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Myanmar, 'Arab awakening' top US list of progress on human rights

State Department's annual report on human rights around the world also notes the important role that technology, the Internet, and social media play in advancing individual freedoms.

By Staff writer / May 24, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 24, to discuss the State Department's annual report on human rights.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Inspiring progress followed by nagging question marks in Arab countries. Deterioration in China. Significant strides forward in what was once one of the world’s darkest corners, Myanmar.

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Those are some of the highlights of the State Department’s report on human rights in the world, the US government’s annual review of the evolution in “universal freedoms” in every country in the world.

The "Arab awakening" receives an anticipated focus in the 2011 report, released Wednesday. But the report also expands thematically on the important role that technology, the Internet, and social media play in the area of human rights – in expanding individual freedoms and in providing opportunities, for authorities in particular, to squeeze those rights.

“This has been an especially tumultuous year for everyone involved in the cause of human rights,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in reviewing the report’s findings with reporters Wednesday. “Many of the events that have dominated recent headlines, from the revolutions in the Middle East to reforms in Burma, began with human rights, with the clear call of men and women demanding their universal rights,” she said.

The United States continues to refer to Myanmar as Burma, the country’s name before military’s rulers changed it in 1989.

Secretary Clinton chose two Arab countries to illustrate both the gains and the setbacks the world has witnessed in human rights since last year's report.

Under progress, she highlighted Egypt, whose citizens “are going to the polls to determine for the first time in their history who their leaders will be.” At the opposite pole, she said, the government of Syria is going beyond stifling its own people’s aspirations with “an assault on freedom of expression or freedom of association” to “an assault on the very lives of its citizens.

“The [Bashar al-]Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” she added, “because Syrians know they deserve a better future.”  

The report hails the wave of change that swept across the Middle East, from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Yemen, bringing with it an expansion of political rights and individual freedoms. But it also notes that these “revolutions” remain works in progress, and that in some cases specific rights – of women and girls, of religious and ethnic minorities – have already suffered or face looming challenges.

The report draws particular attention to six countries where it says conditions have not improved or have deteriorated further from the already “extremely poor” evaluation they received in the 2010 review: Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Belarus, and China.

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