U.S. praises Arab Spring but warns of instability

WASHINGTON Thu May 24, 2012 1:23pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday praised the "Arab Spring" popular revolutions in the Middle East but said instability and violence often precede greater respect for human rights.

In its annual survey of human rights around the world, the State Department also recognized Myanmar for freeing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and for starting to open up its political system after decades of repression.

"Many of the events that have dominated recent headlines from the revolutions in the Middle East to reforms in Burma began with human rights, with the clear call of men and women demanding their universal rights," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters as she presented the report.

The report, covering 2011, described as "extremely poor" human rights in Belarus, China, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all perennial targets of U.S. criticism for denying their people basic freedoms and democratic governance.

The report highlighted the treatment of religious minorities and what it described as "marginalized people," including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender as well as people with disabilities.

"Men and women who want to speak, worship, associate, love the way they choose - we will defend their rights; not just on the day we issue these reports, but every day," said Clinton.

On the Arab Spring, the report sounded notes of optimism and caution, saying an open political culture would not appear overnight after decades of repression.

"The yearning for change we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria is inspirational, and yet change often creates instability before it leads to greater respect for democracy and human rights," it said.

"Transitions are times of uncertainty. They can be chaotic, unstable, and at times violent. And even when they succeed, they are rarely linear, quick, or easy," the State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011" added.

Clinton said the presidential election on Thursday in Egypt showed "in real time that those demands are making a difference as Egyptians are going to the polls to determine for the first time in their history who their leaders will be."

CHALLENGES PERSIST IN MYANMAR

The report on Myanmar, also known as Burma, noted "significant developments," including legal amendments allowing opposition parties to register and Suu Kyi to run for parliament, the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the relaxation of many censorship controls, and the easing of some travel restrictions on citizens.

However, it also said "significant human rights problems in the country persisted, including military attacks against ethnic minorities in border states, which resulted in civilian deaths, forced relocations, sexual violence, and other serious abuses."

Last year's report on Myanmar -- covering 2010, before the political changes that prompted Washington to ease sanctions -- described the government as "a highly authoritarian military regime" in which "military officers wielded the ultimate authority at each level of government."

The litany of rights abuses attributed to Myanmar security forces, however, differed little over the past two reports.

In contrast to the modestly improving situation in Myanmar, in neighboring China "deterioration in key aspects of the country's human rights situation continued," said the report, echoing a theme of recent years.

"Repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, were routine," it said.

"Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and, increasingly, authorities resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, 'soft detention,' and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions," said the report.

Under the "arbitrary arrest" section, the report catalogs harassment of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who arrived in New York last weekend after weeks in the center of a U.S.-China diplomatic standoff following his dramatic escape from house arrest and flight to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

"A number of Chinese activists, friends and supporters, and foreign and domestic journalists who attempted to visit Chen reported being assaulted, detained, forcibly removed, or otherwise abused and prevented from freely accessing his village or seeing him," said the report.

Chen, who is preparing to study at the New York University School of Law, has voiced fears his family and supporters will suffer more abuse.

"We have ... raised these cases and our concerns with the Chinese government both publicly and privately," Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner said, referring to Chen's brother, nephew and supporters.

The full report can be read at:

here#wrapper

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by David Storey)

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