CAPITOL HILL - The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing Thursday on threats and restrictions faced by civil society and human rights defenders around the world. The hearing focused on laws recently enacted and pending legislation in countries such as Ethiopia that are limiting the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate freely and independently.
One of the co-chairmen of the bipartisan commission, Democratic Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts, said there is a problem worldwide of some governments restricting the core rights of civil society.
"From China to Russia, from Bahrain to Mexico, from Egypt to Zimbabwe, and in dozens of other countries, governments are preventing human rights defenders from carrying out their critical work as protectors of fundamental freedoms," he said.
One of the witnesses at the hearing was Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations at Amnesty International. He singled out Ethiopia for attacks on civil society.
"Members of the commission, the recent and ongoing developments in Ethiopia linked to the policies and laws implemented by the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, have all but gutted civil society in Ethiopia," Akwei said.
Akwei called on the Obama administration to seize the opportunity presented by Meles's visit at the G-8 summit near Washington.
"Amnesty International feels that the current visit of the prime minister to the G8 summit presents a critical opportunity for the Obama administration to strongly urge the government of Ethiopia to move in the right direction and to change course," Akwei said.
Other speakers at the hearing criticized the Obama administration for not standing up more forcefully for human rights activists and trade union leaders in Colombia, and for nongovernmental organizations in Egypt.
Commission co-Chairman McGovern also criticized the Obama administration on its policy toward Bahrain.
"I was disappointed to learn last Friday that the administration is moving forward with a substantial arms deal for Bahrain, despite many continuing human rights violations in that country, including excessive use of force by security personnel and the continued detention of peaceful opposition leaders and human rights defenders," McGovern said.
Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, defended the arms deal, saying the United States is closely monitoring the human rights situation in Bahrain.
"The decision to restore some security operation was done on the basis of our national security interests. We said forcefully and repeatedly that we did so mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain," Posner said.
Several human rights experts at the hearing called on the U.S. State Department to craft a list of guidelines for services and assistance that U.S. embassies can provide to human rights activists in dangerous and difficult situations, so that the human rights defenders can have realistic expectations.