Rights-Respecting Governments Should Speak Up to Protect Defenders
January 20, 2010
While attacks on rights defenders might be seen as a perverse tribute to the human rights movement, that doesn't mitigate the danger. Under various pretexts, abusive governments are attacking the very foundations of the human rights movement.
Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth

(Tel Aviv) - Governments responsible for serious human rights violations have over the past year intensified attacks against human rights defenders and organizations that document abuse, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2010.

The 612-page report, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide, reflecting the extensive investigative work carried out in 2009 by Human Rights Watch staff. The volume's introductory essay by Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the ability of the human rights movement to exert pressure on behalf of victims has grown enormously in recent years, and that this development has spawned a reaction from abusive governments that grew particularly intense in 2009.

"While attacks on rights defenders might be seen as a perverse tribute to the human rights movement, that doesn't mitigate the danger," Roth said. "Under various pretexts, abusive governments are attacking the very foundations of the human rights movement."

Attacks on human rights monitors are not limited to authoritarian governments like Burma and China, Human Rights Watch said. In countries with elected governments that are facing armed insurgencies, there has been a sharp rise in armed attacks on human rights monitors, such as in Thailand. Although the armed conflict in Chechnya has wound down, there was a devastating series of killings and threats against lawyers and activists fighting impunity in the North Caucasus.

Human Rights Watch noted that some governments are so abusive against individuals and organizations that no domestic human rights movement can function, citing Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.

The introduction to the report said that in addition to Russia and Sri Lanka, other countries where human rights monitors were murdered in order to silence them included Kenya, Burundi, and Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch cited Sudan and China as countries that routinely shut down human rights groups and Iran and Uzbekistan as countries that openly harass and arbitrarily detain human rights workers and other critics. Colombia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua threaten and harass rights defenders. Human rights advocates face violence in countries such as The Democratic Republic of Congo and Sri Lanka. Some governments, such as Ethiopia and Egypt, use extremely restrictive regulations to stifle the work of nongovernmental organizations.

Local and international human rights groups working in Israel have experienced a more hostile climate than ever before after documenting abuses committed by Israel, as well as Hamas, during the December 2008 - January 2009 fighting in Gaza and Israel and in connection with Israel's ongoing blockade of Gaza.

Human Rights Watch said that the only way abusive governments will end their assault on rights defenders is if other governments that support human rights make rights a central part of their bilateral relations.

"Governments that support human rights need to speak out, to make respecting human rights the bedrock of their diplomacy - and of their own practices," Roth said. "They need to demand real change from abusive governments."

Roth said that the Obama administration, in particular, faced the challenge of restoring America's credibility on human rights. So far, he said, the results are mixed, with a marked improvement in presidential rhetoric, but an incomplete translation of that rhetoric into policy and practice.

The US government has ended the CIA's coercive interrogation program, but should still uphold domestic and international law against torture by investigating and prosecuting those who have ordered, facilitated, or carried out torture and other ill-treatment, he said. The Obama administration has insisted on maintaining military commissions that provide substandard justice and on continuing to hold suspects indefinitely without charge or trial, both of which risk perpetuating the spirit of Guantanamo, Roth said.

Human Rights Watch also said in the introduction to its report that an emerging system of international justice including the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been the focus of attack. The assault unfolded after the court issued an arrest warrant in March for President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Sudanese forces and allied militia against the civilian population of Darfur.

Instead of applauding the ICC for taking action to redress the mass murder and forced displacement of so many Africans in Darfur, when the African Union resolved in July not to cooperate in executing the arrest warrant, a number of African leaders went along with the decision to protect Bashir rather than Darfurian victims of abuses.

Human Rights Watch research over the past year covered a wide range of abuses in virtually every region of the world.

