- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

The Obama administration’s first global report on human rights differed little from the reports issued during President George W. Bush’s second term, with the most notable exception being stepped-up criticism of the Iraqi government.

In the latest example of similarities between President Obama and Mr. Bush on foreign policy, Iran and China topped a list of 25 countries chided in the State Department’s annual human rights report for imposing “draconian” new restrictions on free expression and political rights in 2009.

“In a significant number of countries, governments have imposed new and often draconian restrictions on” nongovernmental organizations, the department said in its “Year in Review” section, highlighting global human rights trends and highlighting China, Russia, Venezuela and others.

The report, released Thursday, is the first to have been worked on exclusively since the election of Mr. Obama, who criticized the Bush administration during the 2008 campaign as arrogant and high-handed in dealing with foreign governments and said he’d repair the U.S. image abroad. After eight often testy years dealing with Mr. Bush, European officials thought Mr. Obama would change the world to their liking, but now realize that any American president will act in his country’s interests first.

Although he has changed some features of U.S. foreign policy, such as missile defense, Mr. Obama has not met his vow of closing the detention facility for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year, plans to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq for several more years, has ramped up the war in Afghanistan, and has overseen “continuity” in several other foreign-policy areas, such as North Korea, Latin America and NATO expansion, diplomats and analysts said.

“We are in a period of managing down some unrealistic expectations about what the administration was going to do,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs during Mr. Bush’s first term.

Although the State Department’s human rights reports, which are mandated by Congress and written mostly by career State Department employees, tend not to differ too much from year to year, a particular administration can emphasize some things and play down others.

Actual differences are usually reflected in specific policies, analysts said.

“How or whether these reports actually affect policy is the big question,” said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “Change will require more than just rhetoric. Reports’ findings should be formally integrated into decision-making processes that incorporate respect for human rights as a criterion.”

Mr. Cox also noted the Obama White House’s continuity with Bush-era anti-terrorism policies and reluctance to prosecute Bush-era officials, and he said they undermined the State Department report and other U.S. critics of human rights abuses.

“Skeptics will dismiss the reports as rhetoric and hypocrisy, as the Obama administration has not held anyone accountable for the human rights abuses committed by U.S. agents in the war on terror,” he said.

“Amnesty International urges the U.S. government to strive for even greater collaboration with U.S. civil society, both in preparing its report to the [U.N. Security Council], and in implementing the council’s subsequent recommendations,” Mr. Cox said.

The report mostly stated facts, with few major changes or sweeping rhetorical moves, likely reflecting that the world doesn’t change much and does not do so in accord with the U.S. electoral cycle.

On Israel, for example, the 2009 and 2007 reports are almost word-for-word identical, though the latest document mentioned the Jewish state’s Gaza operation, in which civilians on both sides were killed.

In one of its major departures though, the new report appeared more critical than before of the Iraqi government, not making the same caveats as the Bush-era reports did when they also criticized human rights abuses under post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi governments.

“Despite substantial improvements in the general security situation in Iraq, human rights abuses continued,” the department said, citing reports that “the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in connection with the ongoing conflict, and insurgent and terrorist bombings, executions and killings continued to affect all regions and sectors of society.”

In 2006, the department also reported “instances of torture and other abuses by government agents and by illegal armed groups.” But it blamed “the nature and breadth of the violence perpetrated by terrorists” for the government’s inability to adhere strictly to the rule of law.

The 2009 report also faulted Russia, particularly for the deaths of journalists and activists, which it linked to a pattern of increasing government information control in the Internet era.

“These restrictions and repressive measures are part of a larger pattern of governmental efforts to control dissenting or critical voices,” it said. “This pattern also extends to the media and to new forms of electronic communications through the Internet and other new technologies. Restrictions on freedom of expression, including on members of the media, are increasing and becoming more severe.”

Mr. Cox praised the report’s “expanded coverage of press freedoms and discrimination against vulnerable groups,” but he said it “should be more comprehensive and include all rights - not only civil and political, but also economic, social and cultural rights.”

A global trend reflected in the 2009 report is the “continuing and escalating discrimination and persecution” of various minorities, as well as an “alarming number of reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and other violations of universal human rights.”

In Iran, the government’s “poor human rights record degenerated” last year, “particularly after the disputed June presidential elections,” the report said. Thousands of Iranians - and some foreigners - have been arrested since then, and the authorities have put new controls on the Internet.

When it comes to finding new ways to crack down on free communication, China appears to be the world’s champion. It “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,” the report said.

In only one month, it added, the Beijing government shut down 1,250 Web sites and deleted more than 3.2 million items of information.

The Russian authorities “weakened freedom of expression and media independence” and harassed and intimidated journalists “into practicing self-censorship,” the report said. “During the year, unknown persons killed a number of human rights activists and eight journalists.”

North Korea, Cuba, Belarus, Vietnam, Venezuela and Uzbekistan were also among the countries criticized for severely limiting freedom of expression and assembly.

In addition to Iraq, other countries’ human rights were seriously affected by ongoing conflicts, the report said. In Afghanistan, civilians bore “the brunt of the violence,” while in Pakistan “extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances” took place.

In Sudan’s Darfur region, “government-sponsored forces bombed villages, killed civilians and supported Chadian rebel groups,” and “women and children continued to experience gender-based violence,” it said. Since that conflict began in 2003, nearly 2.7 million civilians have been internally displaced and more than 300,000 have died, it added.

The brutal conflict in Congo, “including counterinsurgency operations by government security forces,” resulted in the killing of more than 1,000 civilians and the rape of thousands of women.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Click to Read More

Click to Hide