RFE/RL: How does this annual report differ from the State Department's annual country reports on human rights practices?
Erica Barks-Ruggles: The human rights report is an annual report that is mandated by Congress that goes through the records of 196 countries and territories in promoting and defending human rights -- their own record. It's a factual record for the previous year. This report, which was just launched last week [April 5] -- which is called "Supporting Human Rights And Democracy: The U.S. Record" -- is a report that is meant to highlight what we in the United States are doing, through our efforts, to help support and defend human rights around the world. So this is actually more scrutiny on our record. It is not as comprehensive a report -- it only covers [around] 90 countries, instead of the full 196. But what it does is focus on those countries where there have been severe abuses or serious concerns about human rights and democracy in the past year and [on] what we are doing to help support those who are promoting that within their own countries.
RFE/RL: The report mentions that the United States has been very active in Afghanistan. One of the accomplishments you highlight is U.S. assistance with the creation of 32 independent community-based radio stations.
Barks-Ruggles: One of the things that we have tried to focus on in our assistance to Afghanistan are, as we call it, the three pillars of democratic institutions. Not only the electoral institutions, which is one pillar -- having good elections, feeding into good elections, having a good electoral process -- but also the other two pillars, which are governance -- helping to build strong institutions of governance and accountability within government -- and the third institution, into which our media programs play, which is civil society and media -- having a capacity within civil society to make requests of the government, but also to hold government accountable, and also a strong independent press.
And we believe that -- given the serious repression that took place during the Taliban era, of the media and the press -- that this has been a vital piece for us to help work with the Afghani people and the Afghani government on capacity building. And so we have helped fund and train and encourage independent radio stations and grassroots community conversations in the media about things like human rights, about tolerance, about the civic responsibilities of local government officials, including through drama shows -- they can dramatize these things in a way that engage people in a conversation about what they can expect from their government, what they should expect from their government, but also what their rights are. And specifically, we've tried to focus on women's rights and the ability of women now in this new context to run for office, vote for people who are running for office, and also to petition their government to do things for them -- whether that's better health care, better schools, what have you, to really engage in part of the process in not only governing, but in civil society as well.
RFE/RL: In Kazakhstan, the report says the United States continued its support for an Internet-based "news factory" that teaches journalists and media outlets how to use software that allows them to post online news. Have you done much in the area of media in Kazakhstan?
Barks-Ruggles: One of the things that we've seen across Central Asia -- and this is a trend across the whole region, with varying degrees in various countries -- is a push back on NGOs and independent media in the last several years, and this extends beyond the region, to Russia and Belarus, as well. So one of the things that we've tried to do is support the growth, sustainment, of independent media, so that they have a voice in reporting on what's happening in the country from an independent viewpoint rather than a government viewpoint, but also holding accountable government when things go wrong. And we think that has been a very important part of what we've been trying to do there.
We would hope that Kazakhstan, which passed a media law last August which contains some pretty onerous restrictions, would revise that law and bring their media laws into line with OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] standards. We think that's a good aspirational point that they have raised themselves that they'd like to do, and we'd like to see that come about in the next year.
RFE/RL: The situation in Kyrgyzstan has been unsettled over the last six months, with democracy reformers demanding that President Kurmanbek Bakaev fulfill the pledges he made during the 2005 Tulip Revolution. What is the United States involved in there?
Barks-Ruggles: Kyrgyzstan has been a difficult environment in the last couple of months because there's so much that has been in flux. We have focused primarily on working on building the capacity of democratic institutions, building the capacity of civil society, and constitutional reform. We believe that there have been efforts at constitutional reform that have been a bit forward and backward, and we think that that's an important thing for the Kyrgyz government to undertake and involve the Kyrgyz people in, in a very kind of step-wise way.
