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RIGHTS: U.S. Concerned Over Curbs on NGOs, Press, Internet

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Mar 11 2010 (IPS) - Releasing its annual report on the state of human rights around the world, the U.S. State Department Thursday said it was increasingly concerned about curbs imposed by foreign governments on civil society groups, the press, and Internet use.

“We find ourselves in a moment when an increasing number of governments are imposing new and crippling restrictions on the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to protect rights and enhance accountability,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who released the latest edition of the Department’s massive “Country Reports”.

“New technologies have proven useful both to oppressors and to those who struggle to expose the failures and cowardice of those oppressors,” she added, noting that Washington will seek to “hold everyone to the same standard, including ourselves” in its human rights policies.

The 10-page introduction, the most closely read part of a report that covers 194 countries and runs thousands of pages in length, singled out a number of countries for special concern on a range of key human rights issues.

In contrast to introductions issued under the administration of President George W. Bush, the 2009 edition did not categorise specific countries as “the world’s most systematic human rights right violators,” countries which were almost invariably perceived as hostile to the U.S.

The 2007 report, for example, placed North Korea, Burma, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, and Sudan in that category. Syria, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea, on the other hand, were not mentioned in this year’s introduction, although their specific Country Reports were no less critical than in previous years.

Indeed, this year’s introduction cited a number of key U.S. friends – notably Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, and even Switzerland – as well as Iran, Belarus, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, for various kinds of abuses.

“It’s a highly inclusive list,” said Tom Malinowski, the director of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch. “You can’t say there’s any glaring omission. They’re highlighting most of the emblematic situations around the world.”

The Country Reports, which were first mandated by Congress in 1976, is based on reporting by other governments, international and local NGOs, journalists, academics, and U.S. diplomats, is widely considered the world’s single most comprehensive accounting of political and civil rights conditions in specific countries.

As in the past, the latest edition does not address rights conditions in the U.S. or in U.S.-controlled facilities overseas, including detention centres at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in Afghanistan where U.S. personnel have been accused of abuses in the past.

The latest report on Afghanistan, however, noted that “NATO and U.S. forces continue to hand over detainees to (the Afghan intelligence agency) which perpetrates human rights violations, including torture …with impunity.”

Despite a strong emphasis Clinton herself placed in a major speech last December on the importance of “human development”, including food, shelter, health, and education, as part of “our human rights agenda”, the report also does not explicitly cover economic and social rights, an omission that has drawn complaints from many human rights groups in the past.

“As an organisation, we feel this report is not comprehensive because it doesn’t address economic and social rights issues that are happening around the world,” T. Kumar of Amnesty International’s Washington office told IPS.

At the same time, the report stressed the commitment of the administration of President Barack Obama to integrate the U.S. more fully into the multilateral system for assessing and promoting human rights, noting in particular its decision to join the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva and more actively support human rights initiatives in the U.N. General Assembly and in regional organisation.

Next fall, the report said, Washington intends to appear before the UNHRC for its first Universal Periodic Review “of our own domestic human rights situation,” it said.

The introduction covered three major trends in human rights abuses during 2009.

For “countries in conflict,” where combatant civilians faced serious abuses of human rights by insurgents, terrorist or paramilitary forces, and/or government forces, the report’s introduction cited ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, the north Caucasus region in Russia, Sri Lanka and the Darfur region of Sudan.

It also cited the situation in the Palestinian territories, notably in Gaza where Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in which more than 1,000 Palestinian civilians were reportedly killed.

The introduction, however, stressed that the Operation was undertaken “in response to” rocket attacks from Gaza and made no mention of last September’s UNHRC-mandated Goldstone Report that found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the campaign or of the ongoing blockade by Israel against Gaza. Amnesty’s Kumar said he found the omission “disturbing”.

“It is more complicated… to deal with humanitarian questions in a place where …Hamas is largely in control,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner Thursday. He argued that the Goldstone Report had paid “inadequate attention …to the nature of the conflict (as) …an urban conflict, an asymmetrical conflict…”

The second trend highlighted by the introduction included restrictions on freedom of association and expression – including the right to send and receive information via the internet and other media – that make it more difficult for NGOs to establish themselves and press their agendas.

In that respect, the introduction cited abuses in Belarus, China, Colombia, Cuba, Iran (especially after the Jun. 12 election), North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan.

On internet freedom, on which Clinton gave a major policy address in January, the introduction was particularly harsh on China and Iran.

It said Beijing had “increased its efforts to monitor Internet use, control content, restrict information, block access to foreign and domestic Web sites, encourage self-censorship, and punish those who violated regulations.”

After the disputed election in Iran, the government had reduced its bandwidth apparently to prevent activists from uploading videos of protests and subsequently blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites during the Dec. 27 Ashura demonstrations.

Earlier this week, the administration announced exemptions to U.S. trade sanctions against Iran, Sudan, and Cuba to permit U.S. companies to export internet services and other communications software to the three countries.

A final trend stressed in the introduction cited discrimination and harassment of vulnerable groups; among them, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, women and children, migrant workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

In that respect, China was cited for its crackdown against public interest lawyers, Tibetans, and Uighurs; Egypt for its restrictions on NGOs and attacks on Coptic Christians; Malaysia for its exploitation of foreign works; Saudi Arabia for discrimination against non-Sunni Muslims and women; and Uganda for its anti-LGBT legislation.

The introduction also expressed concern about the rise of “traditional and new forms of anti-Semitism,” particularly following the Gaza conflict; “discrimination against Muslims in Europe,” including November’s approval by Swiss voters of a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets; and violence against Roma in Italy and central Europe.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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