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Sat 9 Apr 2011 09:48 AM

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Mideast unrest can help improve human rights, says US

State Dep't report says protests have potential to improve human rights record in region

Mideast unrest can help improve human rights, says US
Protester generic

Middle Eastern protesters calling for greater freedom, economic opportunity and meaningful political participation have the potential to improve human rights in that region and beyond, according to a State Department report.

“These citizens seek to build sustainable democracies in their countries with governments that respect the universal human rights of their own people,” the report noted. “If they succeed, the Middle East region, and with it the whole world, will be improved.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the State Department, said the US is “particularly disturbed” by crackdowns on democracy activists. She cited arrests of dissidents in such countries as China and Venezuela.

The 35th annual report examined 194 countries, singling out Colombia, Guinea and Indonesia for improvements in human rights in 2010.

Ukraine, China and Cambodia, where “security forces, acting with impunity, committed arbitrary killings,” were among countries censured for their abuses.

The report identified three trends that have driven change in the Middle East and elsewhere, as it documented attempts by governments worldwide to repress them. All of them are of concern to the US, Clinton said.

The “explosive” growth of advocacy groups devoted to human rights, democracy and public wellbeing was one factor, the report said.

“For countries to progress toward truly democratic governance, they need free and vibrant civil societies that can help governments understand and meet the needs of their people,” Clinton said.

“As we have seen in the Middle East and elsewhere, governments cannot repress civil society indefinitely, and they can never suppress it legitimately,” the report said.

Another factor driving change is the dramatic growth of the Internet, mobile phones and other connective technology that allow instantaneous communication. Egyptians and Tunisians mobilizing in the streets used the social networking services of Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Clinton noted that more than 40 governments now restrict the Internet by censoring websites, using spyware or firewalls. The beating and death of an Egyptian blogger sparked unrest there and the top US diplomat noted that in other places, “digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords and implicate their colleagues.”

A third trend, that the report says is headed in a negative direction, is an escalation of violence, persecution and official discrimination against women, religious or ethnic minorities, lesbian and gay people, and those with disabilities.

Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Michael Posner, pointed to Pakistan’s discrimination against minority Muslim groups and Christians. In the first two months of 2011, two ministers who sought to reform the country’s blasphemy law were targeted by a fatwa and assassinated.

“Issues of intolerance in Pakistan trouble us greatly,” Posner said. “We are particularly concerned about the Urdu press and the role it plays” in fomenting such intolerance.

Colombia saw “notable” improvements in its human rights situation under President Juan Manuel Santos, who has strengthened the government’s relationship with public advocacy and democracy groups.

Extra-judicial executions decreased “substantially” from 2008 to 2009 and several senior military officers were convicted of human rights abuse, the report said.

Cambodia was singled out for arbitrary arrests, child labor, restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, and the use of defamation lawsuits to target opposition voices.

A new law in Cambodia is “emblematic” of international efforts to squash pro-democracy and public advocacy groups, the report said. The law would bar groups with fewer than 11 members from getting legal status, create barriers to registration for foreign non-governmental groups and then require them to collaborate with the government.

Ukraine, which began the year with free and fair presidential elections, saw an negative trend due to problematic local elections, media intimidation, and perceived selective prosecution of opposition figures, the report said.

Disappearances, arbitrary detention and limits on the Internet and the work of journalists and lawyers marked China’s worsening human rights record in 2010.

The report identified a lengthy list of human rights abuses in China, including extra-judicial killings, torture, a lack of due process in politically controlled courts, discrimination against women and forced sterilizations and abortions.

Chinese officials restrict and monitor Internet use, particularly to block news of public protests in the Middle East. The networking website LinkedIn was blocked after postings about the so-called Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. LinkedIn Corp. operates the largest networking site for professionals.

“A negative trend in key areas of the country’s human rights record continued, as the government took additional steps to rein in civil society, particularly organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues,” the report said.