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US Lawmakers Focus on Human Rights


International human rights issues have been in the spotlight on Capitol Hill as lawmakers consider important spending legislation, and a congressional committee reviewed the latest State Department report on global human rights.

Each year, the voluminous State Department human rights report is reviewed by Congress, as lawmakers focus on countries of special concern.

In the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Human Rights, Congressman Chris Smith began by discussing the foundation of international human rights principles:

"Human rights are not a concession or a benefit conferred by a state," said Chris Smith. "They are the entitlement of every human person on the basis of that person's inherent dignity and human worth."

In its 2005 report, the State Department details longstanding human rights and religious freedom violations in such places as Zimbabwe, China, Burma, and Cuba, along with Central Asian republics.

The Bush administration has issued strong statements on Burma, including one this week by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who was visiting Indonesia.

Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Barry Lowenkron, says the situation in Burma continues to be a high priority for the Bush administration.

"Only by Burma's return to the democratic path from which it was wrenched, can the basic rights of the Burmese people be realized," said Barry Lowenkron. "The regime's misrule has inflicted tremendous suffering on the Burmese people and caused or exacerbated a host of ills for its neighbors, from refugee outflows, to the spread of infectious diseases, and the trafficking of drugs and human beings."

Lowenkron says the Bush administration is pursuing what he called all avenues on Burma, including further steps at the United Nations, and pressure on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

On Africa issues, the situation in Zimbabwe and in Sudan's western Darfur region were also discussed.

Congressman Donald Payne is the sharpest critic in Congress of the government in Khartoum.

"I cautioned our government that we must not stand by and allow Khartoum to undo the progress made toward [North-South] peace," said Donald Payne. "For those of you who do not know, the genocide in Darfur continues to this very day."

In a separate action, the House of Representatives approved $50 million in additional funding for peackeeping operations in Darfur.

Thursday's hearing followed U.N. General Assembly approval of a new Human Rights Council, replacing the former commission sharply criticized by U.S. lawmakers and the Bush administration.

Congressman Smith is among lawmakers skeptical about the new council:

"I personally am deeply disappointed and dismayed that the United Nations adopted such a weak and deeply-flawed replacement for the discredited human rights commission," he said.

Scheduled testimony by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton before the House International Relations Committee had to be postponed due to a busy House voting schedule.

Representatives of human rights and religious freedom groups welcomed what they called some improvements in this year's State Department report, especially regarding rights issues in Russia and China, while criticizing it on other grounds.

Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of Human Rights First, generally praised the report's focus on Egypt's election and intimidation of the non-violent opposition, but faults it for this reason:

"We were puzzled that the report fails to criticize the detention, prosecution and conviction of opposition political leader Ayman Nour," said Elisa Massimino. "It reports on the forgery charges against him, without comment, although many independent observers doubt the validity of these charges, and it ascribes allegations that he was beaten at the time of his arrest to human rights organizations rather than condemning these violations in its own voice.

Other witnesses discussed religious persecution human rights violations in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

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