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War on Terror Weakening Global Rights Cause, says Monitoring Group - 2003-01-14

The human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch says the United States effort to defeat terrorism has weakened the global human rights cause. In its annual review of the state of human rights, Human Rights Watch says the U.S. focus on terrorism, in the wake of the attacks of September 2001, is undermining the country's role as a leading advocate for human rights.

Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth says the United States has a special responsibility because of its enormous influence to set the standard for upholding human rights principles. But he asserts the United States is damaging the cause by tightening anti-terror alliances with nations that are human rights abusers, such as China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Roth says a number of nations are using the war on terror as an excuse to clamp down on domestic dissent.

"In the case of China, the U.S. government did a great favor to China by designating the East Turkistan Islamic Front a terrorist organization," he said. "What it signaled to the Chinese goverment is that the U.S. government was willing to contenance China's repressive steps toward the weaker minority, the Muslim population that is a majority in northwestern Xinjiang province." Mr. Roth says the Bush administration should condition its alliances on respect for human rights and democratic openings.

Asked to comment on Monday, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer disputed the Human Rights Watch assertion, saying it is U.S. practice to pursue policies that help advance human rights around the world.

"I think that when you take a look, particularly at what's happened in Afghanistan as a result of the United States military operation, in concert with our allies, many people who were oppressed are now free," he said. "Many people who had their basic liberties taken away by an oppressive Taleban regime. Now, for the first time in the lives of many of these people, they have an opportunity for a better life, an opportunity for health care, an opportunity for education. So this administration strongly differs with any such findings."

The annual World Report from Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S. human rights group, covers the period from November 2001 through November 2002. It says the United States has taken steps to promote human rights in some nations involved in the war on terrorism, particularly Egypt and Uzbekistan, and pushed to advance the human rights cause in Burma, Belarus and Zimbabwe.

Human Rights Watch also says the European Union has failed to play a major role in defending human rights recently because of its own preoccupation with expansion.

The Human Rights Watch report says Iraq and North Korea continue to be major abusers of human rights. And the group registers strong concern about abuses caused by the devastating war in Eastern Congo, revived genocide in Burundi and on-going conflict in Colombia and between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Human Rights Watch report did find some good news, beginning with the genocide trial of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosovic, charged with atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo.

"He is seeing his day in court. There was a time when most people thought that would never happen, but he is in the midst of a long, very detailed, vigrous prosecution," Mr. Roth said. "That, we hope, will not only result in the punishment of someone who by our evidence has committed terrible atrocities but also will send a signal to other would-be tyrants around the world that they risk comparable treatment and deprivation of their freedom, imprisonment, should they embark on a similar path."

The report also expresses optimism that the end of deadly conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone and Sudan will further advance the human rights cause.