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World: U.S. Official Rates Human Rights In Middle East, Central Asia

Police breaking up a women's right demonstration in Tehran in June 2006 ( WASHINGTON, March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. State Department on March 6 issued its annual report on human rights around the world in 2006. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Erica Barks-Ruggles, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor focusing on the Middle East and South and Central Asia

RFE/RL: Iran has the most advanced democracy of any Muslim state in the Middle East. How did it fare on human rights during 2006?

Erica Barks-Ruggles: Well, the situation there has unfortunately continued to grow worse over the course of the last year. We've seen increasing restrictions on media freedoms, including the shuttering of many independent media outlets -- including two of the most prominent ones -- crackdowns on ownership of satellite dishes, [and] mandated slow Internet speeds. Obviously, the government there is trying to restrict the population's ability to access independent opinions and media.

We've also seen increased harassment of ethnic and religious minorities, increased restrictions on women, increased restrictions on labor, and a serious up-tick in hostile rhetoric and actions on anti-Semitism issues, including a Holocaust-denial conference that was sponsored by the government in December.

RFE/RL: What human rights challenges does Iraq face, both from the newness of its institutions, and of course from the attacks by the insurgency and sectarian militias?

Barks-Ruggles: The government of Iraq continues to be committed to fostering national reconciliation and reconstruction, and continues to work on improving the human rights record, including the formation of a Human Rights Ministry and a Human Rights Commission. And obviously the situation there is much better than it was under [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. But there are serious and difficult hurdles that they still have to overcome, including the deepening sectarian violence [and] acts of terrorism. There're corruption issues there that are a challenge, as well as the weak central institutions of the government that lack the capacity to meet some of these challenges.

RFE/RL: What was Afghanistan's human rights record in 2006?

Barks-Ruggles: Afghanistan has made huge improvements on their human rights record since the fall of the Taliban. But the insurgency and the increased Taliban attacks -- combined with building institutions from scratch, including a judicial framework that just didn't exist until three years ago -- is proving difficult. And it has hampered their ability to make progress.

Afghan children at a school near Kabul in June 2006 (epa)

In particular there have been increasing attacks on women this last year and on women's educational institutions, which is something that this government has been very, very committed to improving -- access for girls and women to education -- and we applaud that. And that has been an area where it has been very difficult for them to continue making progress because these attacks have been very targeted.

But the real issue here, besides the security question, is just the lack of capacity. And that takes time to build. The government's committed to that, and we'll keep working with them to make improvements and to build that capacity so that they will have more resiliency against these attacks.

RFE/RL: Moving to Central Asia, Kazakhstan has been the most open to Western financial investment. Has this contact also helped the country's human rights record?

Barks-Ruggles: In Kazakhstan, despite some modest improvements that we saw in things like trafficking in persons, the human rights record there remained poor. There were new restrictions on the media, continued harassment of the opposition and, very troubling to us -- and this is a trend that we've seen across a number of countries in Central Asia, as well as with Russia -- increasing constraints on NGOs in civil society that are trying to work with the government to improve their own accountability mechanisms and their own institutions.

RFE/RL: Turkmenistan has long been regarded as a fairly closed state. Does this mean that its human rights record is poor?

Barks-Ruggles: Turkmenistan was probably the most closed society in the region until December and the death of former President [Saparmurat] Niyazov. The new government there has hinted at some reforms. They've particularly emphasized education reform, for which we applaud them. It's a needed thing. But we will of course be looking to see how this very new government -- which just took office formally in February -- will undertake to improve what has been an extremely poor human rights record.

We'd like to see, for instance, greater media freedoms and opening for NGOs in civil society where there hasn't been in the past, opening political space for a greater diversity of opposition voices. And we'd like to see accountability for prisoners who were thrown into prison under the previous regime, including ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] access to their prisons.

RFE/RL: It's been nearly two years since the bloodshed at Andijon in eastern Uzbekistan. How have human rights fared in that country since then?

Barks-Ruggles: On Uzbekistan, this is a country that wasn't as closed as Turkmenistan, but has had a poor human rights record, and it continued to worsen over the last year. They've refused to authorize an independent international investigation as has been called for by the international community into the May 2005 events in Andijon.

There's been continued and increased pressure on NGOs in civil society. They've shuttered more than 200 NGOs, many of them local NGOs, in the last two years. And there's been a crackdown on political opposition and independent media there as well. So we continue to urge them to take a step back and work with the international community as has been called for. And we hope in the next year that we'll see some improvement, but this year, unfortunately, we didn't.

RFE/RL: And what of human rights in Tajikistan?

Barks-Ruggles: They have some serious problems with corruption issues there, which have hampered their democratic and social reforms. But it's not a closed place like Turkmenistan was. There have been NGOs in civil society active there, although they have come under increased pressure this last year, and we would hope that that would ease off in the coming year. In particular, there's been denial of licenses to NGOs to operate there, and there have been some problems with independent media organizations, and we would hope to see, again, and improvement there next year. But it is not in the same category as Turkmenistan has been in the past.

RFE/RL: Finally, Kyrgyzstan. It's also been two years since a popular uprising forced the departure of President Askar Akayev. How was Kyrgyzstan's human rights record in 2006?

Barks-Ruggles: In Kyrgyzstan, it was a really mixed picture this last year. The situation certainly is better than it was under the regime under Akayev, but we did see increased restrictions on the media and NGOs again here. There was a back and forth on constitutional reform in December, which ended up with, unfortunately, not as many improvements as we would have liked to have seen. And we'd like to see more balance between the executive and the legislative branch. But this remains a place where there's still a mixed picture.

There's still a robust independent media and civil society is very active there, and we would hope that the government would build on those strengths and actually improve their constitutional record for next year.

UN Human Rights Council

UN Human Rights Council

UN General Assembly delegates applaud the creation of the UN Human Rights Council on March 15, 2006 (epa)

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Every member of the new body has to pledge to promote human rights. (more)


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