State Department Releases 2006 Reports on Human Rights Practices

By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The United States hopes that the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices "will be a source of information for governments and societies everywhere and a source of inspiration for all who are still working for peaceful, democratic change around the globe," according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Barry Lowenkron introduced the 2006 reports and discussed their findings during a State Department press briefing March 6.

The reports, submitted annually to Congress as mandated by U.S. law, examine the status of human rights in 2006 in 196 countries and entities. The reports describe the performance of governments in putting into practice their international commitments on human rights.

With the release of this year's reports, Americans are "recommitting ourselves to stand with those courageous men and women who struggle for their freedom and their rights," Rice said. "And we are recommitting ourselves to call every government to account that still treats the basic rights of its citizens as options rather than, in President Bush's words, the non-negotiable demands of human dignity."

"Too often in the past year, we received painful reminders that human rights, though self-evident, are not self-enforcing and that mankind's desire to live in freedom, though universally deserved, is still not universally respected," Rice said. "Liberty and human rights require state institutions that function transparently and accountably, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary and legislature, a free media and security forces that can uphold the rule of law."

Although each country's report speaks for itself, broad patterns are discernable, Lowenkron said.

"Across the globe in 2006, men and women continued to press for their rights to be respected and their governments to be responsive, for their voices to be heard and their votes to count," Lowenkron said. Although many hard-won advances were made in human rights and democracy, progress in some countries lagged, he said.

For example, Egypt held its first-ever multiparty presidential election in 2005, but continues to imprison former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, according to the reports' introduction.  (See related article.)

The reports found that both internal and cross-border conflicts threaten advancements in human rights, Lowenkron said. The reports' introduction cites cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Indonesia where violence or terrorism has undermined the democratic process or resulted in large displacements of people.

The reports also found that "as the worldwide push for greater personal and political freedom grows stronger, it is being met with increasing resistance from those who feel threatened by change," Lowenkron said.

Among those facing resistance are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and journalists, which "a disturbing number of countries passed or selectively applied laws and regulations" against, Lowenkron said. For example, a new law in Russia imposed stricter registration requirements for some NGOs, and in Belarus, tax inspections made it difficult for civil society organizations to operate. Journalists in Turkmenistan were prohibited from all contact with foreigners unless given specific exception.  (See Freedom of the Press.)

The reports' introduction notes that countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers, whether totalitarian or authoritarian, continued to be the world's most systematic human rights violators. These countries include North Korea, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, Belarus and Eritrea. The introduction also cites the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, for which it said the Sudanese government and government-backed janjaweed militia bear responsibility. At least 200,000 civilians have died and 2 million have been displaced by the fighting, the introduction said.  (See Darfur Humanitarian Emergency.)

For the first time, the reports include a section in each country's report regarding respect for freedom of speech on the Internet. The reports will include information on the extent to which Internet access is available to and used by citizens in each country, and provide information on whether governments inappropriately limit or block access to the Internet or censor Web sites, Dobriansky said. Additionally, the reports will examine the means by which Internet restrictions occur and the penalties incurred by those who exercise free speech via the Internet in restrictive countries.  (See Internet Freedom.)

"Despite international commitments to freedom of expression, numerous governments around the world seek to block the Internet's transformational power and restrict the rights of their citizens to participate in the online exchange of information, ideas and ideals," Dobriansky said. In a number of countries, people are imprisoned for expressing their views online, she said.

"We will continue to defend Internet freedom, including by addressing Internet repression directly with the foreign governments involved and seeking to persuade foreign officials that restricting Internet freedom is contrary to their own interests and that of their countries," Dobriansky said. "The new information in this year's reports will make an important contribution."

A transcript of Rice's remarks and the full text of the reports can be found on the State Department Web site.