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Human Rights Watch urges EU to take lead in fighting repression worldwide
The Associated Press
January 12, 2007

WASHINGTON: The European Union should take the lead in promoting respect for human rights internationally because the United States, its reputation sullied by harsh treatment of suspected terrorists, has forfeited that role, a leading rights group said.

In a 556-page report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch also said rights conditions in China "deteriorated significantly" in 2006 as authorities confronted rising social unrest with "stricter controls of the press, Internet, academics and lawyers."

The report Thursday found a "further deterioration" in rights protection in Russia, symbolized by the murder last fall of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Egypt, meanwhile, displayed a "heavy hand" against political dissent in 2006 by renewing emergency rule for an additional two years, which provided a continued basis for arbitrary detention and trials before military and state security courts, the report said.

As for Israel, the report accused the Israeli Defense Forces of violating the laws of war "by failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians" during the summer conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

With Washington's role on the rights front diminished, the European Union today "should be the strongest and most effective defender of human rights," wrote the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

But, he added, the EU's effort to achieve consensus among its diverse members "is so laborious that it yields a faint shadow of its potential."

Roth described a "demise of U.S. credibility as an effective promoter of human rights."

"While the United States can still talk in broad terms about democracy," he told reporters, "it cannot credibly combat efforts to" detain terror suspects without cause.

The voice of the United States, meanwhile, "now rings hollow — an enormous loss for the human rights cause," Roth said in an essay at the start of the report.

"The last year dispelled any doubt that the use of torture and other mistreatment by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush was a matter of policy dictated at the top rather than the aberrant misconduct of a few low-level interrogators," he wrote.

Perhaps the low point for the administration, he said, occurred last September when Bush offered a defense of torture, referring to it euphemistically as an "alternative set of (interrogation) procedures."

At the time, Bush acknowledged that CIA interrogation techniques were tough but said they fell short of torture. He promoted their effectiveness, saying they helped take "potential mass murderers off the streets."

Roth said the administration also wrongfully claims the power to detain without judicial supervision any non-American anywhere in the world as an "enemy combatant" and to hold him without charge or trial as long as it wants.

The report was released on the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. The EU has called for the closure of the U.S. facility.

In a separate essay, Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch challenged the new U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, to speak out forcefully in defense of human rights.

"As South Korea's foreign minister, he was willing to subordinate human rights concerns to other objectives in his country's dialogue with North Korea," Hicks said. "In his new position, he will need to take on those who want to overlook human rights for the sake of political expediency and confront those responsible for human rights abuses."

The report's assessment of some other countries:

  • Iraq: The human rights situation worsened significantly in 2006. The continuing armed conflict became increasingly sectarian in nature, with many commentators declaring the onset of a civil war.
  • Afghanistan: By late 2006, Afghanistan was on the precipice of again becoming a haven for human rights abusers, criminals, and militant extremists, many of whom in the past have severely abused Afghans, particularly women and girls.
  • China: By pouring aid and investment into countries guilty of widespread rights abuses, China put its own economic and political interests above the rights of mistreated citizens. Among such countries were Sudan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. China failed to use its influence to promote better human rights in these countries.
  • Sudan: Dissent over a May 2006 peace accord for Darfur generated further conflict and serious abuses of civilians, including forced displacement, rape, killings, and increasing attacks on humanitarian aid workers. Overall, Sudan's human rights record remained abysmal in 2006.
  • Iran: Respect for basic human rights in Iran, especially freedom of expression and assembly, deteriorated in 2006. The government routinely tortures and mistreats detained dissidents, including through prolonged solitary confinement.
  • North Korea: The authorities allowed neither the freedom of information, association, movement, and religion, nor organized political opposition, labor activism, or independent civil society. Arbitrary arrests, torture, lack of due process and fair trials, and executions remain of grave concern.

Asked to comment on the report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular press briefing Thursday: "The so-called Human Rights Watch organization has studied China on numerous occasions, but it is a pity is that when they examine China they do so with a prejudiced attitude. The group has a prejudiced view of China and their report is politically motivated.

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