US human rights report looks at China with concern

The State Department's annual human rights report highlights some 'very positive' trends, but also suggests that China is spearheading trends in global repression.

Alex Brandon/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures while speaking at the State Department Friday in Washington, on the release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010.

Three disturbing global trends – growing crackdowns on civil-society activists, countries restricting Internet access, and a rising repression of vulnerable minorities – are the focus of the State Department’s annual human rights report issued Friday.

In releasing the report card of human rights in more than 190 countries, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to impress upon violators highlighted in the report – ranging from Uganda to Venezuela – that respecting human rights actually leads to more stable and prosperous societies.

“Societies flourish when they address human-rights problems instead of suppressing them,” Secretary Clinton said. “Freedom from fear makes economies grow as citizens invest, innovate, and participate.”

And although the report covers 2010, Clinton took the opportunity of the report’s release to highlight the groundswell in demands for basic rights across the Middle East this year – demands that have their roots in decades of unmet yearnings across the region, she said.

“In recent months, we have been particularly inspired by the courage and determination of the activists in the Middle East and North Africa, and in other repressive societies who have demanded peaceful democratic change and respect for their individual human rights,” she said.

Egypt is an example of a country where specific conditions that raised concerns last year led to this year’s events, said Michael Posner, assistant secretary in charge of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

The “systematic human rights problems” noted in the report – including Egypt’s state of emergency law and repressive state security operations – were “important pieces of why people took to [Tahrir] Square in January,” he said.

Secretary Posner highlighted “very positive” trends in human rights. “In some cases, against all odds, people have said, ‘We want our voices to be heard,’ ” he said. “That’s a positive trend.”

Despite the encouraging aspects of the “Arab spring,” however, State Department officials and human-rights experts note that some countries looking at it and clamping down harder at home in an effort to head off any “contagion.”

China in particular is cited as a country where officials are spearheading global trends such as cracking down on activists, limiting Internet access, and repressing minorities.

Posner emphasized the State Department perspective that the annual report – at more than 7,000 pages and more than 2 million words a unique reckoning of the global state of human rights – is not a policy document, but rather an impartial accounting of human rights that can be used by other governments and organizations.

But some critics say that the US overlooks the very rights it advocates when dealing with some countries, in particular those that pose a particular national security interest. Two recent examples are Yemen and Bahrain – Yemen because of concerns about the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Bahrain because of the stationing there of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the close proximity of Iran.

Amnesty International on Friday welcomed the release of the human-rights report, but said the US should consider it as a “road map” for “reforming” relations with governments in the Middle East and North Africa. The international rights organization says the US should use the insights of its own report as “tools” for how to approach the “changing political landscapes of Tunisia and Egypt.”

As for Bahrain and Yemen, Amnesty says the US should heed the spirit of the report to fashion a new approach that addresses “the aspirations of the people as opposed to just the desires of the governments in power.”

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