Human Rights Stagnate in 2008 Say Reports

January 22, 2009 Updated: January 21, 2009
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WASHINGTON, D.C.―In the year 2008, proponents of democracy and human rights faced a sophisticated opponent intent on undermining the influence of free nations like the U.S., according to two recently released reports.

Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, independently, concluded in their respective 2009 world reports, that authoritarian regimes mounted an anti-human rights campaign to prevent reform. They also agreed that the Obama administration will need to make human rights the number one priority if the U.S. is to restore its position as a leader in this realm.

“These human rights opponents defend the prerogative of governments to do what they want to their people,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), at a press conference at the National Press Club on Jan. 14. Roth was referring to countries like Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, China, and Russia, with the tacit support of even ‘free’ countries like South Africa and India.

Today, a country would not dare to openly speak against human rights, said Roth. The principles in the Declaration of Human Rights that was signed 60 years ago have become too ingrained in international diplomacy to openly oppose them.

“They hide behind the principles of sovereignty, non-interference, and Southern solidarity, but their real aim is to curb criticism of their own human rights abuses or those of their allies and friends,” said Roth.

In effect, these nation states, which Roth labeled as “the spoilers,” dominated intergovernmental discussions of human rights, and effectively prevented the United Nations from taking action against the “severe repression in Uzbekistan, Iran, … the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” and from creating the multilateral agreements that could ease troubles in Burma, Darfur, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe.

Freedom House Director of Research and author of the Freedom House report, Arch Puddington, said that what set off the reaction against democracy and reform was the “color revolutions” in 2003-05 in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, where several post-communist societies ousted autocratic and/or corrupt officials, mostly non-violently.

“Powerful regimes worldwide have reacted to ‘color revolutions’ with calculated and forceful measures designed to suppress democratic reformers, international assistance to those reformers and ultimately the very idea of democracy itself,” said Puddington.

Especially after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, “a number of governments took measures to repress domestic opposition, weaken independent media, and hinder democracy assistance efforts by NGOs based in the United States and elsewhere,” writes Puddington.

Freedom House’s report was released on Jan. 12, when Puddington spoke at a teleconference.

Freedom House and Human Rights Watch agree that the Bush administration dropped the ball on human rights, and allowed the authoritarian states to take the initiative on human rights—unfortunately, in a negative direction. The Obama administration will need to make human rights its first priority in its foreign and domestic policy in order to seize the initiative back, according to both HRW and Freedom House.

HRW maintained that the Bush administration largely withdrew from the defense of human rights after deciding to combat terrorism without regard for an “enemy combatant” being subjected to torture, extraordinary renditions (enforced disappearances) to foreign countries, and indefinite detentions for detainees at Guantanamo Bay without charges or trial.

Highlights of the Reports

Russia continued to lose ground on Freedom House’s measurements. Last year, Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s successor as Russian president, “won an election in which opposition candidates were marginalized through laws and regulations that have effectively made Russia a one-party state…,” writes Puddington.

Increasingly repressive practices at home and in Chechnya made Russia more willing to undermine international intervention for human rights. Russia on the UN Security Council blocked critical resolutions on Burma and Zimbabwe, notes Roth. And Russia bullies other European governments to ignore their crimes in Chechnya.

Freedom House’s political rights scores for Non-Baltic former Soviet Union countries have deteriorated in recent years to the point that the area ranks below any region, including the Middle East and North Africa. These countries include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova. In Armenia, for example, over 100 people were incarcerated after voting in the presidential election and violence was used to disperse opposition protesters.

Generally speaking, the year’s most significant gains for democracy happened in South Asia, says Freedom House. Pakistan’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free when military rule ended and free elections were held. The same upgrades in status occurred in two other Asian states: Bhutan and Maldives, which successfully held elections. Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, and Thailand also registered modest gains.