An additional essay in the report, "Civilian Protection and Middle East Armed Groups," notes that there have been years of violence in the Middle East during which governments and armed groups have had little regard for civilian lives. Against this backdrop, the essay says, there is a need to find authoritative voices who can advance civilian protection in terms of the shared prohibitions against targeting civilians in both the laws of war and Islamic ethics. The essay draws upon a Human Rights Watch advocacy project that over several years has sought to identify and encourage important voices in the region to speak out against attacks against civilians, whether in Iraq, Israel, or elsewhere.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Human Rights Watch monitored and reported on developments in 17 countries and territories, from Morocco to Iran. 

In Iran, Human Rights Watch covered the continuing governmental crackdown on peaceful activists following the disputed presidential election of June 2009. Human Rights Watch documented the arrests of thousands of ordinary and high-profile people, providing detailed accounts of state violence against peaceful protesters, arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, and abuse and torture in Iran's illegal detention centers.

In Gaza and Israel, Human Rights Watch documented laws-of-war violations by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups.  Israel's military assault of a year ago included the unlawful use of white phosphorus munitions, the killing of civilians with missiles launched by drones, and the shooting of civilians waving white flags.  Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups launched rockets at Israeli population centers, and Hamas killed alleged collaborators and abused political opponents during the war.

The UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict recommended that both Israel and Hamas investigate alleged war crimes by their forces; the UN General Assembly called on both sides to report on their investigations by early February.  Hamas has not held anyone accountable for abuses, and Israel has prosecuted only one soldier, for stealing a credit card.  Human Rights Watch called on Israel to lift the blockade it imposes (with Egypt's help) on Gaza, a form of collective punishment of Gaza's civilians.

In Libya, Human Rights Watch released a report critical of the government at a news conference in Tripoli. The event was the first open news conference in Libya. The report said that while limited improvements are under way, including expanded space for freedom of expression, repressive laws continue to stifle free expression and association, and abuses by the Internal Security Agency remain the norm.

Human Rights Watch reported in depth on the situation in Yemen, including the armed conflict between government forces and Huthi rebels in the north, the increasingly violent unrest in the south between local secessionist protesters and central government security forces, and the gruesome journey and harsh welcome of Ethiopian refugees via Somalia to Yemen.

In Egypt, where the government holds an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 persons without charge, Human Rights Watch monitored the suppression of political dissent by arbitrary detention and unfair trials. Authorities harassed rights activists and detained journalists, bloggers, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist organization that is the country's largest opposition group.

In Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch reported on indefinite and arbitrary detention and unfair trials on charges ranging from "sorcery" to terrorism. The report documents the systematic suppression and failure to protect the rights of 14 million Saudi women and girls, eight million foreign workers, and two million Shia.

In China, in addition to its continuing work documenting the targeting and jailing of human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch issued a report that described the secret operation of "black jails," where authorities detain people they abduct off the streets of Beijing and other major cities. Most of those held are petitioners seeking redress for abuses ranging from government corruption to police torture.

In Zimbabwe, researchers continued to monitor and report on rights violations by President Robert Mugabe's former ruling party against its partners and their supporters in a power-sharing government. Human Rights Watch also documented brutal tactics by the army and police in the Marange diamond fields to control access to the fields and take over unlicensed diamond mining and trading.

In Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch documented the deliberate killing of more than 1,400 civilians, a pattern of vicious rapes, and other abuses by government and rebel forces during two successive Congolese army operations against a Rwandan Hutu militia in the east of the country. Human Rights Watch also reported serious flaws in the UN peacekeeping operation in Congo that limited its ability to effectively protect civilians.

In Guinea, Human Rights Watch produced a detailed report on killings, sexual assaults, and other abuses at an opposition rally in the capital, committed largely by members of the elite Presidential Guard.

Human Rights Watch said that despite the growth in the human rights movement, human rights defenders remain vulnerable and greatly in need of support by rights-respecting governments.

"Governments that consider themselves human rights supporters often keep silent in the face of these abuses by allies, citing diplomatic or economic priorities," Roth said. "But that silence makes them complicit in the abuse. The only proper response to serious human rights violations is to turn up the heat on the abusers."