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World: Human Rights Cause Made Little Progress

A new report finds that the cause for democracy and human rights did not make nearly as many gains in 1999 as it did just one year before. The assessment comes in the U.S. State Department's 1999 annual report on human rights, released Friday (Feb. 25) in Washington. State Department correspondent Lisa McAdams reports:

Washington, 28 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The heavy nature of the 1999 rights report was reflected in its size of 6,000 pages, and in its scale of covering 194 countries.

The report, released to Congress, says the past year saw a number of "profound challenges" to human rights, which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said is now and must remain an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.

Albright said when governments respect human rights, they contribute to a more just and stable world. When they do not, she said, they often engender strife. The Secretary also made the point that human rights are no longer an "internal" matter:

"Serious and repeated abuses of human rights are everybody's business. In today's transformed world, ignorance of atrocities is barely possible and therefore no excuse. Sovereignty carries with it many rights, but killing and torturing innocent people are not among them."

The secretary then directed her remarks toward Russia's military campaign in Chechnya saying that for those who devastate whole neighborhoods through indiscriminate attacks, "brutality is a choice." At the same time, she noted that governments also have the power to choose, along with the responsibility to change. Here again, she singled out Moscow:

"I want to reiterate today our call for the Russian government to launch a full and open investigation into credible reports of massacres and other human rights violations in Chechnya."

The report dedicated a full 123 pages to detailing Russia's rights performance, which it said remained uneven and even worsened in some areas.

Assistant U.S. Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor Harold Koh also briefed reporters. Koh said that as the report went to press, there were credible reports that Russian forces were rounding up Chechen men of military age and sending them to filtration camps where they were allegedly tortured.

Koh said abuses also were noted on the part of Chechen separatists, but he characterized them at a much "lesser" level.

The report also notes that journalists worldwide continue to risk harassment, arrest, and even death to report the news. Here, the case of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky was again raised.

Shortly after the briefing, word broke that Babitsky's wife had been in contact with her husband by phone. Many questions remain and State Department Spokesman Phil Reeker later told our correspondent that the United States still wants a "full accounting" from Russia.

Assistant Secretary Koh says the Babitsky case is of vital import:

"Obviously, Babitsky's case is extremely disturbing. It's a top priority. We have said both publicly and privately that we hold the government of Russia responsible for Babitsky's fate. And we support the efforts of others, particularly of Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty, to try to learn about his whereabouts and to win his freedom."

Meanwhile, dissidents around the world also faced problems, notably in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iraq. The report also finds a growing trend posed to democratic dissent by non governmental insurgent, terrorist, or criminal forces.

Other "low points" listed were Serbia's expulsion of more than 850,000 Kosovar Albanians and the coup in Pakistan.

This year's report also features a new addition in its first-ever individual sections on the trafficking of persons, primarily women and girls, which Albright said is one of the most comprehensive challenges to human rights in the world today:

"These reports will reinforce the diplomatic and law enforcement initiative we have launched to prevent abuses, protect victims and prosecute traffickers. And it will help us to spread the word that this pernicious traffic must be met with a spotlight that is visible around the equator and from pole to pole."

On a more positive note, Albright said humankind was blessed to live at a time of broader respect for basic human rights than ever before in history. And she noted that the report states that there were human rights gains made in 1999, namely stemming from NATO's intervention in Kosovo and the international intervention in East Timor.

Democratic elections in Indonesia and Nigeria were also cited as positives.