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.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
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.

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.

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.

China, which according to some human rights organizations was initially handled with kid gloves by the Obama administration, gets an especially negative evaluation. The report cites “deterioration” in freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.

Because the report covers the year 2011, it does not mention the recent high-profile case of Chen Guangcheng, the dissident who was finally allowed to leave China for the US after an extraordinary diplomatic bout earlier this month that pitted Clinton against senior Chinese officials as she visited China.

At the State Department briefing, Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, said the US continues to “closely monitor” the situation in China for Mr. Chen’s family and associates, and he said “we have and will raise those concerns with the Chinese government.”

Noting there is “a closing of space for human rights activists and organizations in China,” Mr. Posner said the US has scheduled a “human rights dialogue” with Chinese officials this summer, when a wide range of human rights concerns would be addressed.

But he also highlighted the fact that Clinton, who was in China earlier this month for a “strategic dialogue” that has become an institutionalized part of the US-China relationship, was able to conduct “a very successful meeting while the human rights [Chen] issue was worked out.”

Some critics blasted the Obama administration for continuing its meetings with Chinese officials while the Chen issue remained unresolved. Mitt Romney called the episode a “day of shame” for President Obama. But the administration takes the position that human rights are a critical issue that won’t be sidestepped but that can be woven into discussions on a wide range of issues with key international partners.

Bahrain is a case in point. The administration has been accused of overlooking the assault on personal freedoms and guarantees – particularly pertaining to the kingdom’s Shiite majority – because of Bahrain’s strategic partnership with the US and the fact the Fifth Fleet is based there.

The human rights report chronicles a list of reported abuses, but it also notes that the king established an independent commission that found a “culture of impunity” in which security officials operated. It says the government has also implemented some of the commission’s recommendations.

While it is a fact that the US has “an important security arrangement with Bahrain,” Posner said, that has not impeded Clinton from being “very specific [about human rights concerns] in her conversations" with Bahrain’s leadership.

“We’re on a journey,” Posner said in assessing the evolution of human rights in general in the countries of the Arab awakening. “We recognize that change in any society that’s been stuck is going to be a process. In each of these countries we’ve seen fundamental change,” he added, “but there’s also a range of challenges that remain.”

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