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U.S.: Human Rights Report Criticizes Friends, Foes

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The United States has released its annual report on human rights and democracy around the world. Last year, Afghanistan -- a country where the U.S. had just waged a war aimed at routing the Taliban militia and Al-Qaeda network -- was called the worst violator of human rights. This year, the worst offender is Iraq, America's new military target.

Washington, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has criticized some of its own allies for abusing human rights, but singled out Iraq as the world's worst offender in its annual survey of democracy and human rights around the world.

The survey, released early on 1 April Prague time by the State Department, says small advances were made in the Balkans and Eurasia last year. But it says human rights and democracy continued to suffer across the former Soviet Union as well as in Iran, North Korea, and China.

The report, mandated by Congress, pointed in particular to small signs of progress in the five Central Asian countries that have become allies in the U.S.-led war on terror, but accused them of continuing to grossly violate the rights of their own citizens.

Presenting the report, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the link between American national security and the state of human rights and democracy in the world has become much clearer.

As an example, Powell pointed to Iraq, where Washington is currently at war in an effort to change its authoritarian regime, which it accuses of ties to terrorism and possessing weapons of mass destruction. "Saddam Hussein's regime is a classic illustration of the fact that such regimes, which ruthlessly violate the rights of their citizens, tend to pose the greatest threats to international peace and stability," Powell said.

Powell continued, "In contrast, states which demonstrate a high degree of respect for human rights are likeliest to contribute to international security and well-being."

The report says in Iraq, people were regularly executed for simply associating with an opposition group. It also says Saddam's government continued to be responsible for disappearances and the killing and torturing of people suspected of, or related to, persons suspected of opposition politics, economic crimes, military desertion, and other activities considered traitorous to the regime. Leaders of the Shia community were also targeted for executions.

By contrast, the report said there have been "dramatic improvements" in human rights and democracy in Afghanistan, where the U.S. war on terror helped topple the repressive Taliban government in late 2001.

The State Department says the new Afghan government of Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai had made significant progress in establishing democracy and good government during its first full year. But the report notes that violence and discrimination against women remained a huge problem, and rule of law broke down dramatically outside of the capital, Kabul.

It also says security forces committed arbitrary, unlawful, and extrajudicial killings, and that officials used torture in jails and prisons. Moreover, it says some local commanders targeted certain ethnic groups for murder, looting, rape, and destruction of property. The rights of workers were also widely violated.

Nonetheless, the report said there were significant improvements for women, who were able to choose whether to wear head-to-toe burqas after the Taliban's fall. Females were also able to work as civil servants, teachers, and for international organizations.

The United States says that human rights continue to remain poor in America's Central Asian allies, despite inklings of progress.

Unveiling the report, Lorne Craner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, said U.S. funding for human rights and democracy projects in Central Asia has increased between 200 and 400 percent since 2001, when the region became key to the U.S. war on terror.

But he acknowledged that America's new allies were slow to change. "Decades of Soviet-style political culture will not be changed overnight. This edition of the human rights report states that the human rights observance remains poor in all five countries [of Central Asia]," Craner said.

The report singled out Turkmenistan for having an "extremely poor" human rights record that only got worse after a reported assassination attempt last November on President Saparmurat Niyazov led to further serious violations of due process, widespread arrests, and torture.

In Kazakhstan, the report said human rights worsened as a clear pattern of media harassment emerged following press allegations of high-level official graft. It also saw selective prosecution of opposition leaders.

The survey blasted Uzbekistan for continued violations of the rights of political opponents to the authoritarian government, saying torture was widespread and that there were at least 6,500 political prisoners.

But it added that for the first time since independence, authorities convicted nine security officers for serious human rights abuses. A nongovernmental organization was also officially registered.

Kyrgyzstan was chided for periodically refusing to print opposition publications, and for slapping journalists with libel suits. But at the same time, it was praised for opening a media support center and taking steps against human trafficking.

Tajikistan's rights record remained poor.

About Turkey, the report said, "torture, although illegal, was still a serious problem and restrictions on freedom of the press remained."

Likewise, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus continued to receive a negative assessment of their human rights outlook, although Moscow was praised for a new Criminal Procedure Code that for the first time applied constitutional provisions that people may be arrested, taken into custody, or detained only upon a judicial decision.

The survey blamed both Russia and Chechnya for ongoing human rights abuses in the breakaway republic.

It had sharp words for China, accusing it of violating political rights by arresting dissidents, restricting religious freedom, and cracking down on minorities. It said the situation in China had actually worsened in late 2002, citing the imposition of the death penalty on two Tibetans.

Meanwhile, brighter lights were seen in Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where democratic elections and efforts to crack down on human trafficking were lauded.

The annual report, which this year surveyed 196 nations, does not look at America's own record on human rights and democracy. The report is deeply resented by some governments, who see it as hypocritical or unfairly meddling in their affairs.

Human rights group Amnesty International accused Washington of being "the Jekyll and Hyde of human rights" by praising the protection of basic rights but by "turning a blind eye" to the effects of its own actions in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters: "Overall it's a candid report that pulls no punches, even with respect to key allies. The key question is: What are the implications for foreign policy? [How] does the department use these findings the other 364 days a year?"

The complete report can be found at