But it was the removal of China from the list that drew the most attention. Was it because conditions have improved in China, because other countries have simply gotten worse – or because the Olympics will be held in Beijing this summer? Or is the US looking for ways to improve cooperation with Beijing on such issues as North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs and the Darfur conflict in Sudan?
The State Department did not wipe China's slate clean, saying in the report that "China's overall human rights record remains poor." But instead of placing it among the world's worst offenders, it shifted China's listing to: "authoritarian countries that are undergoing economic reform [and] have experienced rapid social change but have not undertaken democratic political reform and continue to deny their citizens basic human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Asked at a press conference Tuesday to explain why China was no longer on the list of worst offenders, Jonathan Farrar, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, skirted the question. But he noted that the report does list China's record as "poor," adding that the listing of China as "authoritarian" is "a completely accurate assessment."
But that did not satisfy human rights watchdog groups, which found the change in China's position on the list suspect.
Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that the decision "occurs at the worst possible time, just when the situation is worsening prior to the opening of the Olympic Games." Calling the report a "major setback" for the work of human rights organizations in China, the group cited the reported arrest of about 100 Tibetan monks and the detention of activist Hu Jia "and dozens of other freedom of expression advocates" as examples of continuing abuses in China.
Other rights advocates cite the forcible removal of hundreds of Chinese families to accommodate Olympics projects, as well as the removal of citizens from Beijing who have been deemed nuisances or worse as the Olympics approach.
Amnesty International USA says the systematic imprisonment of people objecting to the Olympics over the demolition of houses, for example, is just one reason the organization believes human rights conditions in China are "deteriorating" and not improving.
The State Department's adjustment of China's status in its report "is actually encouraging the Chinese authorities to continue the practices they are undertaking," says T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific for Amnesty International USA in Washington. He calls the timing of the report "troubling," noting that President Bush plans to visit China to attend the summer Games. "We wonder if there is a link," he says.
Mr. Kumar calls China's human rights abuses "staggering," citing two practices that he says stand out: the detention of hundreds of thousands of people, including political activists, for "reeducation" programs, or what he says are forced labor camps; and the liberal use of the death penalty in China – including for political prisoners – which makes China the site of 8 of every 10 government-administered executions carried out in the world.
The State Department report does highlight some bright spots globally, noting that while rights abusers "captured the headlines," some countries "scored significant advances." In that category, the report cites Mauritania, which it said held presidential elections marking the country's first successful transition to democracy in its 50 years of independence. It also cites Ghana, Morocco, Haiti, Nepal, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan for progress.
But the report also treats some of America's friends with considerably softer gloves than some rights experts – and even some State Department officials commenting privately – believe is warranted. Colombia, Egypt, and Pakistan figure among those cases.
The report notes the action of political opposition groups in Egypt, but it makes no mention of the waiver that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently applied to restrictions that had been put on arms sales to Egypt. (The restrictions were due to human rights concerns.) The waiver will allow Egypt to receive $100 million in military aid held up by Congress.