America’s annual human rights report describes 2011 as a ” tumultuous and momentous year” of change, from the Arab spring to the dramatic political opening in Burma which may yet inspire what it calls other closed societies – from Iran to North Korea and Eritrea – to open up.
But the US state department report, compiled from information gathered from US embassies around the world, warned of disturbing trends in other ways from growing persecution of religious minorities to deepening discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people.
The 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices made strong criticisms of the situation in China, Russia and several countries in Africa. It had particularly harshly worded condemnation of Iran and Syria, two countries where the US has made it clear it would like to see a change of government.
“These reports … make clear 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,” said the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
Clinton noted that the report was released as Egyptians are holding a free election for the first time in their history.
“We will support people everywhere who seek the same. Men and women who want to speak, worship, associate, love the way they choose – we will defend their rights; not just on the day we issue these reports, but every day,” she said.
But the state department was forced to defend the report from accusations that human rights are too often subordinated to US political and security interests, such as Washington’s restrained criticisms of the government of Bahrain’s violent crackdown on dissent.
The report also does not scrutinise the US’s own human rights record, including criticism from groups such as Amnesty International over the Guantánamo Bay prison, executions and drone strikes that have killed thousands of innocent people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
The report said that the Arab spring has changed the Middle East and led to a general improvement in human rights but that it will take time to build free societies.
“Transitions are times of uncertainty,” it said. “They can be chaotic, unstable, and at times violent. And even when they succeed, they are rarely linear, quick, or easy. The challenge during these transitions is to keep societies open to political debate. Protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms ensures that negotiations over a country’s future can take place without fear or intimidation, and that anti-democratic forces do not snuff out genuine political participation.”
But in a move that will be widely interpreted as political, some of the strongest criticism was reserved for Iran and Syria.
“Iran sentenced hundreds of people to death and carried out hundreds of executions without due process. It cracked down on all forms of dissent, arresting and detaining activists, opposition leaders, lawyers, journalists, artists, and academics. It executed juveniles, tortured political prisoners, and detained more journalists than nearly any country in the world,” the report said.
On Syria, the report said: “The government of President Assad used indiscriminate and deadly force to quell peaceful protests throughout the country and launched military assaults on several of its own cities. At the year’s end, activists reported ongoing arrests, torture, intimidation, rape, extra-judicial killings and the use of military force against civilians.”
Clinton said: “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end, because Syrians know they deserve a better future”.
The tone in criticising Bahrain’s crackdown on demands by the Shia majority for political reform and greater civil rights, including torture and arbitrary arrest by the security forces, is more restrained. Nearly 100 people were killed and thousands injured. The US has a large military base in Bahrain.
Michael Posner, the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour, acknowledged that human rights are often competing with national security and diplomatic interests. But he said that the US pursues “principled engagements” that includes human rights.
“We recognise we have a range of interests,” he said. “But human rights is an important part of what we do across the board.”
On Bahrain, he said that the US has pressed the government there to curb abuses. “We raised these issues in Bahrain recognising that this country is at a turning point.”
The report warned of rising persecution over sexual orientation. “In many countries there was an uptick in discrimination against members of racial and ethnic minorities; people with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people, all of whom were frequent targets of abuse, discrimination, and violence,” it said.
The report contained strong criticism of China where it said “the human rights situation deteriorated, particularly the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association”.
It noted the harassment and detention of human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.
“Public interest lawyers who took cases deemed sensitive by the government faced disbarment and the closure of their firms, and in some cases were subject to arrest and detention. Activists, dissidents, and members of religious minorities were denied the freedoms to assemble, practice their religions, or travel,” it said.
Some of the worst abuses were documented in Africa. The report noted the appalling human rights abuses that continue in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo where militia groups are responsible for systematic, rape, torture and murder.
It also criticised what it described as “widespread human rights violations” under Eritrea’s authoritarian regime including forced labour, the use of torture and the detention of more than 30 journalists whose whereabouts are not known.
In neighbouring Ethiopia, “the government continued to repress civil society, including the media”.
It condemned Sudan’s continued “bombardment of civilian areas” and use of militias that “killed, injured, and raped civilians” as well as the use of child soldiers.
The report noted that the “chronically bad human rights situation” in Zimbabwe has not improved despite the installation of a power sharing government. It accused Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party of using the security forces “to arrest, abuse, and torture non-Zanu-PF party members and civil society activists with impunity”.
On Israel, the report notes continuing racial discrimination against non-Jews, particularly Arabs. Among other things a long standing practice of villages running “community admissions committees” to decide whether a person or family is permitted to move there was codified into law after the high court ruled that the committees were illegal. The practice is most commonly used to discriminate against Arabs.
The report also noted the practice of issuing “kosher certificates” indicating that no Arabs were employed by a business.