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May 29, 2008

Amnesty: US Sets Standards, Fails to Meet Them

by Jim Lobe

LONDON - The annual report of Amnesty International (AI) released Wednesday holds the United States responsible for setting world standards on human rights -- and then failing in that task.

"As the world's most powerful state, the USA sets the standard for government behavior globally," but the US has "distinguished itself in recent years through its defiance of international law."

Like last year, the focus was on US detentions at Guantanamo Bay. The report said hundreds continue to be detained there, while noting that more than 100 were transferred out of that center last year.

The report was critical of US failures domestically as well. "Soldiers refusing to serve in Iraq on grounds of conscience were imprisoned. Prisoners continued to experience ill-treatment at the hands of police officers and prison guards. Dozens of people died after police used tasers (electroshock weapons) against them."

But while being critical of the position with the US on specific counts, the thrust of the AI position was controversially that the US carries the responsibility of setting an example to the rest of the world.

The bulk of the report collates human rights issues through 2007 in the various country reports. Amnesty has highlighted particularly the issues with the US, China, Russia and the EU.

On these, it made the following demands:

- China must live up to the human rights promises it made around the Olympic Games and allow free speech and freedom of the press and end "reeducation through labor."

- The US must close the Guantánamo detention camp and secret detention centers, prosecute the detainees under fair trial standards or release them, and unequivocally reject the use of torture and ill-treatment.

- Russia must show greater tolerance for political dissent, and none for impunity on human rights abuses in Chechnya. - The EU must investigate the complicity of its member states in "renditions" of terrorist suspects and set the same bar on human rights for its own members as it does for other countries. "The most powerful must lead by example," said AI secretary general Irene Khan at the launch of the report.

But the report also draws attention to severe violations in other regions. "The human rights flashpoints in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Gaza, Iraq and Myanmar demand immediate action," said Khan.

The AI report says that 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations, people are still tortured or ill-treated in at least 81 countries, face unfair trials in at least 54 countries and are not allowed to speak freely in at least 77 countries.

The report highlights the following trends through 2007: - Targeting of civilians by armed groups and government forces with impunity; - Pervasive violence against women; - Promotion of torture and ill-treatment as acceptable modes of intelligence gathering; - Suppression of dissent and attacks on journalists and activists; - Lack of protection for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants; - Denial of economic and social rights; and - Evasion of corporate accountability for human rights abuses.

Much of the Amnesty report continues as before to be based on newspaper and other reports. This seems particularly the case with China.

"Based on public reports, Amnesty International estimated that at least 470 people were executed and 1,860 people sentenced to death during 2007 (in China), although the true figures were believed to be much higher," the report says. It also highlights the situation in Tibet and brings together other publicized instances of violations.

The section on Iraq exposes acutely AI’s limitations by way of investigations on the ground. The report is really a summing up of familiar positions, and those only as reported in mainstream media.

The report notes that "thousands of civilians, including children, were killed or injured amid continuing sectarian and other violence. All sides involved in the fighting committed gross human rights violations, some of which amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity."

On Pakistan, the report capsules the political events around the confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf, but also blames the US for backing him. "The hollowness of the US administration's call for democracy and freedom abroad was displayed in its continued support of President Pervez Musharraf as he arrested thousands of lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and political activists," Khan said.

But while highlighting abuses of rights, the report speaks also of growing protests against such violations.

"Black-suited lawyers in Pakistan, saffron-robed monks in Myanmar, 43.7 million individuals standing up on Oct. 17, 2007, to demand action against poverty, all were vibrant reminders last year of a global citizenry determined to stand up for human rights and hold their leaders to account."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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