- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2008

Human Rights Watch, in its annual report today, accuses the United States and other Western powers of allowing autocratic governments to pose as democracies for reasons of political and strategic expediency.

By refusing to speak out about phony elections and restrictions on basic freedoms, the established democracies are undermining human rights around the world, says the report by the world’s largest human rights organization.

“It’s now too easy for autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a prepared statement released ahead of a press conference this morning.

“That’s because too many Western governments insist on elections and leave it at that. They don’t press governments on the key human rights issues that make democracy function — a free press, peaceful assembly, and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power.”

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack declined yesterday to comment on the report before its release, but did discuss the state of democracy in two oil-rich U.S. allies mentioned in the report, Nigeria and Kazakhstan.

“Both of these countries have unique challenges in terms of where they stand along the pathway to a driving, stable, vibrant democracy,” he said.

“In terms of the United States and this administration … putting its effort behind its rhetoric, I do not think there’s any question about where we stand in terms of promotion of democracy, whether it’s in Kazakhstan or Nigeria or anywhere else around the world,” he said.

“We’re matching our values with our power. And we advocate using all elements of our national power for the advancement of freedom and democracy around the world.”

Anthony Smallwood, the spokesman for the EU Commission delegation in Washington, said the European Union has every reason to be proud of the priority it gives to human rights in all its work and has never backed away from the human rights dialogue.

He noted that EU actions depend on each particular situation and said there are different strategies for the political and human rights dialogue, even if not everyone agrees with them.

The Human Right Watch report examines aspects of the political and social life and human rights in more than 75 countries, including the United States and major European powers.

However a major focus is on the growing tendency of governments to claim democratic values while failing to put them into practice.

Some rulers establish autocratic regimes gradually by controlling the media and banning civil organizations, such as in Russia, Venezuela, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and others, the report says.

Countries like Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Thailand and Russia hold elections but intervene directly to control the process, it says. Others, like Belarus, Cuba, Egypt and Turkmenistan prevent opposition parties from competing fairly.

The report says violence has been used to influence the outcome of elections in Cambodia, Chechnya, Lebanon and Ethiopia, while outright fraud has been used in Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Chad.

Regrettably, the report says, the United States and Europe are often unwilling to call these governments to account because they do not want to lose access to natural resources and commercial opportunities in those countries, or because the countries are helping in the war on terror.

“It seems Washington and European governments will accept even the most dubious election so long as the ‘victor’ is a strategic or commercial ally,” Mr. Roth said in his prepared statement.

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