The State of Human Rights

U.S. Report Highlights Big Changes in Past Year

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By Father John Flynn, LC

WASHINGTON, D.C., JUN. 1, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On May 24, the U.S. Department of State released its annual report on the state of human rights around the world. The “2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” covered events from the last calendar year.

In presenting the report, Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, noted that 2011 was a year of major upheavals in the Middle East, North Africa, and also Burma. Severe violations of human rights still exist in many countries, he added, including flawed elections, censorship, arbitrary detention, torture, and killings.

Last year also saw increasing persecution of a number of religious groups, Posner commented.

In the country report on Egypt, it noted that the most significant human rights problems during 2011 were attacks on demonstrators, violence against religious minorities, along with the use of military courts in civilian cases, and arbitrary arrest.

Laws based on religion continue to enforce discrimination. For example, a female Muslim citizen may not marry a non-Muslim man without risking arrest and conviction for apostasy. Moreover, any children from such a marriage could be placed in the custody of a male Muslim guardian. And Christian widows of Muslims have no inheritance rights.

Both Iran and Iraq continue to experience serious violations of human rights according to the report. In the former, in reaction to an increase in demonstrations by opposition groups, authorities responded harshly and severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press.

Death penalty

Citing an independent report, the Department of State said that last year 659 people were executed, many after secret trials or without due process. Courts have also issued death sentences for Muslims who convert to another religion.

In Iraq, abuses by both militant armed groups and government-affiliated forces continued in 2011. Estimates of civilian deaths ranged from just over 1,500 to more than 2,500. The numbers, however, have dropped compared to the previous year.

There was little evidence of sanctioned government discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, according to the report. There were, nevertheless, complaints that authorities have been slow to return land confiscated by the previous regime that had belonged to Christian churches and Christian farmers.

The Middle East was not the only region that saw significant changes in 2011. In Burma, authorities lifted restrictions on opposition parties and allowed opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to announce her bid for Parliament. Hundreds of political prisoners were set free and there was also a relaxation of a number of censorship controls.

There are still, however, significant human rights problems in the country, the report qualified, and the government continued to detain hundreds of political prisoners.

Deterioration in China

By contrast the report observed that the human rights situation in China continued to deteriorate. Repression and coercion was routine and there were tight restrictions on the freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel.

Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, the report stated. Authorities have also continued severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas.

Family planning restrictions continue to be enforced and, according to the report, local officials sometimes used physical coercion to ensure compliance, including the mandatory use of birth control and the abortion of unauthorized pregnancies.

In Vietnam, the most significant human rights problems in the country were severe government restrictions on citizens’ political rights, the report said. There were also increased measures to limit citizens’ civil liberties and problems of corruption in the judicial system and police.

Authorities increasingly limited privacy rights and freedoms of the press, speech, assembly, movement and association. Attempts at dissent were suppressed and controls on the Internet were increased.

Freedom of religion, the report added, continued to be subject to uneven interpretation and protection, with significant problems continuing, especially at provincial and village levels.

Turning to Russia, the report found a number of significant human rights violations. In the parliamentary elections held in December, independent observers found government interference and manipulation, including restrictions on the ability of opposition parties to organize, register candidates for public office, access the media, or conduct political campaigns.

There were also major deficiencies in the rule of law, with people who threaten powerful state or business interests being subjected to political prosecution, as well as to harsh conditions of detention.

The government continued to pressure media outlets and some journalists. Activists who publicly criticized or challenged the government or well-connected business interests were subject to physical attack and harassment. Killings of journalists and activists continued and a number of high-profile cases from previous years remained unsolved.

As this sampling of some of the country reports shows, basic freedoms, that many in Western countries take for granted, are far from common in too many countries.