Burma tops 'worst of the worst' list of human rights violators

Libya, just elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, also appears on Freedom House's 'Worst of the worst' list of human rights violators.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi gestures during his address at the 64th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York September 23, 2009. Libya appears on Freedom House's 'Worst of the worst' list.

The hit parade of the world’s worst human rights violators is out, and it reads like a rap sheet of the usual suspects.

The “worst of the worst,” as Washington-based human rights watchdog Freedom House calls them, is comprised of nine countries and one territory: Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tibet (under Chinese jurisdiction).

What Freedom House calls “shameful” is that one of those “worst” – Libya – was just elected to the United Nations’ premier human rights organization, the Human Rights Council. Moreover, three countries on the organization’s expanded list of countries with only slightly better human-rights records – China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia – are already members.

IN PICTURES: World's worst human rights violators

“It’s a badge of shame that these countries sit on the council, but the shame really goes to the [UN] General Assembly countries that elected these egregious violators of rights in the first place,” says Paula Schriefer, Freedom House’s director of advocacy. She notes that Saudi Arabia, for example, was elected to the council with more than 150 votes out of the 192 General Assembly members.

In all, 20 countries and territories have such appalling human rights records as to be considered the world’s worst. Rounding out the list Freedom House issued Thursday are: Belarus, Chad, Guinea, Laos, Syria, and two territories: South Ossetia and Western Sahara.

The “worst of the worst” list is just one piece of evidence that Freedom House offers to support its conclusion that freedom globally is on the decline, after several decades of general expansion.

“By absolute standards, the world is still freer than it was 30 years ago,” Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor says in the report’s overview. The less-good news: “The last four years have seen a global decline in freedom,” she adds, including in such specific areas the organization measures globally as multiparty elections, freedom of association, freedom of speech, rights of minorities, and the rule of law.

The report finds that the countries on the “worst” list represent a “narrow range” of political systems with such familiar names as dictatorship, military junta, and one-party rule. Another common factor in many of the countries on the list is corruption.

The Human Rights Council, which sits in Geneva, is dismissed by some rights advocates because of the participation of some “worst” rights violators. The council was snubbed by the Bush administration for that reason, but the Obama administration reversed course and decided to try to reform the body from within.

Ms. Schriefer, who was reached by phone in Geneva where she is representing Freedom House with the council, calls the presence of “egregious” rights violators on the council an “embarrassment,” but adds, “There’s no reason the majority can’t get down to business on the work of promoting and supporting human rights in all corners of the world.”

She notes on the bright side that the council has managed to appoint an independent expert on Sudan, and is about to consider renewing the expert’s mandate. “You can tell issues like this matter to countries [that become the object of rights probes] by the energy and resources they put into avoiding it,” she says.

The council has also registered a number of setbacks. A group of rights-promoting countries attempted to pass a resolution in May 2009 condemning Sri Lanka for repressive actions against its own citizens. But the effort backfired when supporters of the Sri Lankan regime on the council amended the resolution so it ended up praising the government’s steps.

“Now Sri Lanka uses the resolution as part of its propaganda trumpeting the support it has garnered internationally,” Schriefer says. “That was not a positive step for human rights.”


IN PICTURES: World's worst human rights violators

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