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Annual U.S. Rights Report Cites Suffering Of War-Zone Civilians

  • Heather Maher

The police crackdown on antigovernment protesters in Iran

The police crackdown on antigovernment protesters in Iran

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department's annual human rights report says more than 30 wars and armed conflicts around the world are fueling human rights abuses, including what it calls "an alarming number of reports of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other violations of universal human rights."

The annual report, which is mandated by U.S. Congress, is actually 194 individual country reports on human rights practices, which are researched and written to provide what the State Department says is "the most comprehensive record available of the condition of human rights around the world."

The reports criticize or praise the human rights records of U.S. friends and foes alike.

At the report's release, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the reports give the United States a "good assessment of the situation on the ground" in the places where it wants to make a difference on human rights.

"The reports released today are a record of where we are. They provide a fact base that will inform the United States' diplomatic, economic, and strategic policies toward other countries in the coming year," she said. "These reports are not intended to prescribe such policies, but they provide essential data points for everyone in the United States government working on them."

'Essential Tool'


For human rights activists and governments around the world, Clinton said the information is a useful tool to help gauge progress and identify areas where problems remain.

"These reports are an essential tool for activists who courageously struggle to protect rights in communities around the world, for journalists and scholars who document rights violations and who report on the work of those who champion the vulnerable, and for governments, including our own, as they work to craft strategies to encourage protection of human rights of more individuals in more places," Clinton said.

A major finding of the report is that where armed conflict or wars raged in 2009, "noncombatant civilians faced human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law."

In many of these conflict zones, the report says, "insurgents, terrorist organizations, paramilitary forces, and government security forces used murder, rape, and inhumane tactics to assert control over territory, silence opponents, and coerce the cooperation of civilian communities."

An Afghan man in hospital following an attack by Taliban insurgents in November
The report singles out civilians in Afghanistan in particular as having endured the worst violence in their country last year. With one-third of the country in deep conflict, the State Department says the Afghan government has been unable to adequately protect people living in rural areas.

On Iraq, the report cites accounts of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government or its agents in connection with the 7-year-old war there. It says bombings by insurgents and terrorists, executions, and other killings affected all regions and sectors of society. Violence against journalists in the country also continued, and there were frequent attacks by insurgent and extremist groups on places of worship and religious leaders, as well as sectarian violence.

New Restrictions Imposed

The report says in 2009 many governments continued to exert control over what information their citizens could receive by restricting public gatherings, Internet use, radio, television and print media. In many countries, civil society groups were prevented from operating by new laws aimed at blocking their work.

The assistant U.S. secretary of democracy, human rights, and labor, Michael Posner, cited a finding from the National Endowment for Democracy.

"No less than 25 governments in the last couple of years have imposed new restrictions on nongovernmental, human rights, and other organizations -- the right to organize, the right to assemble, the right to gather and collect funds from abroad," Posner said.

The report states that Iran's poor human rights record only got worse during 2009.

Iran’s “already poor human right situation rapidly deteriorated after the June elections,” Posner said. “At least 45 people were killed in clashes. Thousands were arrested. Another thousand were arrested in demonstrations in December. It is a place where we are continuing to see severe repression of dissent and are continuing to pay great attention."

Aside from the election, the report says prison conditions in Iran often were unacceptable, and that prisoners often were held in solitary confinement and otherwise abused.

The government also waged a crackdown against advocates for the rights of women, ethnic minorities, student activists, and religious minorities, the report says, and severely restricted its citizens' privacy and access to a free news media.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
In Belarus, the State Department says the government's human rights record "remained very poor as civil liberties, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion, continued to be restricted."

Although Belarus has a bicameral national legislature and a governing cabinet under a prime minister, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has directly run all the country's institutions since he was elected president in 1994, the State Department said.

It says Belarus human rights record remained -- in its words -- "very poor" in 2009, as Lukashenka has undermined the rule of law and manipulated elections since 1994, and that the parliamentary vote in September 2008 didn't meet international standards.

The report says civilian leaders effectively maintained control of the country's military, but adds that members of the armed forces nevertheless commit human rights abuses.

For example, the Minsk government couldn't account for politically motivated disappearances, the document says, while prisoners are abused in government custody, and prison conditions are extremely poor.

