Democracy, Human Rights Experience Progress, Setbacks in East Asia
USINFO Staff Writer
Washington - The United States continued to support fragile democracies and to advocate for greater human rights reforms throughout the East Asia-Pacific in 2006, a region where there were both advances in freedom and human dignity, and setbacks.
Indonesia is among the countries that have made progress in building democracy, but lack of democratic progress in China and North Korea remains a concern, according to the latest report documenting U.S. efforts to foster respect for human rights and promote democracy worldwide.
Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2006 was released on April 5 at the U.S. Department of State. The report states that “Asia is home to both functioning democracies and some of the world’s most oppressive authoritarian dictatorships.”
According to the report, “there have been positive democratic developments in countries such as Indonesia, now the third-largest democracy in the world.”
There was limited progress in Vietnam, the report says. In May 2005, Vietnam and the United States announced the signing of the first binding agreement on religious freedom. “Positive steps by the Government of Vietnam in 2005 led to the February 2006 resumption of the human rights dialogue, which had been suspended since 2002,” the report says.
According to the report, although Vietnam's human rights record remained unsatisfactory and some local government officials continued to commit severe abuses, there also has been an increase in grassroots political and labor related activities, which the government generally tolerated. "The government continued to significantly restrict freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association during the year, but eased restrictions on freedom of religion. Vietnam continued to censor domestic media, sporadically blocked foreign radio stations and websites, and denied citizens the right to form independent organizations," the report says.
According to the report, the “near-complete control exercised by the North Korean regime continued to be of deep concern. The appointment of a U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea, as called for by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, signals the importance the United States places on promoting democracy and human rights in one of the world’s most oppressive countries.”
The Chinese government, according to the report, “continued to deny citizens basic democratic rights, and law enforcement authorities continued to suppress political, religious, and social groups perceived to be a threat to national stability.”
U.S. initiatives in China, the report says, included “bilateral diplomatic efforts, multilateral action, and support through government and nongovernmental channels for rule of law and civil society programs.”
The report also cites candid human rights discussions held between the U.S. government and the governments of Laos and Cambodia. The Cambodian government, the report states, released five human rights activists from imprisonment in 2006 and partially decriminalized defamation (although it continues to restrict freedom of speech and of the press).
Progress made in the region in promoting respect for human rights and the rule of law was counterbalanced, however, by the military coup in Thailand on September 19, 2006, and the military coup in Fiji on December 5, 2006, according to the report.
The authoritarian military regime in Burma continued in 2006 to rule without respect for democratic and human rights, according to the report. Nobel laureate and National League for Democracy (NLD) General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi continued to be held incommunicado and under house arrest; NLD Vice-Chairman U Tin Oo had his house arrest extended by one year. These two individuals were joined by more than 1,100 other people in Burma who are imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political views. In September 2006, the United States was successful in getting Burma formally placed on the U.N. Security Council's agenda; a U.S.-sponsored resolution on key actions Burma's rulers must take, however, was not passed by the council.
The State Department each year submits the Supporting Human Rights and Democracy report to Congress, as called for by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2003. Its release, by law, follows that of the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which for the year 2006, assessed the human rights practices of 196 countries and entities. (See related article.)
“The spectrum of political systems and progress toward democratic change reflect the region’s diversity,” the latest report says. U.S. efforts to foster human rights and democracy are tailored to meet the needs of each country, according to Barry Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
During a press conference April 5, Lowenkron said: “There is no one-size-fits-all formula for advancing personal and democratic freedoms across the globe. We focus our efforts on the three core components of a working democracy that must be present if human rights are to be effectively exercised and protected.”
These core components are free and fair elections, transparent and accountable institutions operating under the rule of law, and a robust civil society and independent media.
The new report documents the various tools applied by the United States to support indigenous democratic reform efforts across the globe. (See related article.)
U.S. democracy building programs in the Asia-Pacific region are discussed in the report for Burma, Cambodia, China, Tibet, Hong Kong, Indonesia, North Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, Thailand and Vietnam.
Of special concern is the repression of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world. At the April 5 press conference, Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, said that “in spite of international commitments, we are witnessing a crackdown by some governments on NGOs and other civil society actors. Lowenkron outlined steps the United States was taking to counter this repression, including the issuance of guiding principles for the treatment of NGOs.