Human Rights: A Work in Progress

U.S. Publishes Annual Report

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 5, 2005 ( The U.S. State Department on Monday published its annual report on the status of human rights around the world. An Associated Press article the same day observed that the report came after the United States itself had been widely criticized for the human rights situation at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

«The events at Abu Ghraib were a stain on the honor of the U.S. There’s no two ways about it,» admitted Michael Kozak, assistant secretary for human rights, during the presentation of the report.

As usual, China rejected the criticism of its human rights failings, Reuters reported the next day. «We express strong dissatisfaction and at the same time resolute opposition to [the United States] finding fault with China for no reason at all,» Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news conference. Liu said the United States would do better to concentrate on its own human rights abuses, instead of interfering in other countries’.

The U.S. State Department acknowledged China’s significant economic progress, but criticized its poor human rights record, faulting the government for «numerous and serious abuses.» Problems include extrajudicial killings; torture and mistreatment of prisoners, leading to numerous deaths in custody; coerced confessions; and arbitrary arrest and detention. As well, the report stated that the judiciary is not independent and that there is a lack of due process.

An estimated 500 to 600 individuals were serving sentences for the now-repealed crime of counterrevolution, the report said. And according to some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) there are still around 250 people in prison for political activities connected with the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations.

Regarding freedom of speech, the report observed that China has blocked many Web sites and monitored text messages sent by mobile phones. The country’s Internet control system employed more than 30,000, according to the U.S. State Department.

Korea and Vietnam

North Korea also came in for severe criticism, with the human rights record described as being «extremely poor.» Prison conditions are harsh, and torture is common. Pregnant inmates have reportedly been forced to undergo abortions, «and in other cases babies reportedly were killed upon birth in prisons.»

In general, the government restricts freedom of religion, citizens’ movement, and worker rights. Moreover, last April the U.N. Commission on Human Rights called for the appointment of Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn to examine the human rights conditions in the country, but he was not allowed to visit the country.

Vietnam was also criticized for its «serious abuses» of human rights. Beating of prisoners, restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly, along with increased efforts to monitor and control citizen’s use of the Internet, were some of the problems noted. Authorities continue to detain political and religious prisoners and the government prohibits the existence of independent organizations in the political and social field.

Mideast miasma

Many countries in the Middle East continue to have a poor human rights record, according to the State Department. In Saudi Arabia it is still impossible to change the government, and security forces continue to arrest people arbitrarily and hold them incommunicado.

As well, most trials are closed and defendants usually appeared before judges without legal counsel. The government also continues to restrict freedoms of speech and press, assembly, association, religion and movement. Discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities is another problematic area mentioned in the report.

In Iraq the situation is difficult due to the continuing conflict. The State Department commented in the report that the interim Iraqi government «generally respected human rights, but serious problems remained.» Problems include reports of arbitrary killings and (in a reference that critics of U.S. missteps might find ironic) torture and poor prison conditions.

In Iran, «The Government’s poor human rights record worsened, and it continued to commit numerous, serious abuses.» Summary executions, torture, punishments such as amputations, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, were among the problems cited in the report.

The State Department also commented that in the political struggle between «hard-line elements» and reform forces the Guardian Council ruled about 2,500 of the more than 8,000 prospective candidates ineligible to run in last year’s national elections. Among those excluded were 85 sitting reformist deputies.

The situation in Egypt continues to remain poor, the report stated. Problems cited include a lack of political freedom, the use of military courts, torture of prisoners and restrictions on the press.

Israel also came in for criticism, even though the U.S. report did say that the government «generally respected the human rights of its citizens.» Nevertheless, problems exist regarding the treatment of Palestinian detainees and «thousands of persons» were detained last year on security grounds, without being charged.

Russia’s record

The State Department criticized Russia’s performance on human rights last year as «poor.» Particularly criticized was the situation in Chechnya, «where both sides demonstrated little respect for basic human rights.»

Other problems in Russia include abuses by security forces, harsh prison conditions, and a weakening of freedom of expression and the independence of the media. The government also restricts the activities of NGOs.

Problems continue to plague some ex-Soviet republics. According to the report, Belarus still commits serious abuses. Political parties are subjected to pressures and the government has refused to investigate the disappearances of opposition figures. Most major NGOs have been shut down as well.

Turkmenistan was described as «an authoritarian, one-party state dominated by President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov.» The country’s human rights record «remained extremely poor.» Kazakhstan was also criticized for a poor situation, with numerous abuses of human rights.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were cited for having made improvements in some areas, but in general their situation remains poor, with a lack of basic political freedoms. Likewise, Ukraine’s rights record was seen as poor. A bright note was the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the Nov. 21 presidential elections. Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko won the repeat election on Dec. 26.

Semper Fidel

In the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, as usual, came in for criticism, with the charge of «numerous, serious abuses» of human rights. Arrests of human rights activists, abuses by security authorities and a denial of basic freedoms of speech were among the faults specified in the report.

Venezuela also had a poor human rights situation, observed the State Department. Among the problems highlighted was a law last May increasing the number of Supreme Court judges, along with the forced retirement of others. Restrictions on the media and unlawful killings by security forces were also mentioned.

In Colombia, drug traffickers and powerful guerrilla groups make for a difficult situation. Security forces still commit serious abuses and conditions in the prisons are harsh, the U.S. report said. The judiciary is also undermined by corruption and intimidation. Nevertheless, the government’s performance was seen as improved in some areas. A mixed record, not without signs of hope.

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