ASTANA (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Central Asian governments on Tuesday to expand democratic freedoms, saying countries which quash human rights only make themselves less competitive on the global stage.
Launching a tour amid uproar over the leak of a huge cache of classified U.S. diplomatic cables by a whistleblower website, Clinton also said she was committed to Internet freedom.
She said it was important that “governments don’t overreact” to information that they do not like being aired in public.
Clinton brought her strong human rights message to Kazakhstan, which on December 1-2 will host a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) amid withering criticism of its own rights record.
“No country can be fully free unless human rights defenders are given their rights,” Clinton told a university audience in Astana, Kazakhstan’s futuristic new capital.
“If you want to be a successful country in the 21st century, eventually you are going to have to accept that you must do more for human rights.”
Activist groups say Kazakhstan, a vast nation with abundant oil and metals reserves which this year became the first former Soviet republic to chair the OSCE, has seen a poor human rights record only worsen over the past 12 months.
Clinton said Kazakhstan had “made more progress than any other in the region” on human rights, but she made special mention of leading human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis, who is serving a four-year prison term for vehicular manslaughter.
Human Rights Watch believes his trial was unfair.
“Let’s be fair about the criticism, and let’s encourage the changes that will benefit the people of Kazakhstan in terms of democracy and human rights,” Clinton said.
Kazakhstan’s leaders say the country has preserved political stability in a region where Islamist militancy and ethnic violence is rife, as well as raising living standards for the 16 million people who live in Central Asia’s largest economy.
Clinton, whose country is also concerned about Islamic militancy in the region, said she would make her case at the OSCE summit and at her next two stops in Central Asia this week.
She will visit Kyrgyzstan, which is seeking to build the region’s first parliamentary democracy after months of violence, and Uzbekistan, where the government has cracked down on personal freedoms but provided important help for the U.S.-led war in nearby Afghanistan.
Clinton left Washington on Monday promising governments around the world that the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables — some of them deeply embarrassing for foreign leaders — would not derail U.S. efforts to build consensus on global challenges such as Iran’s nuclear programme.
“We consider it regrettable that information that was meant to be confidential has been made public, and I particularly worry about the human rights activists, the religious leaders, the critics of governments,” Clinton said.
She added, however, that U.S. policy priorities would not change.
Clinton also said she was a “big believer” in Internet freedom. “It is always better to err on the side of more expression, more information, and then try to counter it with other information,” she said.
“We also have to be very careful that governments don’t overreact,” she said, saying both sides had to be careful when navigating the minefield of Internet freedom.
The WikiLeaks saga had already made headlines in Kazakhstan by the time Clinton arrived, although some Kazakh women’s rights activists who were due to meet Clinton said they thought it was a storm in a teacup.
“Very entertaining reading,” said Aigul Solovyeva, a member of parliament, adding that the incident showed how important the United States remained in world affairs.
“The most important thing is that their opinions are taken into consideration by the international community.”
Editing by Robin Paxton