The State Department's annual report on human rights conditions worldwide issued Wednesday includes sharp criticism of China despite a suggestion last week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the issue was secondary to broader concerns in the U.S. dialogue with Beijing. Clinton told reporters the promotion of human rights is "essential" to U.S. foreign policy.
Clinton's assertion in China last week that human rights concerns with China "can't interfere" with dialogue with Beijing on matters such as the world economic crisis and climate change drew some sharp editorial criticism.
But at a news conference for the roll-out of the annual human rights report, the Secretary implicitly responded to the controversy, saying that human rights promotion is essential to U.S. foreign policy and has been a personal priority for her throughout her political career.
"Our commitment to human rights is driven by our faith and our moral values, and by our belief that America must first be an exemplar of our own ideals," she said. "But we also know that our security and prosperity and progress is enhanced when people in other places emerge from the shadows to gain the opportunities and right that we enjoy and treasure."
On China, the State Department report said the Beijing government's human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas last year - citing what was termed "severe cultural and religious repression" of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Muslim areas of western China.
The North Korean human rights record was called "abysmal," with reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and arbitrary detentions painting a grim picture of life in the reclusive communist state.
Burma's military-led government was said to be continuing repressive measures including harassment and imprisonment of human rights and democracy activists.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Karen Stewart says the Obama administration is seeking a new policy approach to the Burmese government, which has seemed oblivious to sanctions, including a near-total U.S. trade embargo.
"We will be conducting a review of our U.S.-Burma policy, again with the notion of looking for: are there any other ways that we haven't tried, are there more creative ways that we might add to our approach to push for greater respect for human rights in Burma? And we continue to urge the regime to heed the calls of the U.N. Security Council - to release all the political prisoners and begin a genuine dialogue with the democratic opposition," she said.
The report said human rights in Russia continued on a "negative trajectory" with civil liberties under siege and pressure by the Moscow government weakening freedom of expression and media independence.
The government of Iran was said to have intensified a systematic campaign of intimidation against reformers, journalists and dissidents through arbitrary arrests detention and torture.
It also cited a deterioration of human rights in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo, while saying Eritrea's already poor human rights record worsened with security forces carrying out extra-judicial killings with seeming impunity.
The report did not assess the United States' own record but alluded to international criticism of the Bush administration for detentions without trial and other practices related to the war against terrorism.
Assistant Secretary Stewart noted that President Obama has rejected the notion that the United States must choose between safety and preserving its ideals, and said the new administration welcomes international scrutiny of its rights practices.
"We do not consider views about our performance, voiced by others in the international community, whether by other governments or non-governmental actors to be interference in our internal affairs," she said. "Nor should other governments regard expression about their performance as such.
The annual reports are mandated by a 1961 act of Congress to help legislators determine, among other things, eligibility of countries for U.S. foreign aid programs. This year's report, covering rights conditions in more than 190 countries in 2008, was forwarded to members of Congress on Wednesday as it was being publicly released.