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US Pledges to Press for Global Human Rights Reforms - 2003-07-10

The State Department's top official for human rights says the Bush administration is committed to pressing foreign governments to make human rights reforms. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Lorne Craner, made the statement to a congressional panel which also heard from critics who say the United States is undermining its own efforts at promoting human rights.

The State Department issues an annual report on rights violations around the world. But Congress directed it to prepare another covering specific steps being taken, and tools being used, to reduce human rights abuses.

This report covers only 92 countries, and details for each the strategies employed by the administration. These range from aid for democracy-building, education and judicial reform to funds for health care, and media development. But some lawmakers continue to criticize the administration's commitment to human rights. They point to omissions in the new State Department report they say indicate the administration is trying to soften criticism of some governments.

"Human rights isn't a sideshow, or at least it shouldn't be," said Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, who chaired Wednesday's hearing. "It ought to be the main event. What is conveyed concerning human rights and what is omitted at all diplomatic levels, but especially at the top, has predictable real-world consequences for good or ill for at-risk persons and victims?"

Among omissions Mr. Smith says, are the absence of any mention of the U.S. response to Chinese government actions against ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Also, the absence of five countries, Greece, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Belize and Surinam, identified by the State Department as failing to take serious steps to end human trafficking.

Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner says the report demonstrates that U.S. support for human rights remains strong. "We will not shy away from criticizing human rights violations abroad. But we also want to go beyond that and take concrete steps to help the builders of democracy," he said. "In short, the report illuminates the fact that our support for human rights is more than a once-a-year exercise in identifying abuses. It is a day in, day out effort."

Among steps Mr. Craner says underscore this commitment: a doubling of human rights resources for Central Asia, initiatives in the Middle East, and stronger support for reforms in China. He also includes President Bush's recent talks with eight West African leaders seeking their input on human rights issues.

However, while human rights groups welcome the new report, one calling it a "breakthrough", they also say the United States suffers from an image problem.

"The administration speaks with commendable moral clarity, but still lacks moral authority, particularly in the part of the world where we should be most concerned about the need to promote this interest, namely the Middle East and the Islamic world," said Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Malinowski and others say the United States is still viewed by many as practicing double standards, and since September 11, 2001, using the war against terrorism as an excuse.

"More than 100 countries are missing," said Harold Koh, who was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights under President Clinton. "Key countries like Turkey and Singapore are not mentioned. Very little public criticism is given of our allies in the war against terrorism and one senses that our public criticism of Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan has been softened. I think we make ourselves vulnerable to charges of double standards if we don't subject our allies in the war against terrorism to the same public disapproval we give to countries of less strategic importance."

Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos joins human rights groups in criticizing what they see as an attempt by the State Department to downplay instability in Afghanistan where the government in Kabul still does not control regions dominated by warlords.

"If the State Department as a whole, and our government as a whole, does not see to it that Afghanistan is treated as a country, and not just as Kabul as a city, then with the best of intentions your bureau [human rights office in State Department] can achieve little or nothing to promote human rights if the basic framework is not created to the extent feasible, by U.S. foreign policy in alliance with our allies and friends," said Mr. Lantos.

Responding to criticisms, Assistant Secretary Craner says just because a certain country was not included in the report does not mean persistent human rights violations do not occur there. And he says the State Department's annual country reports are still the main source of detailed information.