The government also maintained the practice of arresting and imprisoning its citizens for such political crimes as criticizing state officials or joining demonstrations.

The report also highlighted discrimination against the ethnic Polish population and Roma. It said authorities continued to harass the unrecognized Union of Poles, its head Andzelika Borys, and her associates.

Georgia had serious human rights deficiencies in 2009, the report says, but it also had what it calls "significant" human rights achievements in the same year.

The report says that country -- whose latest national elections, in 2008, were flawed -- saw at least one death that may have been caused by an excessive use of force by police, as well as poor prisons, abuse of prisoners, arbitrary arrest and detention, and politically motivated imprisonment and assaults.

The government also used excessive force in breaking up demonstrations, a lack of due judicial process, government pressure on the judiciary, and corruption in the government, according to the document.

"I think what we see in this year's report, as we have in previous reports, is that Georgia is still very much a society in transition. It is a society in transition from a past and a legacy of occupation and totalitarian government and conflict for many years in the recent past. And transitioning out of that legacy is more than simply a matter of passing a certain number of laws, joining a certain number of international bodies," U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Bass told RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

But 2009 also saw the passage of a reformed criminal code providing for fair trials, and an amended election code for the direct election of the mayor of Tbilisi, the capital.

"We actually assess that the degree of media freedom has declined, and that obviously is an area of concern for us," Bass added in connection with the report.

Meanwhile, human rights flagged in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at the expense of ethnic Georgians.

'Neither Free Nor Fair'

Russia
is cited for its efforts to "weaken freedom of expression and media independence" by influencing the editorial direction of state-owned media companies and pressuring the few independent media organizations left to produce only positive coverage.

The report called the country's presidential election in 2008 "neither fair nor free."

Natalya Estemirova
It also pointed to what it called "direct and indirect government interference" in regional and local elections.

While civilian authorities mostly maintained control of Russia's military, the State Department says, that was not the case in the North Caucasus.

The document also cites many reports of human rights problems at the hands of the government and others, as well as police abuses and corruption, harsh prison conditions, and the killings of human rights activists and investigative journalists, including Natalya Estemirova, who was known for documenting cases of killings, torture, and disappearances that she linked to authorities in Chechnya.

As a result of violence and the harassment of reporters, the report says, news in Russia is self-censored. It also reports continued extra-judicial killings in the North Caucasus, where Moscow is fighting insurgents.

The State Department report states that Ukraine is a democracy whose parliamentary elections have been widely viewed as free and fair, and its military is properly controlled by the country's civilian leadership.

Nevertheless, the report says, human rights problems persist two decades after Ukraine achieved independence from the Soviet Union. The document points to what it calls reports of "serious police abuse," including the beating and even torture of people in custody.

Prison conditions are also harsh, the report says, and pretrial detention is long and arbitrary. The country's judiciary is corrupt, and corruption is widespread in the government and throughout society.

Furthermore, anti-Semitism is not uncommon, according to the study.

The document cites instances of violence and discrimination against women, children, homosexuals, Roma, Crimean Tatars, and people of what the document called "non-Slavic appearance."

It highlights human trafficking as another serious problem. Limits also were put on workers' ability to join trade unions.

On a positive note, the report says 2009 saw the establishment of an office to fight corruption, and another to keep better track of hate crimes.

The U.S. criticizes the government of Uzbekistan for tightly controlling the media and not allowing the publication of views critical of the government.

Red Cross workers take a controversial census at a camp for Roma on the outskirts of Rome.
Vulnerable Groups Targeted


The report also identifies a trend in the past year where members of vulnerable groups -- racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; the disabled; women and children; migrant workers; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals -- were marginalized or became targets of societal or government-sanctioned abuse.

It points to an uptick in the number of killings and violence against members of the Roma minority in Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, and notes that the group as a whole has suffered racial profiling, official discrimination, and mistreatment by the police.

In China, the report says the government's already "poor" human rights record is worsening against minorities, public interest lawyers, and people thought to oppose the state. It says the government's repression of Uyghurs and Tibetans, in particular, has led to long prison terms, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and executions.

In many countries in the Middle East, the State Department found evidence that violence against women, violations of the rights of children, and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity "were common."

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