The U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights world-wide issued Thursday cited an upsurge in efforts to restrict access to the Internet and other new communications means, and escalating persecution of vulnerable minorities. The report was sharply critical of the rights performance of several countries including China, North Korea and Iran.
The massive two million-word report, covering 194 countries, is mandated under a 1976 act of Congress and was originally intended to guide U.S. lawmakers on foreign aid decisions.
But introducing the latest report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the document has become the most comprehensive record available on the condition of human rights around the world.
"These reports are an essential tool for activists who courageously struggle to protect rights in communities around the world, for journalists and scholars who document rights violations and who report on the work of those who champion the vulnerable, and for governments including our own, as they work to craft strategies to encourage protection of human rights of more individuals in more places," Clinton said.
Clinton said principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are a "North Star" (eds: guiding light) for the Obama administration's foreign and human rights policies.
The report itself, covering events in 2009, levels harsh criticism at some familiar sources of U.S. concern.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Richard Posner said the human rights situation in Iran worsened after disputed presidential elections.
"In Iran, an already poor human rights situation rapidly deteriorated after the June elections," Posner said. "At least 45 people were killed in clashes, thousands were arrested, another thousand were arrested in demonstration in December. It is a place where are continuing to see severe repression of dissent and are continuing to pay great attention."
Iran was also cited for discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused of fueling anti-semitism.
China was similarly faulted for increased repression of Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs.
Citing the prosecution and jailing of prominent Chinese democracy advocates, Assistant Secretary Posner said pressure on civil society groups challenging Beijing government policies is on the rise.
"In the last several years, more public interest, human rights, environmental lawyers have been taking cases, law clinics are springing up," Posner said. "There seems to be a real crackdown, and there are also greater restrictions on NGO's."
China was among some 25 countries said to have imposed restrictions on the ability of non-governmental groups to register and operate, and among those restricting the Internet and other new media.
Posner said the situation in neighboring North Korea was far more bleak.
"It's probably one of the most closed societies in the world. So across the board, I would say conditions are poor, they're not getting better, and we continue to be very mindful of the plight of the North Korean people living in that circumstance," Posner said.
The report also took aim at media curbs in Russia and Venezuela.
Yet Posner noted positive human rights trends in a number of countries including Georgia, Ukraine, Bhutan, the Maldives and Liberia, where the government has set up a truth and reconciliation commission in the aftermath of years of civil conflict.
While the U.S. human rights record is not assessed, the report noted that the United States will submit to its first periodic review before the U.N. Human Rights Council later this year.