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World: Human Rights Protection Needs Stronger Institutions

Human Rights Watch, a leading independent human rights monitor, is calling for increased institutional support to protect human rights. The group has released its latest annual report on the status of human rights around the world. RFE/RL Correspondent Beatrice Hogan reviewed the report and discusses this year's developments with Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth and Central Asia researcher Cassandra Cavanaugh.

New York, 8 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The world lacks the institutional support to deal with deteriorating human rights conditions in many countries.

That's the conclusion of this year's annual report on human rights by the U.S.-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch.

The report surveyed conditions for basic human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of worship, in 70 countries, including many former communist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The report notes progress in some areas, particularly in the countries of former Yugoslavia, but points out deficiencies in many others. In many Central Asian states, this year marked a step backward in human rights.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, says the sheer scope of human rights problems outstrips countries' capacity to deal with the problems. He says international institutions are inadequate.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Roth says that no international institution exists that has enforcement power to ensure that economic growth in developing countries also respects rights of workers to decent wages and working conditions:

"We need to undermine the so-called 'race to the bottom' and make sure the global economy expands on the basis of respect for human rights. And we need an institution to do that."

Roth says the current level of financial support for the United Nations is insufficient. He says that the same countries that expect the UN to deal with numerous humanitarian and human rights crises have also been withholding the necessary funds and personnel.

Roth also calls on the world community to fortify the international system of justice -- particularly the International Criminal Court.

Roth says this lack of international commitment has allowed many human rights abuses to go unchecked.

He says that in Russia, for example, international lenders continued to loan Moscow millions of dollars while reports of summary executions of civilians, the widespread use of torture and the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas were coming out of Chechnya.

Roth says the development of civil liberties has been uneven across the former Soviet territories:

"There are too many places where the government seems to think that these are still Soviet times and that it is entitled to crack down on anyone who dares to join an independent organization, pray independently to a god, or speak out independently against the government. And I have in mind countries like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan where you would have a hard time distinguishing the current government with the government of the Soviet era."

Cassandra Cavanaugh is a researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors conditions in Central Asia.

She tells RFE/RL that the year 2000 was noteworthy for marking a step backward in human rights conditions in that region:

"We look at the year 2000 as the decisive turning-back point -- the point at which it should be clear to everyone around the world that these countries are not engaged in democratic transition. They are engaged in a transition to authoritarianism."

She points to the situation in Uzbekistan, where this year many people were arrested for engaging in what the government says is illegal religious activity. Cavanaugh says that to some extent the Uzbek government is reacting to repeated incursions on its territory by armed groups, but the repression only threatens to make the situation worse:

"As far as we've documented, it's a gross overreaction and the repressive nature of Uzbek policy is certainly, as all international organizations now agree, worsening the conflict, and planting the seeds for future conflict."

Cavanaugh also comments on conditions in Kazakhstan, where she says the government has a mixed record. She says officials there have made gestures to support OSCE democracy-building efforts, but that there has been no substantive improvement in the status of political freedoms. Moreover, she says the country refuses to sign the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

But Cavanaugh also praises what she says is grassroots coalition-building in Central Asia. She says that in Kyrgyzstan, a local NGO coalition joined forces with human rights groups to monitor this year's presidential elections and focus international attention on political and human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch says this year marked an improvement in human rights in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, where democratic governments came to power in Croatia and in federal Yugoslavia.

In Croatia, the death of long-time president Franjo Tudjman ushered in a new era. Human Rights Watch says the new Croat leadership in the presidency and parliament has made speedy human rights progress by turning over war criminals and elevating the status of minorities in the country.

Bosnia saw progress as well, with the transfer of eight indicted war criminals in the past year.

This year's report did not cover conditions in the Baltic states, Slovenia, Moldova, or Ukraine. The organization says any omission should be seen as a reflection of staffing limitations rather than any signal about human rights in a particular country.