Rights Group Faults U.S. for Support of Autocrats

Human Rights Watch, led by Kenneth Roth, says U.S. hasn't met goal to boost democratic values.
Human Rights Watch, led by Kenneth Roth, says U.S. hasn't met goal to boost democratic values. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)

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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 1, 2008

A leading human rights group said Thursday that the United States has lost its moral authority by supporting autocratic governments in strategic countries despite their continuing violations of civil liberties.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, has used its past 17 annual surveys to highlight the most egregious humanitarian crises in the world and to note improvements when warranted. The latest report marks a break with that tradition by focusing on democracy and the ways in which U.S. influence have affected other countries' pursuit of it.

The group delivers a harsh critique of the Bush administration, suggesting that by accommodating autocratic allies in the fight against terrorism, it has failed to meet its declared goal of promoting democratic values.

In an introductory essay titled "Despots Masquerading as Democrats," Kenneth Roth, the organization's executive director, blasts such leaders as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Roth accuses them of finding "utility in holding electoral charades to legitimize" their reigns.

"Such divorcing of democracy from the international standards that give it meaning helps to convince autocrats that mere elections, regardless of the circumstances, are sufficient to warrant the democrat label," the essay notes. "Rarely has democracy been so acclaimed yet so breached, so promoted yet so disrespected, so important yet so disappointing."

Roth also writes that the Bush administration's ability to speak out effectively for human rights has suffered since disclosures about its clandestine network of CIA-run jails, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the use of secret military tribunals, harsh interrogation methods and "rendition," or the covert transfer of terrorism suspects. The report describes those practices as "a troubling parallel to abusive governments around the world."

In response to the declining U.S. authority on human rights, Roth said, his organization has opened more regional research and advocacy offices in key capitals in Europe, Asia and Africa. The aim, he said, was to pressure influential regional actors to move more decisively on issues of human rights, using financial aid and diplomacy as leverage. "We are dealing with the product of a more bipolar world as a result of the loss of this moral authority," he said in an interview.

The report is based on research conducted in 75 countries. The group singled out Kenya and Pakistan as examples of states that claim to be democratic but fail to guarantee basic human rights and civil liberties.

The report says some governments -- including those of Bahrain, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia and Thailand -- hold up their elections as proof of their commitment to democracy even though few have the strong government institutions, vibrant civil societies and constitutional guarantees required for a healthy society. The report says the United States and other Western governments too readily accept those claims.

Roth said he has had productive meetings with European officials on human rights. "There is room to maneuver in Europe," he said. "They recognize they cannot wait for the United States to lead."

Referring to China, Roth said, "It has shown itself as movable" when pressured. He noted that China could be useful in confronting rights abuses in Sudan, where it has economic influence, because it does not commit such crimes against its own people. But, he said, China has less inclination to promote democracy beyond its border because it does not do so at home.

"China can, and with a straight face, fight against atrocities. Given its domestic agenda, fighting for democracy is something totally different," Roth said.


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