WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States sharply criticized China on Wednesday in its annual report on human rights, one week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton soft-pedalled rights concerns during a visit to Beijing.
The State Department report also took aim at Russia, where it said civil liberties were “under siege,” and noted a global outbreak in restrictive laws on non-governmental groups and the media, including the Internet.
In an examination of human rights in more than 190 countries during 2008, the report roundly criticized many of its usual targets, including Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.
“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,” said the report, which regularly draws the anger of foreign governments targeted for criticism.
The report covers the final year of President George W. Bush’s administration, which had been criticized for its own human rights record, including interrogation methods used on suspected militants and detention without trial at the Guantanamo prison.
President Barack Obama, who took office five weeks ago, has ordered Guantanamo closed in a year and adopted a tougher line against the possible torture of terrorism suspects.
Clinton, criticized last week for putting concerns about China’s human rights issues on the back burner, said promotion of human rights remained “essential to our foreign policy.”
“Not only will we seek to live up to our ideals on American soil, we will pursue greater respect for human rights as we engage other nations and people around the world,” she said.
The U.S. report was harsh on China, saying its human rights record “remained poor and worsened in some areas.”
“The Chinese government increased detention and harassment of dissidents, petitioners, human rights defenders and defence lawyers,” it said, adding the abuses peaked around high-profile events such as the Olympic Games held in Beijing last summer.
“Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labour, including prison labour,” the report said.
The United States has long accused China of human rights abuses and pressed Beijing to grant greater autonomy to Tibet, but on her visit last week Clinton said their joint efforts to ease the global financial crisis, fight climate change and curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions came first.
But Clinton told reporters on Wednesday “as secretary of state, I will continue to focus my own energies on human rights, and will engage as many others as I can to join me.”
“I am looking for results,” she said. “I am looking for changes that will actually improve the lives of the greatest numbers of people.”
Human rights groups, which had criticized Clinton’s stance on China last week, praised the report’s criticisms of China and Russia.
“The U.S. government’s own evidence points to dire circumstances for the Chinese people that can no longer be ignored, even as the United States works with China on other pressing issues,” said T. Kumar, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific.
The U.S. report said civil liberties in Russia “continued to be under siege, reflecting an erosion of the government’s accountability to its citizens.”
The conflict between Russia and Georgia had led to civilian casualties and the indiscriminate use of force, and government pressure had led to an increase in assaults on journalists, it said.
The Russian failure to solve the murders of journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya, a Kremlin critic killed in 2006, has sparked a wave of new concerns about political freedoms.
Three men accused of helping in Politkovskaya’s murder were acquitted in a Russian court and authorities have not identified who ordered the killing or captured the gunman.
The report also found evidence around the world of more burdensome restrictions on the media and the Internet, and a boomerang effect in countries where human rights campaigners have pushed for more freedoms.
“Some countries increased repression in response to popular efforts to secure respect for human rights,” the report said, pointing to Vietnam and China in particular.
“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.”
Editing by John O’Callaghan
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