Torture, persecution, and intimidation are the perils that political activists, independent journalists, and ordinary citizens continued to face in countries around the world last year, according to Human Rights Watch.
The nearly 600-page report, catalogs rights abuses in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
North Korea, Myanmar (Burma), and Turkmenistan are rated among the world's most repressive regimes. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Iran are harshly criticized for their worsening human rights climates and continued attacks on independent media.
But this year's report takes particular aim at the United States.
The United States -- according to Human Rights Watch -- used to lead the world in promoting global human rights. But the group argues that because of the antiterrorism policies of U.S. President George W. Bush, U.S. credibility on rights has been "utterly undermined."
For Human Rights Watch, America's Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, where foreigners identified as "enemy combatants" have been detained indefinitely without trial, symbolizes Washington's abdication of moral leadership.
So does the use of what Bush has called "alternative" interrogation procedures. Among the most controversial is holding detainees' heads under water for prolonged periods of time -- which Human Rights Watch calls a "classic torture technique."
"The reason Human Rights Watch selected the fifth anniversary of Guantanamo to launch our annual report is because it really highlights the leadership crisis that is facing the human rights movement these days at the governmental level," HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth told RFE/RL. "Traditionally, we're used to looking toward the United States to take the lead, on at least many human rights issues. But because of Guantanamo, because of the Bush administration's policy of using torture and detention without trial as a way of combating terrorism, U.S. credibility on human rights is simply shot in many parts of the world. It is dramatically undermined. And so there's an urgent need for someone else to come in and fill that leadership void."
Can The EU Step Up?
Who, according to Roth, should assume the mantle of global human rights defender?
"Ironically, two governments that are eager to step in are China and Russia," Roth said. "Russia is actively embracing tyrants in its effort to extend its influence, particularly throughout regions of former Soviet influence. And China has a policy of trying to seek resources around the world for its rapidly expanding economy, deliberately without regard to the human rights record of its partners. And so it often ends up bolstering tyrants in places like Sudan or Darfur. So with that somewhat dismal background, Human Rights Watch is looking to the European Union to be the key leader in promoting human rights around the world. And that would be a logical place to look in that the European Union is now 27 democratic governments committed to human rights. But the problem is that the European Union is punching well below its weight. It is not playing the global role on human rights that it should."
Roth sees the main difficulty in the EU's inability to forge a strong and cohesive foreign policy.
"It's a policy of lowest common denominator, since any of the 27 members can veto any kind of effort to actively promote human rights," he said. "Similarly, the European Union tends to operate through its so-called Presidency, which is a different government every six months. And this rotating blur of presidents makes it very difficult to pursue a sustained and effective human rights policy. One thing that we've learned is that you don't change governmental human rights practice unless you stick with it, unless you make it clear that you're going to be there, month after month, year after year. But if the interlocutors for the European Union are switching off every six months, it's very difficult to keep that kind of effective, sustained policy going."
Business Ahead Of Rights
The director of Human Rights Watch also faults some EU governments -- especially Germany's, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel -- for putting business interests at the top of their foreign policy agenda.
"[Merkel's] government seems unwilling to maintain tough pressure -- say on Russia, where [President Vladimir] Putin is cracking down on nongovernmental organizations," Roth said. "They seem more interested in securing energy resources than really pressing for a commitment to human rights by Putin's government. Or if you take, for example, Uzbekistan -- where just a year-and-a-half ago the government of President [Islam] Karimov massacred hundreds of people in the city of Andijon -- rather than maintaining sanctions that were put in place until an independent international organization was permitted, Germany is leading the charge to ease those sanctions."
Still, in what it says is the absence of credible U.S. leadership, Human Rights Watch believes Europe -- for now -- offers the best hope of keeping these issues on the international community's agenda.
A boy sells balloons in Kabul because he is unable to go to school (epa)
A BLEAK PICTURE: Below, HRW experts comment on the human rights situations in some of RFE/RL's broadcast countries.
Human Rights Watch's Asia Research Director Sam Zarifi, speaking about Afghanistan:
"The Taliban have been using increasingly brutal tactics such as suicide bombings and attacking soft targets, such as health clinics and schools. The attacks on schools have been particularly vicious. More than 200,000 children who were in school last year have not been able to go to school this year. We've seen over 130 schools attacked. The resulting fear, of course, has caused a huge amount of resentment, especially in southern Afghanistan, because ordinary Afghans feel that President [Hamid] Karzai and his international backers are not able to support them and provide them what they need.
Basic reconstruction and development throughout the south has essentially come to a halt in many areas. The situation is not just bad in the south, however. In the north and in the west of the country, warlords -- many of them ostensibly allied with the government - have also used the threat of the Taliban and the weakness of the international community and President Karzai to re-entrench themselves and so Human Rights Watch has been documenting numerous instances of land grabs, political oppression and rampant human rights abuses by these warlords, many of whom are also involved in the drug trade."
Giorgi Gogia, of Human Rights Watch's Caucasus Office, speaking about Georgia:
"Georgia, in late 2005, announced a reform of its criminal justice system and started a rigorous fight against organized crime, particularly against the power of organized crime bosses. While this move is certainly commendable, this had some negative consequences, particularly overcrowding in prisons and abuse of power by some police or law enforcement structures. Overcrowding is particularly a big problem in Georgian prisons, considering that they are very poorly ventilated, filthy, and prisoners very often receive inadequate nutrition and substantive medical care."
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Kyrgyzstan:
"In September, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented the poor state response to domestic violence and bride kidnapping for forced marriage in Kyrgyzstan. Our main finding, which I think is consonant with the conclusions of Kyrgyz human rights organizations, is that the authorities just allow for impunity for domestic violence and kidnapping for forced marriage."
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Turkmenistan:
"Turkmenistan is one of the world's most repressive and closed countries. The authorities severely suppress all forms of dissent and they absolutely isolate the population from the outside world. The president, who just passed away on December 21, President Saparmurat Niyazov, had declared himself president for life. He presided over a massive and grotesque cult of personality. This year, due to international pressure, the government reduced some harassment of followers of minority religions; they released several people from psychiatric institutions, where they had been forcibly detained as a measure of punishment. And they allowed one dissident to travel abroad. But otherwise, 2006 was as disastrous as every other year for human rights in Turkmenistan."
Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Uzbekistan:
"2006 was one of the worst years for human rights in Uzbekistan in the 15 years since Uzbekistan's independence from the Soviet Union. There has still been no justice for the massacre that happened in May 2005 in Andijon, in Uzbekistan, during which government troops fired on mostly unarmed protestors -- no justice for that whatsoever. And the Uzbek government has continuously rejected all efforts to have an international, independent investigation of the massacre. The government crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists, is the fiercest we have ever seen in Uzbekistan, since independence."