But the latest survey, which covers 2003, chastises Central Asian governments -- as well as Iran, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Pakistan, North Korea, and China, among others -- for a variety of human rights abuses, including election fraud, torture, and restricting freedom of expression.
Unveiling the report at the State Department yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters the document has become a valuable tool for guiding U.S. policy. "President [George W.] Bush regards the defense and advancement of human rights as America's special calling, and he has made the promotion of human rights an integral and active part of his foreign policy agenda," he said. "That is why the annual human rights reports are more than an informational tool. They're a vital policy instrument."
The report -- mandated by the U.S. Congress -- covers most of the countries of the world. It comes out at a time when the United States is facing mounting criticism for its treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and for provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act, among other areas. In the report, the State Department maintains that the United States has not sacrificed its principles for expediency in the global war on terrorism.
The 2003 report says the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year ended years of grave human rights violations by Saddam Hussein's regime. It said Hussein continued to commit major violations until the time he was deposed.
Afghanistan was hailed for an improvement in democracy and human rights since the ouster of the Taliban militia in late 2001.
On Iran, the report said Tehran's poor human rights record worsened. It said Iran continued to commit numerous serious rights abuses, including summary executions, disappearances, torture and other degrading treatment. The report said the Iranian government was responsible for executions following trials in which there was a lack of due judicial process. It added that the right of citizens to change their government was significantly restricted.
On Iran, Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner told a briefing: "Clearly, it's an issue where we alone can't solve it or can't bring democracy [to Iran]. Clearly, it's an issue where the international community is now engaged in trying to improve the situation of human rights and democracy in Iran. And clearly, as we've seen from recent events, that's very much needed."
On Russia, the report said human rights worsened in a few areas last year. While noting some progress on increased judicial independence and criminal justice system reforms, the report said Russia's record remained poor in the continuing struggle with Chechen separatists. The study said there were credible reports of serious violations -- both by government and Chechen separatist forces, including politically motivated disappearances. The report also concluded that presidential elections in Chechnya last fall and Russian parliamentary elections in December did not fully meet international standards.
In Belarus, the report said the government had intensified its attacks on democratic institutions. And in Ukraine, the rights record remained poor.
Georgia's new President Mikheil Saakashvili has been criticized by human rights groups recently for clamping down too hard on members of the former government suspected of crimes. But Craner said while Georgia's rights record was poor last year, it is too early to judge Saakashvili, who he said appears to be a true democrat.
"Some of these criticisms are justified and some are not,” Craner said. “But clearly, when you are new in government and you are trying to figure this through, this kind of thing can happen. If this kind of thing were happening a year from now, I think we would be very, very worried."
With the exception of Turkmenistan, Central Asian countries saw some expansion of religious freedoms. But the report noted that most progress on civil society came from nongovernmental organizations.
However, Craner said in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, authorities are starting to address prison reforms, and that in Kyrgyzstan some independent media outlets have recently opened up. "You are beginning to see convictions of officials for torture of prisoners in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan," he said. "You are beginning to see freedom of assembly being granted in some of these countries. And in Kazakhstan, and to an extent in Kyrgyzstan, I think there's less religious discrimination. But clearly, as you see in the reports, there are many, many problems."
For example, the report said that in Uzbekistan, the government continued to commit numerous rights abuses, such as mistreating suspects and torturing and beating detainees.
In Turkey, the report says the government generally respected the human rights of its citizens but that several serious problems remained, including torture, beatings, and other abuses by security forces.
The report says Pakistan's human rights record remained poor, including serious flaws in national elections held in 2002 and abuses by security forces.
North Korea is ranked among the world's worst human rights offenders. Craner said the country has camps that house hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Human rights advocates have urged the U.S. government to make individual liberties a key point in its talks with North Korea about its nuclear program.
The full country-by-country reports can be found on the Internet at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/