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Annual Report Surveys the World

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 18, 2006 (Zenit) - The U.S. State Department on March 8 issued its annual overview of human rights in the world. The publication, "The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2005," comprises dossiers on 196 countries.

As is now usual the report drew criticism from some countries that resent being issued a report card by the United States. China for its part criticized the human rights record of the United States, the New York Times reported March 9. "As in previous years," declared a statement issued by China's State Council, "the State Department pointed the finger at human rights situations in more than 190 countries and regions, including China, but kept silent on the serious violations of human rights in the United States."

Russia was also unhappy. Reuters on March 10 quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying: "Unfortunately, such unfair reports stand in the way of developing U.S.-Russian relations."

Perhaps anticipating such criticisms, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during the report's presentation, commented that the promotion of human rights and democracy "helps to lay the foundation for lasting peace in the world." She also argued that free nations have a duty to defend human rights and help spread democracy.

The report's introduction made six broad observations, based on the data collected:

-- Countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers tend to be the world's most systematic violators of human rights. These states range from closed, totalitarian systems that subject their citizens to a wholesale deprivation of their basic rights, to authoritarian systems in which the exercise of basic rights is severely restricted.

-- Human rights and democracy are closely linked, and both are essential to long-term stability and security. Free and democratic nations that respect the rights of their citizens help to lay the foundation for lasting peace.

-- Some of the most serious violations of human rights are committed by governments within the context of internal and/or cross-border armed conflicts.

-- Where civil society and independent media are under siege, fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly are undermined. A robust civil society and independent media help create conditions under which human rights can flourish.

-- Democratic elections by themselves do not ensure that human rights will be respected. But such elections can put a country on the path to reform and lay the groundwork for institutionalizing human rights protections.

-- Progress on democratic reform and human rights is neither linear nor guaranteed. Steps forward can be marred with irregularities and there can be serious setbacks.

Poor record

China's complaints were perhaps spurred by the strong criticism from the U.S. State Department. Its rights record remained poor, the report stated, as the Beijing government continued "to commit numerous and serious abuses."

Among the abuses noted were the following: physical abuse resulting in deaths in custody; harassment, detention and imprisonment of those perceived as threatening to party and government authority; a politically controlled judiciary and a lack of due process in certain cases; increased restrictions on freedom of speech and the press; cultural and religious repression of minorities; and forced labor.

North Korea's record on rights was also targeted. Among the abuses highlighted in the U.S. report were extrajudicial killings, disappearances and arbitrary detention; forced abortions and infanticide in prisons; lack of an independent judiciary and fair trials; and denial of freedom of speech, press and association.

The State Department calculated that 150,000 to 200,000 people are being held in detention camps in remote areas, including for political reasons. Reports indicate that conditions in the camps for political prisoners are extremely harsh and many inmates are not expected to survive.

African continent

The section on Africa noted numerous problems. In Congo, for example, government control in some areas of the country remains weak, with armed groups operating freely. And even where the government does rule, civilian authorities generally are unable to maintain effective control of the security forces, which, the report said, commit numerous serious human rights abuses with impunity, particularly in the east.

Sudan is another country with severe human rights problems. Both government and the militia forces, which operate with state support, committed serious abuses during the past year. The U.S. State Department cited figures from the World Health Organization that estimate the conflicts have resulted in 70,000 civilian deaths and 1.9 million refugees.

Zimbabwe was also identified as having a "very poor" human rights record. During the last electoral campaign the government continued to interfere with the activities of the opposition. The report also mentioned the government's campaign to demolish allegedly illegal housing. This campaign displaced or destroyed the livelihoods of more than 700,000 people, many of whom also lost access to education and medical care.

Legal impunity

On the European continent the report's chapter on Russia signaled out the human rights abuses in the internal conflict in and around Chechnya. Both federal forces and their Chechen government allies generally acted with legal impunity, the report charged. It detected no effort by federal authorities to rein in the extensive human rights abuses.

In Russia itself the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the continued centralization of power in the executive branch, combined with continuing media restrictions and a compliant Parliament. Additional defects include the continuing corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, political pressure on the judiciary, and harassment of some nongovernmental organizations.

But there were some positive developments. The report commented that the judiciary demonstrated greater independence in a number of cases. And reforms initiated in previous years continued to produce improvements in the criminal justice system. Authorities also sought to combat problems of racial and ethnic mistreatment.

Many of the republics formed as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union also have serious human rights problems, the report commented. In Azerbaijan, for example, deaths occurred due to the torture and beating of people in custody, and political opponents of the government were subject to arbitrary arrest and detention.

In Belarus the situation worsened in some areas, "numerous serious abuses" being committed by the government. Problems included the disappearance of opposition political figures and a journalist; arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens for political reasons; lack of judicial independence; and deregistration of nongovernmental organizations and churches.

The Mideast

Middle Eastern countries continue to have serious problems in the area of human rights. Saudi Arabia had abuses such as arbitrary arrest, infringement of privacy, a lack of civil and religious liberties, and a lack of judicial independence, the U.S. report said.

The past year saw some progress in Saudi Arabia, however. For the first time since 1963 there were elections for some governmental bodies, even though women were not permitted to vote or stand for office. The State Department also noted that during 2005 public attention regarding human rights increased, and that, unlike in previous years, rights issues were discussed in the media.

Iran came in for strong criticism. The report noted that on Dec. 16 the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution expressing concern over the country's human rights problems. Problems included summary executions, including of minors; violence by vigilante groups with ties to the government; arbitrary arrest and detention; and severe restrictions on freedom of religion. And with the more-recent disputes over its nuclear program, Iran is finding that the ranks of its critics are growing.

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