The successes of democracy in Asia—Taiwan, South Korea, and multi-ethnic-religious diverse, India and Indonesia—“[refute] the theory that democracy is not compatible with Asian culture,” in spite of being home to some of the world’s most brutal repressive regimes, namely, China, North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, and Laos.

Surprisingly, India, the world’s largest democracy, seems less interested in promoting democracy and human rights in other countries than in its own, says Roth. Of Sudan, North Korea, Cuba, and Belarus, India blocked or abstained or voted against resolutions or actions that would address their human rights conditions.

One reason for India’s lack of enthusiasm for human rights is the notion—a deeply ingrained view—that human rights is a Western concept and international protection of human rights is a continuation of colonialism, according to Roth.

Iraq, although still “not free,” was the only country in the Middle East to show improvement due to “reductions in violence, political terror, and government sponsored Shia militias,” according to Freedom House. Afghanistan declined in freedom status to ‘not free,’ due to “rising insecurity” and increases in “corruption and inefficiency in government institutions.”

China was the big disappointment this past year when the leadership of the Communist Party failed to live up to its promises of more openness and respect for human rights as host of the Olympic Games. The regime cracked down on bloggers and internet journalists, placed human rights lawyers under house arrest, jailed democracy advocates and persecuted protesters, according to Freedom House. Christians and Falun Gong adherents were also “subject to stepped-up controls,” says Puddington.

China’s nascent judicial system suffered some setbacks last year. A defense attorney’s right to meet with criminal suspects in detention did not apply to cases involving “state secrets,” says HRW report. The Ministry of Justice “threatened to not renew the licenses of a dozen Beijing lawyers who had publicly offered to represent Tibetan protesters.”

Lawyers were also prevented from representing the victims of the “shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake” and the “dairy companies’ poisoning of baby formula,” says HRW.

Both reports noted China’s persecution of the Tibetans and the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The March 14 protests in Tibet led to scores of Tibetan killed and police and Communist Party authorities arresting or fining Tibetans “suspected of passing information abroad,” says the HRW report. Monks in Lhasa told foreign journalists of a “massive ‘patriotic education campaign’ launched by the [regime] in monasteries and places of worship,” says HRW.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist authorities even prohibited Moslems from fasting during Ramadan. HRW reported that in February, China published regulations that prohibited 23 types of “illegal” religious activities, including praying in public or at wedding ceremonies.

The Two Reports at a Glance

The Human Rights Watch’s 19th annual report, World Report 2009, is a 564-page volume that reviews and summarizes human rights practices in the past year to Nov. 2008, in more than 90 countries and territories—from Afghanistan to Yemen—with a special chapter on the United States.

Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2009,” examines the state of freedom of just about every country in the world—193 as well as 16 strategic territories. Using a wide variety of indicators of freedom in a metric, Freedom House classifies nations into three broad categories: free, partly free, and not free. These categories are represented by 46 percent, 32 percent, and 22 percent of the world’s 193 countries, respectively.

The worst offending countries in the ‘not free’ category were unchanged from last year: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Libya, Sudan, Burma, Equatorial Guinea, and Somalia plus two territories, Tibet and Chechnya.

Some other ‘not free’ countries were not a whole lot better, e.g., China, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe.

Nearly all changes in the scores on political rights and civil liberties that occurred in 2008 were within each of these broad categories. But a handful of countries changed across the broad categories with one ‘free country becoming ‘partly free’ and a few moving between ‘not free’ and ‘partly free’ status. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania was a ‘partly free’ country that was downgraded to ‘not free,’ because “the military ousted a democratically elected leader and imposed restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly,” says Puddington.

Most changes in scores within the three broad categories of freedom status moved in a less free direction, but the downturns were not huge.

Freedom House describes itself as “an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world. Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.” Founded in 1941, Freedom House is widely recognized as providing the definitive assessment of a country’s freedom status.

Human Rights Watch is an independent organization since 1978, dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, HRW seeks to build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.