But we also believe it's important to build strong democratic institutional underpinnings so that some of the instability that we've seen in the last couple of months doesn't become a feature of Kyrgyzstani politics. And part of that is encouraging the very strong civil society that does still exist -- and Kyrgyzstan is one place where there actually is a very strong civil society. And when there hasn't been negative government focus, they've actually seen civil society as a partner, which is encouraging. And [there's] also a fairly robust independent media, and we've encouraged that as a way to promote the kind of reform and the kind of democratic institution building that the Kyrgyz government itself has said needs to take place.
RFE/RL: It was interesting to see that in Tajikistan, the United States is promoting the rights of women through a partnership with a nonprofit U.S. legal group -- the American Bar Association's Central and Eastern European Legal Initiative. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Barks-Ruggles: One of the things that we've tried to do in Tajikistan is promoting women's resource centers which have provided legal advice, advocacy, representation to vulnerable women in their population. But also, as you said, [we] work with NGOs to help local citizens understand what their rights are within their own system. And we think that that has been a fairly successful effort. We've also looked at helping out independent media organizations through regional programs -- helping them connect regionally so that they can talk to each other about what works and what doesn't, and we think that that's been important when there have been restrictions there put on independent media.
RFE/RL: You've done something similar at Turkmen State University in Turkmenistan, I understand. Is that something that has happened since the change in presidential leadership in that country?
Barks-Ruggles: In Turkmenistan, as you know, [it's been] a changing environment since the death of President [Saparmurat] Niyazov in December. We have seen some small openings, and one of the things we have done is this legal resource center and we think it has been a fairly successful effort -- to talk about legal issues. And we're hopeful that some of the reforms that have been promised and begun there continue and are expanded to include a greater opening for civil-society engagement, because we think there is quite a bit of scope for engagement on the civil-society front in Turkmenistan. But that's a bit down the road, and we're hoping that we see that kind of progress in the next few months.
RFE/RL: In Uzbekistan, the report says the United States has been urging President Islam Karimov's government to allow an independent, international investigation of the violent events in Andijon in 2005. How has that been received, and have you been able to make any inroads in promoting human rights in that country?
Barks-Ruggles: Uzbekistan, unfortunately, is one of those places where we've seen some of the most repression and push back over the last several years. Over the last two years, they've shut down over 200 civil-society organizations, both domestic and international. There's been serious push back on any sort of independent voice in the media, and there's been an absolute refusal to work with the international community on authorizing an independent investigation of the May 2005 events in Andijon.
So this is a place, unfortunately, where we've seen serious negative trends over the last several years, with clamping down, serious restrictions on human rights advocates, and on those who are trying to have some voice in their country. We applaud those in Uzbekistan who continue to draw attention to human rights abuses and would hope that their government would start to listen to them seriously. And in the meantime, we're doing what we can to help those organizations continue to be able to shed some light on human rights abuses that are ongoing there and also to help the civil-society organizations that do continue to try and address the very serious issues that are present in Uzbekistan.
RFE/RL: And finally, what has the level of funding been from the U.S. Congress for these kinds of activities? With so much being spent on military and defense operations since 2001, have you seen a decrease in your budget for democracy building and the promotion of human rights?
Barks-Ruggles: Over the last four years, we've seen some very serious increases in our budget to do this. It's sort of leveled out in the last year, because of our continuing resolution, of course, [that] in [fiscal year] 2007, we operate on the same budget levels as in [fiscal year] 2006, but we think that the support that we've received both within the administration and in Congress for increased funding demonstrates not only the success of these programs but, quite frankly, the success of our partners on the ground, in making real progress when these programs are implemented -- in opening up political space, in defending human rights, and in furthering civil society's participation in governance. And we think that's been a big benefit to the countries in which we work.
UN General Assembly delegates applaud the creation of the UN Human Rights Council on March 15, 2006 (epa)
A FRESH START ON HUMAN RIGHTS: The United Nations General Assembly on May 9 elected members to its new Human Rights Council, a step that reformers hope will help improve the United Nations' sullied record on defending human rights. The UN's old human rights watchdog -- the Commission on Human Rights -- had long been criticized for granting membership to countries with dismal human rights records, such as Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Every member of the new body has to pledge to promote human rights. (more)