The United States labeled countries such as Iran, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam serial human rights abusers, even as it seeks to improve relations with them, in a long-delayed annual human rights report released Thursday.
The report was released just days before the resumption of high-level nuclear talks with Tehran and weeks before the expected re-opening of embassies in Washington and Havana.
In the report, the State Department cited Iran and Cuba, along with many other nations, for violating citizens' basic freedoms in 2014.
Though the U.S. and other world powers are attempting to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by June 30, the State Department report criticized Tehran for having the second-highest execution rate in the world "after legal proceedings that frequently didn't respect Iran's own constitutional guarantee to due process."
The report accused Iran of "severely restricting" multiple civil liberties and taking few, if any, steps to punish abusers.
"Iran continued to severely restrict civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, religion, and press, and to execute citizens at the second highest rate in the world after legal proceedings that frequently didn't respect Iran's own constitutional guarantee to due process or international legal norms,'' the department said.
On Cuba, the State Department said that while Havana had largely eased travel restrictions in January, the government still denied passport requests for certain opposition figures or harassed them upon their return to the country.
Since announcing U.S. plans to normalize relations with the island nation, Obama administration officials have defended their outreach to Cuba as an effort to improve the human rights situation in the country after decades of isolating the communist country through an embargo and strict sanctions.
As part of the normalization process with the United States, Cuba released 53 political prisoners in January.
However, the reports noted that Cuban activists in 2014 had recorded the highest number of arbitrary arrests of dissidents in the past five years.
And, though the government in 2014 has indicated it will expand Internet and telecommunications access, it "continued to block its citizens' access to uncensored, independent information in general," the report said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said, “No country can fulfill its potential if its people are held back or, more so, beaten down by repression.”
“Despite that simple truth, these reports show that too many governments continue to tighten their grasp on free expression, association, and assembly, using increasingly repressive laws, politically motivated prosecutions and even new technologies to deny citizens their universal human rights, in the public square, and in virtual space,” he said in a written preface to the report.
Violence by extremists
The report also denounced the "brutality" of extremist groups and said "the year 2014 will be remembered as much for atrocities committed by non-state actors."
"No development has been more disturbing than the rise of groups such as Daesh," Kerry said, referring to the Islamic State group, as he unveiled the report at the State Department.
In some regions of the Middle East and Africa, violent extremists have shown zero regard for human rights and human life, Kerry said.
“Groups like ISIL burn human beings alive, barbarically behead prisoners, sell girls into slavery, and execute innocents widely and indiscriminately,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The world has “witnessed the brutality and nihilism of the horrific attacks by Pakistani Taliban and Boko Haram on schoolchildren, the assassinations of Charlie Hebdo journalists, and numerous outrages and killings carried out by ISIL,” Kerry said.
Governments in China, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, among others, continued to stifle free and open media and the development of civil society through the imprisonment of journalists, bloggers, and nonviolent critics, he said.
In Thailand, the military overthrew a democratically elected government, repealed the constitution, and severely limited civil liberties, he added.
Other threats to human rights noted in the report include terrorism, corruption, crackdowns on access to the Internet and information, and counter-terrorism efforts that have been used to crack down on personal freedoms.
The report said authoritarian governments overtly sought to crack down on Internet freedoms, with 41 countries seeking to pass laws to punish or restrict online speech.
Kerry said the reports have included more data over the years, including on human trafficking and crimes against gay and lesbian citizens.
“Every country, including the United States, has room to improve” on the human rights front, said Kerry, who mentioned the racial discord that has occurred in the U.S. in the past year.
“We approach this [report] with great self-awareness,” he said.
Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski denied the report, which was due in February, had been delayed due to concerns that it could affect negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal and with Cuba on restoring diplomatic ties.
VOA's Pam Dockins talked with Asst. Secretary of State Tom Malinowski:
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.