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World: Freedom Marches On But Obstacles Remain

By Andrew F. Tully and Frank T. Csongos

The U.S. State Department has released its annual human rights report. The survey says democracy is on the march in Yugoslavia, cites problems in Russia, and criticizes China, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Our Washington correspondents Andrew F. Tully and Frank T. Csongos report.

Washington, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States says human rights, democracy, and fundamental freedoms advanced in Yugoslavia last year but worsened in the world's most populous nation, China.

The U.S. State Department on Monday released its annual survey of human rights around the world. The report was submitted to the U.S. Congress. By law, the department must compile a human rights report annually.

The State Department report notes that the Yugoslav people voted President Slobodan Milosevic out of office last September, ending more than a decade of authoritarian rule.

The department's survey accuses the Milosevic regime of a wide array of abuses last year.

The report says these abuses included the murder, beating, and disappearances of political opponents; impunity for those responsible; and the manipulation of the electoral process. It says the Milosevic government also severely restricted freedom of the press, assembly, association, and religion.

But the survey says the election of Vojislav Kostunica in September brought hope of improvement. It cites the release of three noted political prisoners during his first months in office.

The report also cites serious human rights problems in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Ethnic violence persisted in 2000, particularly by ethnic Albanians avenging their treatment at the hands of ethnic Serbs before the UN military intervention of 1999.

At the same time, the report says China's already poor human rights record worsened in 2000, as the authorities intensified their harsh measures against Christian groups, Tibetan Buddhists, and the outlawed Falun Gong movement.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Michael Parmly told reporters Monday in releasing the report that the U.S. will sponsor a resolution critical of China at the UN Human Rights Commission meeting next month in Geneva.

Parmly said the U.S. is taking the step for a number of reasons, including because of Chinese suppression of religious groups and disrespect for press freedoms.

On Russia, the report says there are two key problems. Parmly assessed the situation this way:

"There were two areas where we saw major problems and areas of concern. One is freedom of the press, where we keep a very close brief, close watch, because of signs of concern that trouble us. And second, and by far the most important, is Chechnya."

In Afghanistan, the report says the Taliban movement continued to be a major violator of human rights, severely restricting women's and girls' access to education.

Parmly says the U.S. will continue to press the Taliban on the issue. Neither the United States nor the United Nations recognizes the Taliban government.

"We will continue to speak out, we will continue to coordinate with our allies to address the situation in Afghanistan."

The department says political repression in Belarus worsened and that Cuba's overall human rights record remains poor.

The report says Iraq remains under what the department calls the complete domination of one of the world's most repressive regimes.

It says the Baghdad regime summarily executes perceived political opponents.

The department says civil uprisings have occurred in Iraq in recent years, especially in the north and south. It says the government has reacted with extreme repression against those who oppose it or even question it.

According to the report, political power in Iraq lies exclusively in a repressive one-party system dominated by President Saddam Hussein and members of his family.

The report says summary executions are believed to have totaled more than 3,000 since 1997. It says that this may be linked to reported intimidation of the population and that these killed included high-ranking civilian, military, and tribal leaders.

The survey says Iran's human rights record remained poor last year, despite efforts within society to make the government more accountable.

The report singles out alleged systematic abuses, including extra-judicial killings and summary executions, disappearances, widespread use of torture, harsh prison conditions, and arbitrary arrests.

The department says the government restricts freedom of religion, particularly of the Baha'i's. It notes that last July, 10 Iranian Jews were tried and convicted on charges of illegal contacts with Israel, and sentenced to between 2 and 13 years in prison. Three others were acquitted. The department calls the trial proceedings unfair.

The survey also says seriously flawed elections took place in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan last year and reports a lack of press freedom in Uzbekistan. It says that the disappearance of a Ukrainian journalist raises serious concern about press freedom in Ukraine.

Arthur Helton is a human rights and foreign policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York think tank. He says it is perhaps too easy to dismiss the State Department report as nothing more than an effort by the U.S. to use the report as a prod for other nations interested in receiving American foreign aid.

Instead, Helton sees the State Department's effort as being just as valuable as that of independent organizations like Freedom House. He says such an enterprise gives people around the globe a good look at how others live. "Overall, it [issuing the reports] is, I believe, not only a positive development, but one that reflects the broad willingness to look inside of [other] states and to monitor the way in which states govern their populations."

Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House, which itself issues annual reports on human rights around the world. He says that ultimately, it does not matter whether the U.S. is using the surveys to prod countries into improving their human rights records. "The basic question is: Are the reports honest and accurate, and do they have credibility? And I think they do."

Besides, Puddington says, different reports with slightly different points of view can combine to give a much more thorough view of human rights worldwide than any single report can do.