State Dept. Human Rights Report Faults China's Curbs on Internet

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

China is at the top of a list of countries blocking Internet access, and Russia and Venezuela have shown serious regression in several areas, mainly in centralizing power in the executive branch, according to State Department officials who released the department's annual human rights report yesterday.

On Sudan, the report outlined evidence that genocide continues to ravage the western region of Darfur, and said the Khartoum government and its militias were responsible for it, despite violations of humanitarian law by all sides in that conflict. "It is inconceivable to me to say we've moved away from the issue of genocide," said Barry F. Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, speaking at a State Department briefing. He is heading to Darfur and Khartoum tomorrow.

In addition to its traditional focus on the repression of political liberties around the world, this year's report addressed Internet freedom and the issue of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are being harassed while carrying out their missions.

"Today, people are imprisoned in a number of countries simply for expressing their peaceful views online," said Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary for democracy and global rights. She said numerous repressive regimes were threatening the Internet's ability to empower individuals and obstructing its "transformational power."

Lowenkron called 2006 "the year of the pushback" because a surprising number of countries selectively applied regulations against NGOs and the mass media as the drive for personal and political freedoms grew stronger.

He put China at the top of the list of countries putting restrictions on the Internet. Human rights in China have "deteriorated on a number of areas," with no action on promised legal reforms or changes in courtroom proceedings, and a continued "system of reeducation through labor." Thousands of demonstrations in the countryside showed that people were seeking redress and that accountability was still lacking, he added.

Russia continued to centralize power in the executive branch through changes in election and political party laws as it was tightening restrictions on NGOs and limiting freedom of expression, the report said. In Venezuela, the government of President Hugo Chávez continued to harass the opposition and NGOs, and to weaken judicial independence by packing the courts, while consolidating power in the executive, the report said.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the Washington Office on Latin America and New York-based Human Rights First took issue with the administration for failing to address its own failings in well-documented cases of detainee abuse, extrajudicial renditions, secret prisons and torture.

Larry Cox, Amnesty International's executive director, said that although the report correctly points out that Egypt, for example, continues to use torture, "how can the U.S. have any credibility in trying to stop torture in Egypt when the whole world and we know what it does not mention -- our role in sending people to be tortured, extradited and jailed. . . . How can we criticize regimes for holding people in indefinite detention while we ourselves are holding people in indefinite detention?"

These were "striking and disturbing omissions," he said, accusing the United States of "hypocrisy." While documenting the practices of allies such as Turkey, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Colombia and others, "we have done very little and we have not spoken out publicly about disappearances, for example," he said. In Iraq, he said, the United States neither talks about its role in certain abuses nor criticizes the judicial process there, although the report noted that certain institutions in Iraq remain weak. While the State Department monitors abuses that would cast a bad light on others, "we hope the U.S. will begin to cast the same light on itself."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted in brief remarks to reporters yesterday that the United States was not beyond reproach, but did not provide details.

"We do not issue these reports because we think ourselves perfect, but rather because we know ourselves to be deeply imperfect, like all human beings and the endeavors that they make," she said.

"Our democratic system of governance is accountable, but it is not infallible," she said, adding, "We are nonetheless guided by enduring ideals."

Liberia, with a democratically elected government led by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state, was commended for taking significant steps to correct past human rights deficiencies, though challenges remain.

On Indonesia, the report noted a reduction in killings by armed forces, but said the government and the courts were unable to confront past human rights abuses and atrocities at home and in East Timor.

Though problems persisted in Morocco, its record showed notable progress with the enactment of new laws, the report said. Sexual exploitation and child labor remain issues of concern.

The congressionally mandated report -- 1,800 pages distributed electronically -- detailed violations and improvements in 196 countries.

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