Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded signs of political opening in Myanmar, highlighted the first free elections in Egypt and deplored worsening abuses in Syria in presenting the State Department’s 2011 review of human rights conditions around the world.
Clinton said today that the annual U.S. government assessment of civil, political and religious freedoms in 199 countries sends an important signal “to governments around the world: We are watching, and we are holding you accountable. And they make clear to citizens and activists everywhere: You are not alone; we are standing with you.”
She praised Egypt for holding its first free and direct elections this week for a president to replace Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted following a popular uprising for greater democratic freedoms last year.
“Whatever the outcome of the election, the Egyptian people will keep striving to achieve their aspirations and, as they do, we will continue to support them,” she told reporters at the State Department.
She singled out for particular criticism Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, saying his regime is engaged in “not just an assault on freedom of expression or freedom of association, but an assault on the very lives of citizens. The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” she said.
Mandated by Congress
The annual report mandated by Congress almost 40 years ago was originally intended to guide lawmakers’ decisions in awarding U.S. foreign military and economic assistance. Clinton said the report has evolved into something more -- a yardstick by which governments, activists and journalists measure progress and reversals in civil, political and religious freedoms worldwide.
“I don’t expect this to be reading material everywhere, but I do hope, somewhere in the corner of my mind, that maybe a leader will pick it up and say, ‘How do we compare with others?’” she said.
In her preface to the report, Clinton highlighted last year’s Arab uprisings, saying “the world changed immeasurably” as citizens across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond “stood up to demand respect for human dignity, more promising economic opportunities, greater political liberties, and a say in their own future.”
Clinton praised the bravery of those who “endured violent responses” in demanding democratic rights.
The report highlights significant improvements in civil and political rights in Myanmar, the southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma. A military junta was dissolved last year, hundreds of political prisoners were released and longtime democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted to run for parliament.
“Burma offers an example of a government moving towards a model of greater openness, democracy, and liberty, attributes that can lead to greater innovation, prosperity, and inclusion,” according to the State Department report.
“Significant human rights problems in the country persisted, including military attacks against ethnic minorities in border states, which resulted in civilian deaths, forced relocations, sexual violence, and other serious abuses,” the State Department found. “The government also continued to detain hundreds of political prisoners. Government security forces were responsible for extrajudicial killings, rape and torture.”
That “does not diminish the excitement of these first steps, or the sense of possibility they may inspire in other closed societies, such as Iran, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, or Sudan,” the department said.
Iran’s ‘Negative Trends’
In Iran, “sadly, 2011 was a continuation of many negative trends,” including intolerance of dissent, a crackdown on demonstrations and severe restrictions on free speech, political participation and the Internet, Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, said at the briefing with Clinton.
Calling it “a very grim picture,” Posner cited “unfair trials, amputations, floggings, lots of death penalties, including some this year, many held in secret.”
He highlighted the case of seven Baha’i leaders who this month “marked four years of a 20-year sentence for basically practicing their religion.”
On China, Posner raised concern about increased restrictions on the activities of Chinese human-rights lawyers and activists. He cited the cases of jailed attorney Gao Zhisheng and writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “subverting state power.”
Asked about blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who was allowed to come to the U.S. this month after difficult negotiations during a Clinton visit to China for strategic and economic talks, Posner said it was striking that Clinton and her counterparts “had a very successful meeting while a human-rights issue was being played out.”
“The relationship is now so important to both countries that we have found a way, and we will find a way, to talk about our economic, political, strategic interests, and human rights is going to be very much a part of those discussions,” he said.
Posner said the U.S. is keeping a close eye on the status of Chen’s relatives, including a nephew who has been charged with intent to murder after defending himself against security officers who broke into his home in the middle of the night looking for Chen, who escaped house arrest and took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Can’t ‘Selectively Champion’
Amnesty International, a human rights groups that issued its own annual survey last night, praised Clinton and Posner for vowing to speak up for the voiceless while cautioning they must do so even at the risk of roiling diplomatic relations.
“Guarding those rights means that the United States cannot selectively champion freedom and human rights when convenient,” Frank Jannuzi, head of Amnesty’s Washington office, said in a statement. “It must fully commit to ensuring that human rights are not an afterthought but integral to its foreign relations and economic negotiations.”
Posner highlighted improvements in Colombia, where he said the government is striving to address a climate of impunity over the harassment, intimidation, and killings of human rights workers, journalists, teachers, and trade unionists.
“Extrajudicial killings declined in large measure due to efforts by the government to stop such crimes,” the State Department found.
The report praised Zambia for holding presidential, parliamentary, and local elections last September that were “free, credible, and orderly.”
In Tunisia, citizens held “transparent and credible elections” for an assembly that selected a former political prisoner as the country’s interim president, and work continues on rewriting the constitution, the report found.
The report also cited the worldwide treatment of vulnerable and “marginalized people,” including women and children, gay and transgender people, those with disabilities and religious minorities.
The report is available at www.humanrights.gov.
To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com