WASHINGTON—The State Department’s annual human rights report offered little encouragement for rights activists on its release April 19. Increasing restrictions on civil society, repression of religious minorities, and efforts to curtail freedom of expression were increasingly evident, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
“Online activists are shut down for criticizing their governments, or shining light on corruption, or just trying to speak out and express their view about a different future,” he said.
Speaking at the launch of the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, Kerry highlighted Burma’s transition to democracy as a standout even as he acknowledged the fragility of that path.
“A country that had been isolated for years is now making progress. Has it reached where we want it to be? No,” he said.
“Many challenges remain,” Kerry added, including corruption, the ongoing detention of political dissidents, and violence against ethnic minorities.
Even so Burma, also known as Myanmar, was the standout in what was a bleak picture of human rights in 2012.
“For other countries in regions in transition, the way forward is much less clear,” Kerry said.
A former chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry said countries in transition as a result of the “Arab Awakening” were struggling.
“Where entrenched regimes have been swept out and new governments have been slow … to protect the most vulnerable and build accountable, democratic institutions, we still see resistance,” he said.
Syria garnered particular attention. Kerry accused former leader Bashar al-Assad of “desperately clinging to power, responding to the cries for freedom with murder and mayhem, more bloodshed.”
According to a United Nations estimate nearly 70,000 people have died in Syria since March 2011. The number of deaths increased from around 1,000 per month to more than 5,000 per month by July 2012.
Losses Outweigh Gains
The State Department’s annual report assesses human rights conditions for 199 countries, highlighting both gains and setbacks. Positive developments this year: Burma continued to embrace democratic reforms after more than 50 years of authoritarian military rule; former Soviet republic, Georgia, negotiated a peaceful transfer of power: and both Libya and Egypt held contested elections.
But the gains were few and offset by deteriorating human rights environments in other areas.
The report noted the positive impact of social media as an avenue for citizens to voice dissent, organize, and distribute information, but said that for traditional media, 2012 was a bad year. According to the report, 133 journalists were killed and 53 arrested, making 2012 the deadliest year since 1997 for journalists and a record year for the number of journalists imprisoned.
Threats to civil society in 2012 were concerning developments through 2012 stretching from “Iran to Venezuela,” the report said.
Increasing restrictions on civil liberties and the activities of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) in Russia and Egypt were particularly worrisome.
“When governments stifle society, their countries are deprived of the ideas, the energy, and the ingenuity of their people that are needed for long-term stability and success in the 21st century,” said Uzra Zeya, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, speaking at the Foreign Press Center at the report’s launch.
That was particularly evident in China where the human rights environment had again deteriorated.
Coinciding with reports from Chinese domestic media detailing horrific tortures inflicted on detainees in Masanjia labor camp, many of them Falun Gong prisoners of conscience, the U.S. report devotes considerable attention to China’s detention system.
The report details a range of strategies used by Chinese authorities to crush any independent or critical voice, including “extralegal measures including enforced disappearance.”
Zeya said China’s labor camp and law enforcement systems were “absolutely an issue of concern,” for the United States. She emphasized that the State Department and Kerry raise human rights issues regularly with China, including during Kerry’s recent trip to China, his first as secretary of state.
However, rights groups are becoming critical of the United States for what they say is an “all talk no action” approach to human rights.
Amnesty International issued a statement Friday commending the State Department report for documenting rights abuses globally but criticized America for being inconsistent in its treatment of friends and foes in reporting rights abuse and for a lack of action.
“Unfortunately, this commitment to documentation is all too often not matched in actual policy and action,” the statement read.