U.S. Has Lost Credibility On Rights, Group Asserts

Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch says the European Union should become a leader on rights concerns.
Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch says the European Union should become a leader on rights concerns. (2004 Photo By Osamu Honda -- Associated Press)

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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 12, 2007

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said yesterday that Washington's once-powerful role as a prime defender of human rights had effectively ended because of arbitrary detentions and reports of torture since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the group urged the European Union to step up as a leader of the cause.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, released the group's World Report 2007, an assessment of last year's global human rights practices, by saying that the counterterrorism record of the United States over the past five years has tarnished its credibility as an influential moral voice.

He listed several practices he said were being used by the Bush administration in its fight against terrorism, including torture, arbitrary detentions, allowing CIA interrogators to use coercive techniques and the unsupervised handling of so-called enemy combatants held in other countries.

"This catastrophic path has left the United States effectively incapable of defending some of the most basic rights," Roth said in the report, released on the fifth anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Roth said Sudan, where the people of the western Darfur region are subject to mass murder, rape and forcible displacement, finds it easier to resist an international protection force because of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The trend is bleak, but not irreversible," Roth wrote in an introduction to the report, saying it was up to the new Democratic-led Congress to repudiate past abuses, press for policy change and seek accountability.

The report listed the governments of North Korea, Burma and Turkmenistan as "repressive" and as imposing "enormous cruelty" on their populations. Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam remain closed dictatorships. Russia and Egypt are cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, while Peru and Venezuela are considering the same path. Iran and Ethiopia are silencing dissidents with impunity, the report said.

The report's introduction lamented the poor performance of the new U.N. Human Rights Council and called it hardly an improvement over its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Though the council's central duty is to pressure highly abusive governments to change, it "has so far failed to criticize any government other than Israel," in "a mockery of the high principles of its founding."

With Washington's voice diminished, the E.U. should be the strongest and most potent defender of human rights, Roth said, but as the group seeks consensus among its enlarged membership, its impact on the world stage is much less than its potential.

"We are looking for a powerful actor. The Europeans say all the right things, but there is no sense of immersion, no sense of duty," Roth said in an interview Wednesday. "When you have 27 members, how do you decide on common policy?" He also criticized Europe's role in the rights council as being "too micro-tactical and one of a micromanager worried with changing words here and there rather than being effective."

Roth also said the E.U.'s current system of a six-month rotating presidency hampers the group's effectiveness.

"Human rights work is about sustained follow-up. You come back and you come back until you get someone or a country to change its behavior," Roth said. "When you have this rotating blur of presidencies . . . it is a recipe for failure. The most reluctant member determines E.U. policy, so the whole is less than the sum of its parts."


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