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March 9, 2006

State Dept Lauds Iraq, Slams Iran in Rights Reports

by Jim Lobe

Releasing the latest edition of its annual human rights "Country Reports," the U.S. State Department Wednesday named Iran and China as among the world's "most systematic human rights violators" in 2005, along with North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Belarus.

In a 16-page introduction, the report also singled out the human rights performances of Syria, Sudan, Nepal, Russia, and Venezuela as particularly problematic through the year, even as it praised what it called "major progress" in Iraq, as well as advances in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Burundi, and Liberia.

"In Iraq 2005 was a year of major progress for democracy, democratic rights, and freedom," according to the introduction, citing the "steady growth of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and other civil society associations that promote human rights," as well as the holding of two elections and one constitutional plebiscite.

At the same time, however, it conceded that the country's new institutions "remained under intense strain from the widespread violence" committed by insurgents and "terrorist elements," as well as "sectarian militias and security forces" acting "independently of government authority."

The latest edition of the Country Reports, which were first mandated by Congress in 1976, covers the human rights situations of nearly 200 countries in 2005 and stretches more than 3,000 pages in length.

The publication, which 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 rights conditions in specific countries.

At the same time, the report is focused almost exclusively on political and civil rights and rights to personal integrity. It generally ignores those rights contained in the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which has never been ratified by the United States.

As in the past, this year's edition does not address rights conditions in the United States or in U.S.-controlled facilities overseas, such as detention centers at the Guantanamo Bay naval base and in Afghanistan where Washington has been holding suspects in its "war on terror" in conditions that some human-rights monitors, including several UN special rapporteurs, have said amount to "torture."

That omission has been cited by critics as evidence of hypocrisy and double standards. "This report by the U.S. government provides a thorough review of today's human rights practices around the globe, except for one glaring omission – its own record," said William Schulz, director of the U.S. section of Amnesty International.

"The United States government considers itself a moral leader on human rights issues, but its record of indefinite and arbitrary detentions, secret 'black sites' and outsourced torture in the 'war on terror' turns it from leader to human rights violator," said Schulz.

Amnesty cited cases where suspected terrorists held by the U.S. were transferred, or "rendered," to authorities in countries, including Egypt and Jordan, that are accused in the report of routinely using torture against prisoners held for security-related offenses.

"This is a serious gap," said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First. Several years ago, she noted, the State Department instructed drafters of the Country Reports not to include actions taken by other governments at Washington's request.

"That instruction was later withdrawn, but the absence of reporting this year on abuses in which the U.S. is implicated raises questions about whether it continues to skew reporting," she told IPS.

She added that the report's failure to name a U.S.-created anti-terrorism unit, Detachment 88, in Indonesia in an otherwise extensive section on police abuses there raised similar questions about reporting on foreign forces closely tied to the U.S.

While the Country Reports avoid comparing the rights practices of different states, the introduction often singles out specific countries, normally those with which the U.S. has hostile or ambivalent relations, for special censure.

In last year's report, for example, the introduction focused on six nations – North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Burma – which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had labeled "outposts of tyranny." It also sharply criticized two key allies in the "war on terror" – Saudi Arabia, which escaped any mention in this year's introduction, and Uzbekistan, with which relations have been severely strained over past year due to a massacre by government forces of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators last May.

This year's introduction noted that Tashkent's human rights record, "already poor, worsened considerably in 2005."

But Uzbekistan was not included in the worst or six categories of rights-abusing nations – those "in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers [that] tend to be the world's most systematic human rights violators."

Leading that group, according to the introduction, were North Korea, "which remained one of the world's most isolated countries"; Burma, "where a junta rules by diktat"; and Iran, whose "government's already poor record on human rights and democracy worsened [in 2005]" in part due to the election of a "hard-line president [who] denied the Holocaust occurred and called for the elimination of Israel."

Also included in the "most systematic" list were Zimbabwe, whose "government maintained a steady assault on human dignity and basic freedoms"; Cuba, where "the regime continued to control all aspects of life"; China, where dissidents "faced harassment, detention, and imprisonment by government and security authorities"; and Belarus, whose president "continued to arrogate all power to himself and his dictatorial regime."

A second category of countries – those whose systematic abuses "of their own people are likely to pose threats to neighboring countries and the international community" – included Burma, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, according to the report. It argued that the alleged interference of the latter two in the affairs of their neighbors, including support for groups that Washington deems "terrorist," were related to their purported denial of fundamental rights to their own citizens.

A third group of countries – those that commit the most serious abuses within the context of armed conflict – included Sudan, which Washington has charged with committing genocide in Darfur; Nepal, whose "poor human rights record worsened [in 2005] as a result of violence by both the government and Maoist insurgents"; Cote D'Ivoire; and in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia's northern Caucasus region.

A fourth group – those "where civil society and independent media are under siege" – included Cambodia, China, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Belarus, and Russia, according to the report.

The introduction also cited countries, besides Iraq and Afghanistan, for positive developments in the course of the year.

While civil war-related abuses and official impunity persisted in Colombia, the report noted that the government's counter-insurgency operations and ongoing demobilization of paramilitary groups had led to a reduction in killings and kidnapping.

It also said the rights situation in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa had "improved markedly" in 2005, permitting the return of tens of thousands of displaced people, particularly Burundians, to their homes.

In the same vein, it welcomed advances in Ukraine after last year's "Orange Revolution"; Indonesia, where the peace accord between the government and the Free Aceh Movement ended decades of armed conflict; Lebanon, where Syrian forces were withdrawn in the face of domestic and international pressure; and Liberia, where Africa's first elected female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, marked "a milestone in the country's transition from civil war to democracy."

(Inter Press Service)

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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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