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Human Rights Watch Slams West For 'Cowardice' On Rights Issues

  • RFE/RL

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, presents the findings of the new report during a press briefing in Brussels.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, presents the findings of the new report during a press briefing in Brussels.

An international rights group has accused Western powers of not doing enough to pressure abusive regimes to protect basic human rights.

The 648-page Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, a compendium of human rights abuses reported around the world in the past year, criticizes the democracies for their "soft reaction" to repressive regimes.

The report singles out the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations for failing to put enough pressure on abusive governments, highlighting what it called a "near-universal cowardice in confronting China's deepening crackdown on basic liberties."

HRW also charged Western leaders, particularly UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and U.S. President Barack Obama with focusing too much on dialogue and not enough on confronting abuses.

It condemns as soft the EU's response to authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, denouncing what it calls the bloc's "obsequious approach" toward both countries and arguing that leaders of authoritarian governments welcome an emphasis on dialogue because it is likely to "remove the spotlight from human rights discussions."

The report coincides with a rare visit to Brussels today by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

'Meaningless Dialogues'

The report notes that defending human rights "may sometimes interfere with other governmental interests," adding that if so, "they should at least have the courage to admit it, instead of hiding behind meaningless dialogues and fruitless quests for cooperation."

Wenzel Michalski, the communications director for Human Rights Watch's Germany office, calls this year's report "forceful" in addressing diplomacy and rights efforts used in the West.

"It became very fashionable in the last couple of years to prefer dialogue -- so-called dialogue and silent diplomacy -- to naming and shaming. And we think it didn't do any good for human rights worldwide," Michalski says. "It showed, actually, that talk behind closed doors doesn't lead to any improvement in this area."

European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, asked about the HRW report at a news briefing in Brussels today, declined to respond to specific criticisms.

But she said Barroso would bring up rights concerns during today's visit by Karimov.

"There is absolutely no question of trading off one interest in exchange for the other as far as the EU is concerned," she said. "And I think we've had many occasions to demonstrate that. Human rights is nonnegotiable."

Michalski notes, meanwhile, that Western criticism tends to be more strident the less the country has to offer in terms of economic interests.

"So when it's up to criticize countries like Belarus, for example, the Western powers, the EU, America, all have a very strong voice. They all expressed their concerns about the vote-rigging and the threatening of the opposition. Why is that? Why are countries like Germany talking strong, and have a strong voice, name and shame human rights abuses in countries like Belarus and not, for example, in China?" Michalski asks.

"That is simply because we don't deal with Belarus so much. We don't make so much business. Belarus doesn't have any natural resources which would be interesting for us. So it's easy to name and shame countries like these."

'Deeply Negative'

In Russia, HRW says, the rights climate remains "deeply negative" despite some positive rhetoric from the authorities. It says President Dmitry Medvedev's "rhetorical commitments to human rights and the rule of law have not been backed by concrete steps to support civil society."

The report says rights activists, especially those working in the North Caucasus region, "remain vulnerable to harassment and attacks" including legal prosecution. And despite official pledges to reform the police force, the group says a draft law "falls short of what is necessary to best prevent human rights violations."

The report also says that in Ukraine, rights activists continue to face issues of censorship and pressure, despite pledges by President Viktor Yanukovych "to protect freedom and media pluralism."

On Iran, it says the regime continued to use torture and intimidation to pressure critics and consolidate power amid what it called a "deepening human rights crisis."

It accuses security forces in Iran of using torture to extract confessions, on which the judiciary relied to sentence to long prison terms and even death people arrested during protests against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in 2009.

It said authorities intimidated human rights lawyers preventing them from effectively representing political detainees.

HRW also criticised Iran for continuing to discriminate against religious minorities, including Sunnis, adherents to the banned Bahai faith, Sufis and Christian converts.

with agency reports

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