term, seduced by the promise of big trade deals with China. The rights monitor says China has one of the worst records for respecting human rights. It says economic benefits for China should be clearly linked to improvements in its rights record.

According to the report, the selective commitment to human rights standards was also evident in the former Soviet Union.

The report said, for example, that Azerbaijan's human rights record continued to be dismal. However, it also said this had no perceptible impact on "the unprecedented level" of involvement by the international community and the international business community in the country. The rights group charged that the international community largely glossed over Azerbaijan's poor human rights record in order to protect oil interests.

The report said a similar situation exists in Turkmenistan. It charged that the rigidly authoritarian government continued to prevent the exercise of virtually all civil and political rights in 1997. Ironically, the report said, this has led to a sense of public calm, which allowed Turkmenistan to remove human rights from the agenda in its dialogues with foreigners eager to exploit the nation's natural resources.

In general, the organization said official respect for human rights has improved throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but that rights abuses linger in many countries.

For example, the rights report charged that torture and other inhumane treatment remained common practice in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Serbia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. It charged that police brutality and excessive force continued to be a chronic problem in Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia and Serbia.

The report said Gypsies, or Roma, were frequently the victims of police mistreatment or racially motivated attacks by private citizens with state complicity in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.

In addition, the report said ill treatment and excessive use of force by prison officials were reported in many countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Here are the highlights of the Human Rights Watch report on some of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union:

ARMENIA - The report says that in 1997, Armenia showed tentative signs of easing some of the restrictions on political activity and freedom of the press imposed in the wake of the crackdown on the opposition that followed the September 1996 presidential elections. However, the report said that despite these limited measures, the results were often uneven and did not lead to substantial improvements in human rights conditions.

AZERBAIJAN - Human Rights Watch/Helsinki said Azerbaijan's human rights record in 1997 continued to be dismal. However, the report said this had no perceptible impact on what it called the unprecedented level of involvement by the international community and the international business community in the country. The rights group charged that the international community largely glossed over Azerbaijan's poor human rights record in order to protect oil interests.

BELARUS - According to the rights report, the government of Belarus stepped up its campaign to crush civil society and opposition activities in 1997 and ignored international pressure to restore respect for human rights and the rule of law. The report said that in the first half of the year, the government sought to silence opposition by sanctioning police violence against demonstrators and by harassing journalists and threatening newspapers and non-governmental organizations with closure. In the second half of the year, the report said the government's campaign targeted several journalists and political opponents of President Aleksandr Lukashenka with politically motivated criminal charges.

BOSNIA - In Bosnia, the report said a fragile peace help up throughout the year. However, the report said indicted war criminals continued to exert political and economic control in the region and used their power to obstruct the implementation of the civilian components of the peace agreement. The report said the influence of the alleged war criminals contributed to an overall poor human rights situation throughout the country.

BULGARIA - The report said Bulgaria experienced significant political and economic upheaval in 1997. Elections in April installed a new coalition government which promised greater respect for human rights. However, Helsinki Watch says that despite this pledge, serious rights violations continued. These included alleged police brutality, violence and discrimination against minorities, especially Gypsies. Government interference in religion and the media were also areas of concern.

CROATIA - According to Helsinki Watch, international pressure produced a modest turnaround in Croatia's human rights record in 1997. The report said Croatia's desire for financial aid and political recognition led it to take some steps toward the political and social integration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium with the rest of Croatia. However, the report charged that Serbs continued to face discrimination and ill treatment. President Franjo Tudjman, the report said, cracked down on all political criticism and dissent.

CZECH REPUBLIC - The report said the Czech government maintained a generally acceptable level of human rights protection for most ethnic Czechs. However, it said rights abuses persisted for members of the sizable Gypsy community. The report said the state did not do enough to combat the serious problem of racially motivated violence.

FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF YUGOSLAVIA (SERBIA) - Helsinki Watch says Belgrade demonstrated a blatant disregard for human rights throughout 1997. Anti-government protesters were beaten and jailed, ethnic minorities suffered discrimination, imprisonment and torture, the independent media was harassed, and the government refused to hand over indicted war criminals.

GEORGIA - In Georgia, the report said ongoing international scrutiny helped prod the government to make human rights a priority in 1997. However, the rights monitor contends Georgia's improving image far outpaced its actual performance. Most chronic problems persisted, the report claimed. These were chiefly torture and police abuse and violations of the rights of refugees and the internally displaced.

KAZAKHSTAN - The Helsinki Watch report says Kazakhstan continued to observe the rule of law and most civil and political rights this past year. However, the monitors said there are still areas of major concern, including prison conditions, use of the death penalty, diminishing opportunities for free assembly and the apparent reduction in media choice through the government's redistribution of broadcasting rights.

KYRGYZSTAN - The rights monitor accused the Kyrgyz government of putting unrelenting pressure on the independent media or critical figures. It said this stood in stark contrast to President Askar Akaev's remarks in the U.S. in July claiming respect for democracy and freedom of speech. The report noted a disturbing trend in the rise of the use of criminal charges against opposition figures, newspapers, journalists, interest groups and protesters.

ROMANIA - The report says Romania took steps to improve its human rights record, reflecting newly-elected President Emil Constantinescu's electoral promise to make human rights a high priority. However, the rights group said that while progress was made in addressing the concerns of the Hungarian minority, serious rights abuses persisted against Gypsies, homosexuals and prisoners. The report said accountability for police brutality remained rare.

RUSSIA - Helsinki Watch charged that in 1997, the Russian government again neglected what it said were the country's many human rights problems. It listed these as appalling prison conditions, rampant police brutality toward ethnic minorities and criminal suspects and persecution and harassment of human rights activists. The report cited the Duma's approval of a new law on religion that restricts religious rights and equality between religions as one example. It also said the government took no measures to curb police brutality or improve prison conditions. Helsinki Watch also said it noted what it called a disturbing development in the Russian provinces -- the alleged harassment by local authorities of human rights activists.

SLOVAKIA - The rights monitor's report says Slovakia's human rights record continued to deteriorate in 1997, despite pressure from the European Union and the NATO alliance, two organizations that Slovakia wants to join. The report said there were a number of troubling developments in Slovakia, including the illegal ouster of a parliamentarian, the refusal to enact a law to protect minority languages, official inaction in the face of Skinhead violence against Gypsies, and continuing police brutality.

TAJIKISTAN - The rights report says renewed fighting between rival government groups and between government militia and opposition forces caused a breakdown in law and order in Tajikistan. This led to a serious setback for human rights, the report said, as paramilitary groups and independent warlords continued to loot, threaten and harass civilians and take hostages. The report says widespread fear and insecurity pervade the country's population.

TURKMENISTAN - In Turkmenistan, the rights report charged that the rigidly authoritarian government continued to prevent the exercise of virtually all civil and political rights in 1997. The report says Turkmenistan's autocratic ruler, Saparmurad Niyazov, used security forces and heavy censorship to repress the citizens. The report says that because of this situation, there was almost no information on rights abuses, no possibility of public debate, no freedom of assembly, no foreseeable movement toward democracy and omnipresent security forces. Ironically, the report said, this has led to a sense of public calm, which allowed Turkmenistan to remove human rights from the agenda in its dialogues with foreigners eager to exploit the nation's natural resources.

UZBEKISTAN - According to Helsinki Watch, human rights observance in Uzbekistan in 1997 was marked by a sharp departure from government promises made in 1996 to improve. The report alleged that the government continued to violate most civil and political rights and actively harassed or prosecuted Islamic figures and human rights activists. The media was, in the report's words, suffocated by the government, and non-governmental organizations were refused registration by the authorities.
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