US human rights report: Hillary Clinton says technology advances aid activists, oppressors

US human rights report reveals concern about China's clampdown on advocates for democracy and Internet access. New technology tools are 'useful to both oppressors and to those who struggle to expose the failure and the cowardice of the oppressors,' said Hillary Clinton.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on the release of the State Department's human rights report known as the 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Thursday, at the State Department in Washington.

The State Department airs US concerns about “closing space in China” for pro-democracy and Internet-access activists and highlights rising sexual violence against women across parts of Africa in its annual human rights report on the state of human rights in the world.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who Thursday unveiled a compilation of human rights practices and violations in more than 190 countries, noted that the “new tools” human rights activists are using to advance their cause are also being used by governments to restrict human rights.

“New technologies have proven useful both to oppressors and to those who struggle to expose the failures and the cowardice of the oppressors,” she said.

In reviewing the report with reporters, Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, emphasized traditional black spots in the annual report – like China, Iran, and Cuba. In Iran, he noted, an “already poor human rights condition … deteriorated after the June [presidential] elections.”

In particular, the report notes measures the Iranian regime is taking to try to restrict the flow of information that has kept the world abreast of post-election demonstrations and repression.

But it also notes what the US sees as disturbing trends among some close American allies – for example, mounting cases of discrimination against Muslims in Western Europe. In that vein, Mr. Posner cited the recent referendum in Switzerland banning construction of minarets.

In her remarks, Secretary Clinton deemed the country reports a “tool” for “effective and practical human rights strategies” in US policy, adding that the United States will balance pressure and incentives in a pragmatic approach that does not compromise its principles.

But that focus on pragmatism – which some foreign policy experts see as “realpolitik” in the Obama administration’s dealings with the rights violations of countries ranging from China and Russia to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – has drawn criticism from some human rights organizations and experts.

Posner said the idea of being “practical” and “pragmatic” in furthering the cause of human rights has been a large part of the “discussion and narrative of the last year,” but he said the driving interest behind the new orientation is on getting things done.

“It’s not enough to be publicly condemnatory; words alone do not change behavior,” he said. Listing ways in which the Obama administration is working with governments and organizations to improve respect of universal rights, he added, “Practical, result-oriented diplomacy is the name of the game for us.”

One reporter retorted that the Obama approach had done nothing for the expansion of rights in Egypt. Posner said the administration is “concerned about a range of problems” in Egypt, from political prisoners and restrictions on nongovernmental organizations to recent killings of Coptic Christians.

And lest anyone think that the state of human rights in the world suffered only setbacks in 2009, Posner cited several cases of progress. Those range from an extensive truth and reconciliation effort undertaken by Liberia, he said, to new criminal-justice measures in Georgia and a transition to a constitutional system in Bhutan.

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