A crackdown on dissent by authoritarian governments last year contributed to a rising tide of human rights abuses that has allowed terrorist groups to flourish, according to the State Department’s annual human rights report released Wednesday.
Although the report found human rights abuses on every continent, Secretary of State John F. Kerry singled out the Middle East.
“The most widespread and dramatic violations in 2015 were those in the Middle East, where the confluence of terrorism and the Syrian conflict caused enormous suffering,” he said.
“Given the horrors of these past five years, I cannot imagine a more powerful blow for human rights than putting a decisive end to this war, to the terror, to the repression and especially to the torture, to the indiscriminate bombing,” he said, “and therefore make possible a new beginning for the Syrian people.”
In an unusual diversion for a report that usually focuses only on human rights abuses in foreign countries, Kerry disputed assertions by some candidates in the Republican presidential primary that if elected they would consider employing waterboarding and other forms of torture to combat terrorism.
“I want to remove even a scintilla of doubt or confusion caused by statements others have made in recent weeks and months,” he said. “The United States is opposed to the use of torture in any form, at any time, by any government or non-state actor. America’s commitment to the humane treatment of persons in captivity began as far back as Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War. . . . Ultimately, upholding core values is what makes a nation strong.”
The CIA waterboarded three al-Qaeda detainees it held in secret prisons overseas after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — a practice that President Obama ended when he came into office. The United States was no longer using waterboarding and some other forms of torture to question terrorism suspects but had done so for several years under the Bush administration.
Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, cited Syria as an example of how abuses in one small country can ripple far beyond its borders.
“Everything we are doing in Syria is done with the aim of helping those people win back a country worthy of the sacrifices they’ve had to make: a country that is free of the nihilism of Daesh and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said, referring to the Islamic State and the Syrian government. “For their sake and ours.”
The report said human rights were violated in every part of the world last yearr, from stifling opposition voices and the media to killing people and driving them from their homes.
“Some look at these events and fear democracy is in retreat,” Kerry wrote in the preface. “In fact, they are a reaction to the advance of democratic ideals — to rising demands of people from every culture and region for governments that answer to them.”
Among the governments subjected to lengthy criticism were several that have appeared many times in the 40 years that the State Department has assessed the state of human rights around the world. They include North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Russia and China.
But allies such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia also came in for criticism. Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the Obama administration should incorporate human rights concerns about its allies into its foreign policy.
“Indeed, despite this well-conceived report, it remains true that the administration too often mutes its human rights criticisms with countries of strategic interest when it comes to actually policy implementation,” she said.
Kerry also cited “shocking abuses of human rights” and violations of international law by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the Taliban.
“Violent non-state actors do not come from nowhere,” Kerry wrote. “They flourish in the absence of credible and effective state institutions, where avenues for free and peaceful expression of opinion are blocked, where court systems lack credibility, where unchecked security forces instill fear in populations, and where even the most basic of day-to-day transactions by citizens with their government are characterized by corruption.”