[JURIST] The US State Department (DOS) [official website] on Wednesday released its 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices [DOS materials]. Announcing the release [Flash video; statement text], Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the new Barack Obama administration is seeking to both improve the US rights record at home and to continue to promote the recognition and protection of human rights around the world. In its introduction [text] to the reports, which covered almost 200 countries, the Department noted that many countries still abuse basic human rights, that those abuses are generally emblematic of deep-routed problems within the political structures of those countries, and that more robust political systems lead to the better respect of human rights:
Each country report speaks for itself. However, some broad, cross-cutting observations can be drawn.
One: In 2008, pushback against demands for greater personal and political freedom continued in many countries across the globe. A disturbing number of countries imposed burdensome, restrictive, or repressive laws and regulations against NGOs and the media, including the Internet. Many courageous human rights defenders who peacefully pressed for their own rights and those of their fellow countrymen and women were harassed, threatened, arrested and imprisoned, killed, or were subjected to violent extrajudicial means of reprisal.
Two: Human rights abuses remain a symptom of deeper dysfunctions within political systems. The most serious human rights abuses tended to occur in countries where unaccountable rulers wielded unchecked power or there was government failure or collapse, often exacerbated or caused by internal or external conflict.
Three: Healthy political systems are far more likely to respect human rights. Countries in which human rights were most protected and respected were characterized by the following electoral, institutional, and societal elements:
Free and fair electoral processes that include not only a clean casting and honest counting of ballots on election day, but also a run-up to the voting that allows for real competition and full respect for the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association;
Representative, accountable, transparent, democratic institutions of government, including independent judiciaries, under the rule of law to ensure that leaders who win elections democratically also govern democratically, and are responsive to the will and needs of the people; and
Vibrant civil societies, including independent NGOs and free media.
In Africa, the DOS criticized continuing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan, and said that Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe continues to impose authoritarian rule over the country. It praised democratic elections in Angola, Ghana and Zambia; and progress made my the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) [JURIST news archives].
In East Asia and the Pacific, the DOS criticized China for its repression of Tibetan and Uighur minorities, Vietnam for increased restrictions on the press and Burma for making sweeping constitutional changes in the aftermath of a devastating typhoon. It praised progress made by the Bilateral Commission of Truth and Friendship in Indonesia and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) as well as legislation in Thailand and Cambodia [JURIST news archives] designed to fight human trafficking.
In Europe and Eurasia, the DOS criticized both Russia and Georgia for their actions in South Ossetia, Azerbaijan and Belarus for failing to protect journalists, and several countries for general hostility towards free press and non-governmental organizations. It praised Kosovo [JURIST news archives] for its democratically declared independence, but said that anti-hate-speech legislation in Britain, Germany, and other European countries could too severely limit free speech.
In the Near East and North Africa, the DOS criticized Egypt, Iran, Libya and Syria for imprisoning human rights activists and Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia for restrictions on religious freedoms. It praised both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for increased female participation in government, and Oman and Bahrain [JURIST news archives] for enacting legislation to improve labor conditions.
In South and Central Asia, the DOS criticized Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for restrictions on journalists; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan for restrictions on religious freedoms; and Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India for continued use of child labor. It praised Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal and Bangladesh [JURIST news archives] for holding democratic elections.
In the Western Hemisphere, the DOS criticized Nicaragua for restriction on speech, Venezuela for press restrictions and called Cuba "the hemisphere's only totalitarian state." It praised Columbia, Peru, and Guatemala, Chile and Argentina [JURIST news archives] for conducting investigations into past human rights abuses.
The DOS issues its yearly reports on human rights practices to Congress under a legal mandate [22 USC § 2151n text], and has filed similar reports for 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002 [JURIST reports] and previous years.