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Washington Journal: U.S. Rejects Attack On Human Rights Policies

Washington, 4 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is rejecting an international human rights monitor's criticism of Washington's human rights policies, saying the U.S. is a forceful defender of human rights around the world.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, a private, non-profit organization based in New York, contends the U.S. has an inconsistent policy about compliance with human rights standards that seems to be guided by economic self-interest.

The White House said that assertion is simply wrong.

The exchange Thursday followed the release by Human Rights Watch of its annual report on human rights conditions around the world. The organization issues its report each December to coincide with the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations on December 10, 1948.

At a press briefing in Washington, Roth charged that the human rights policy pursued by the Administration of President Bill Clinton was marked by what he called blind spots. Roth told reporters that:

"The U.S. Government's human rights policy over the past year was characterized by a series of disappointing blind spots. The U.S. Government was best with respect to the pariah states, that is to say Burma, Belarus, Sierra Leon, Sudan. These are governments that the U.S. had a very strong human rights policy toward, but where no competing interests stood in the way."

However, when asked to comment on that statement, White House spokesman David Leavey said the Administration rejects the Human Rights Watch characterization. Leavey said that "human rights have always been a core element of the president's foreign policy."

At the press conference, Roth also asserted that:

"The U.S. Government was probably at its worst in the vast swaths of the globe that were simply exempt altogether from U.S. pressure on human rights. Most of Central Asia and the Middle East simply didn't fit onto the Administration's human rights agenda at all, and the reason being of course, energy, and the significant U.S. interests at stake there."

In reply, however, Leavey said the U.S. never fails to raise the issue of human rights in its bilateral discussions with other nations, regardless of whatever U.S. economic interests might be involved.

Roth said the publication of the human rights report serves two purposes. First, he says "it is embarrassing for any government to have its human rights crimes revealed." Publication, he says, stigmatizes a government and deprives it of international legitimacy. He says information is a very powerful tool.

Secondly, he says the reports help convince sympathetic governments to raise rights issues and to use their influence to curb abuses.

In its report, Human Rights Watch says there was a distinct deterioration of human rights in parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union in the past year. The organization also said human rights failed to improve in Iran and Iraq.

The report concluded that the human rights situation worsened in Belarus, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In Iran, the organization charged that human rights deteriorated in some areas because of the power struggle between supporters of President Mohammad Khatami's reformist program and fundamentalist clerics.

The organization charged that the Iraqi government continued to engage in a broad array of human rights violations.

The report said the outbreak of violence in Serbia's Kosovo province and the deterioration of Russia's economy were the most notable developments in the region.

The report said that: "Both cases underscored the threat posed when human rights and the rule of law are downplayed in order to promote interests such as territorial integrity, regional security, or economic gain."

In Central Asia, Human Rights Watch charged that, while Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov "was being unconditionally welcomed at the White House by President Clinton, the government of Turkmenistan continued to deny its citizens virtually all civil liberties."

The report also cited other areas of concern in the region as: a growing problem of religious persecution, attempts to intimidate or shut down the independent press, widespread ethnic discrimination, and a continuing problem of police brutality that often reached the level of torture.

Human Rights Watch also alleged serious violations of the rules of war in Georgia and Tajikistan. The report said "more than 200 people were reportedly killed when violence erupted in the Abkhaz region of Georgia in May, and scores of civilians were killed in Tajikistan when fighting broke out on several occasions during the year."

Human Rights Watch said that in both countries, the fighting "resulted in a campaign against civilians, including summary executions, rape, torture, and the looting and destruction of civilian homes and property."

In Kosovo, Human Rights Watch accused Yugoslav and Serb authorities of war crimes against the predominantly ethnic Albanian population. The fighting in Kosovo, said the report, caused at least 300,000 persons to flee their homes.

Unlike the U.S. State Department, which prepares human rights compliance reports on every nation in the world, the Human Rights Watch report covers much less territory, just 68 countries this year. It does not report on the same countries every year either. This year, for example, there are no reports for any of the three Baltic nations or for Ukraine.

Organization officials explain that their limited resources require them to focus on nations where the need for human rights improvement may be greatest.

In other highlights of this year's report, Human Rights Watch said:

--"The collapse of the ruble and the ensuing economic crisis threatened to send the country into anarchy. The Russian government's failure to address the severe problem of corruption has created a vicious cycle: unfettered corruption has laid waste to the public institutions crucial to long-term economic development and the rule of law, has eroded public trust in the state, and has weakened the state's ability to enforce its laws."

-- "Corruption riddled the police force, prisons, and the judiciary in many other countries in the region, including Albania, Armenia, Georgia, Macedonia, Romania, as well as the five Central Asian countries, undermining any hope that these institutions would respect and protect citizens' rights and interfering with efforts at reform." -- "A disturbing number of journalists were killed this year in Bulgaria and Russia, many under circumstances believed to be associated with their writing about corruption and organized crime. Journalists were arrested, beaten, and otherwise harassed and newspapers and other media subjected to various degrees of restrictions in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Turkey. There was no independent media whatsoever in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan."

-- "Religious persecution and discrimination have become disturbingly widespread in the region, in part a backlash against new religions and religious groups allowed to flourish in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism. Churches such as the Orthodox church in Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Russia, which often enjoy a privileged status, have sought to limit the influence of evangelical groups that might threaten their influence. "

-- "Other basic freedoms such as the right to assembly and association, as well as academic freedom, came under attack during 1998. In Azerbaijan, Belarus, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, governments limited the opportunities for legally-sanctioned rallies, often arbitrarily denying applications for demonstrations without any legitimate justification....Restrictions on academic freedom in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were intended to silence any remaining vestiges of critical thought in the society.

-- "While the political rivalry (in Iran) between increasingly polarized factions helped highlight important human rights issues, it nevertheless appeared to drive and even promote violations of human rights as hardliners in the judiciary and the parliament sought to undermine President Khatami's efforts to normalize Iran's relations with the West and the United States.

-- "The Iraqi government continued to engage in a broad array of human rights violations, including mass arrests, torture, summary executions, 'disappearances,' and forced relocations."