US State Department releases 2009 annual rights reports

US State Department releases 2009 annual rights reports

[JURIST] The US State Department (DOS) [official website] on Thursday released its 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices [materials]. Announcing the release [video; statement text], Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US has recommitted "to continue the hard work of making human rights a human reality." In its introduction [text] to the reports, which covered 194 countries, the DOS noted that human rights violations have continued throughout the world, noting several global trends:

In 2009, governments across the globe continued to commit serious violations of human rights. As we survey the world, there still are an alarming number of reports of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other violations of universal human rights. Often these violations relating to the integrity of the person are in countries where conflicts are occurring. These violent attacks are a central concern wherever they take place.

In a significant number of countries, governments have imposed new and often draconian restrictions on NGOs. Since 2008, no fewer than 25 governments have imposed new restrictions on the ability of these organizations to register, to operate freely, or to receive foreign funding, adversely impacting freedom of association. In many countries, human rights defenders are singled out for particularly harsh treatment, and in the most egregious cases, they are imprisoned or even attacked or killed in reaction to their advocacy.

These restrictions and repressive measures are part of a larger pattern of governmental efforts to control dissenting or critical voices. This pattern also extends to the media and to new forms of electronic communications through the Internet and other new technologies. Restrictions on freedom of expression, including on members of the media, are increasing and becoming more severe. In many cases, such restrictions are applied subtly by autocrats aiming to avoid attention from human rights groups and donor countries, such as through the threat of criminal penalties and administrative or economic obstacles, rather than through violence or imprisonment; the end result is still a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

A third trend we observed is the continuing and escalating discrimination and persecution of members of vulnerable groups – often racial, religious, or ethnic minorities, but also women, members of indigenous communities, children, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups that lack the political power in their societies to defend their own interests.

In Africa [materials], the DOS criticized continuing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. It also criticized Uganda for its treatment of homosexuals and Nigeria [JURIST news archives] for extrajudicial killings.

In East Asia and the Pacific [materials], the DOS criticized China for its increased Internet censorship and Myanmar for attacks on ethnic minorities. The DOS also criticized North Korea for denying citizens freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, and Vietnam [JURIST news archives] for suppressing dissent.

In Europe and Eurasia [materials], the DOS said that the situation in the North Caucasus region of Russia has worsened. The DOS also criticized Belarus for restrictions on civil liberties and Switzerland for passing a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets. The Department noted an increase in the killings of Roma people in Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic [JURIST news archives].

In the Near East and North Africa, the DOS criticized Egypt for failing to respect the freedom of association and the freedom of religion and Saudi Arabia for violence against women. The DOS also criticized Iran for human rights violations following the disputed presidential election last June, Israel for violations during last year's Operation Cast Lead, and Iraq [JURIST news archives] for ongoing rights abuses.

In South and Central Asia [materials], the DOS said human rights had deteriorated in Afghanistan because of increased insurgent attacks. The Department said that civilian authorities had taken positive steps in Pakistan, but that significant challenges remain. The DOS criticized Sri Lanka for using excessive force before the end of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last May and Uzbekistan [JURIST news archives] for restricting freedom of the press.

In the Western Hemisphere [materials], the DOS praised Colombia for an active independent media, but warned of intimidation by members of illegal armed groups. The DOS criticized Cuba for interfering with the right to privacy and Venezuela [JURIST news archives] for attacking private media owners.

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 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002 [JURIST reports] and previous years.