A U.S.-based human rights group says despots around the world are attempting to pass themselves off as democrats, and in far too many cases are not being challenged by the world's established democracies. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where Human Rights Watch released its annual report on the state of human rights across the globe.
First the good news: according to Human Rights Watch, many leaders have come to recognize the value of being seen as defenders of democracy. As a brand name, "democrat" has never been more popular. But that is only the beginning of the story.
"The bad news is that established democracies are letting autocrats pass themselves off as democrats," said Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth. He said the last year has seen a "cheapening or degradation" of democracy.
"Democracy has come to be seen as the key to legitimacy. We see leaders playing rhetorical games. And so you have [Russian President Vladimir] Putin talking about 'sovereign' democracy, where the sovereign in question seems to be himself. You have the Burmese generals talking about 'disciplined' democracy. China discussing 'socialist' democracy. Or [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, in his audacity, talking about 'genuine' democracy as he imposes emergency rule," he said.
Speaking at Washington's National Press Club, Roth accused established democracies like the United States of complicity in the charade.
"Perhaps the best illustration of the way that the natural defenders of democracy - the major Western democracies - are lowering the bar on what it takes to enter the club of democracies was the way that President Bush responded to General Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule in Pakistan. Musharraf detained thousands of opposition figures. He shut down part of the press. Judges were dismissed, undermining the rule of law. Yet President Bush said that Musharraf had somehow not crossed the line [gone too far]. He noted that Musharraf believes in democracy. That he is on the road to democracy. Now if the road to democracy includes locking up one's opponents, silencing the press, and undermining the rule of law, it is easy to see why every tyrant around the world thinks that he, too, might be able to qualify as a democrat," he said.
Pakistan has scheduled elections for February 18. President Musharraf has promised that all efforts will be made to ensure that they are free and fair.
Human Rights Watch's "World Report 2008" surveys conditions in more than 75 nations, noting humanitarian crises in Sudan, Somalia, and Eastern Ethiopia. It also draws attention to atrocities in Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Colombia, and serious abuses in a multitude of nations from Libya to Iran to China.
It says U.S. moral authority to speak out on global human rights has been severely eroded by the continued detainee operation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the use of water-boarding as an interrogation tool, and other factors.
Asked about the report's criticism of the United States, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed any suggestion that the United States has ceased to be an effective advocate of human rights.
"Promoting democracy, promoting basic human rights around the world is at the core of our foreign policy. You have heard people from the president on down talk about the centrality of the promotion of democracy and freedom around the world to our foreign policy. I do not think there is any question about that," he said.
McCormack added that countries evolve toward democracy on their own timeline and according to their own histories, values and cultures, but that fundamental human rights apply to every country.