Human Rights Watch 2008 Report:
Democracy Charade Undermines Rights
http://hrw.org/, Janury 31, 2008
The established democracies are accepting
flawed and unfair elections for political expediency, Human Rights
Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2008. By allowing
autocrats to pose as democrats, without demanding they uphold
the civil and political rights that make democracy meaningful,
the United States, the European Union and other influential democracies
risk undermining human rights worldwide.
States claiming the mantle of democracy,
including Kenya and Pakistan, should guarantee the human rights
that are central to it, including the rights to free expression,
assembly and association, as well as free and fair elections.
But in 2007 too many governments, including Bahrain, Jordan, Nigeria,
Russia and Thailand, acted as if simply holding a vote is enough
to prove a nation "democratic," and Washington, Brussels
and European capitals played along, Human Rights Watch said. The
Bush administration has spoken of its commitment to democracy
abroad but often kept silent about the need for all governments
to respect human rights.
"It's now too easy for autocrats
to get away with mounting a sham democracy," said Kenneth
Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "That's because
too many Western governments insist on elections and leave it
at that. They don't press governments on the key human rights
issues that make democracy function - a free press, peaceful assembly,
and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power."
In its World Report 2008, Human Rights Watch surveys the human
rights situation in more than 75 countries. Human Rights Watch
identified many human rights challenges in need of attention,
including atrocities in Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic
of Congo, Ethiopia's Ogaden region, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka,
and Sudan's Darfur region, as well as closed societies or severe
repression in Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, Iran, North
Korea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. Abuses in the "war on terror"
featured in France, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the United
States, among others.
Grave human rights abuses are fueling the worsening humanitarian
crisis in Somalia and the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. "The
situation in Somalia and Ethiopia's Ogaden region, where millions
are suffering, is a forgotten tragedy," said Roth.
Sudan's government bears principal responsibility for five years
of the Darfur crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Some 2.4 million
people are displaced, and 4 million people survive on humanitarian
aid. In the last weeks, villages in West Darfur have been attacked,
and civilians are at great risk as all sides ignore international
Burma's military government, notorious for decades of abuse, used
deadly force in August and September in response to peaceful protests
by monks, pro-democracy activists, and ordinary civilians. Hundreds
of people remain arbitrarily detained.
In Sri Lanka, heavy fighting between the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam and government forces led to deliberate and indiscriminate
attacks on civilians. Hundreds of people have "disappeared,"
and more than 20,000 have been displaced.
Israel's blockade of Gaza denies 1.4 million residents the food,
fuel and medicine they need to survive, a collective punishment
that violates international law. Palestinian armed groups continue
to launch indiscriminate rocket attacks on populated areas of
Israel in violation of international law.
Human Rights Watch said sustained international pressure around
the 2008 Olympic Games could push Chinese leaders to better respect
human rights in China. But Human Rights Watch warned that the
staging of the Olympics is exacerbating problems of forced evictions,
migrant labor rights abuses, and the use of house arrests to silence
dissidents. The Chinese government is cracking down on lawyers
and human rights activists.
"The 2008 Olympics are an historic opportunity for the Chinese
government to show the world that it can make human rights a reality
for its 1.3 billion citizens," said Roth.
US abuses against so-called "war on terror" detainees
are a major concern; 275 detainees are still held at Guantanamo
Bay without charge. Some of those remain after being cleared by
the United States for release, because they cannot be sent home
and no country will resettle them.
The United States continues to have the highest incarceration
rate in the world, with black men incarcerated at more than six
times the rate of white men.
Human Rights Watch has documented a number of elections manipulated
through: outright fraud (Chad, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Uzbekistan);
control of electoral machinery (Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Malaysia,
Thailand, Zimbabwe); blocking or discouraging opposition candidates
(Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Israel in the Occupied Palestinian
Territories, Libya, Turkmenistan, Uganda); political violence
(Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Lebanon); stifling
the media and civil society (Russia, Tunisia); and undermining
the rule of law (China, Pakistan).
Many of these tactics are illegal under domestic and international
law, but rarely do outside powers call governments to account
for it. Human Rights Watch said established democracies are often
unwilling to do so for fear of losing access to resources or commercial
opportunities, or because of the perceived requirements of fighting
Human Rights Watch said the United States and the European Union
should insist governments do more than hold a vote, and demand
they uphold rights guaranteed by international law, including
a free media, freedom of assembly, and a secret ballot.
"It seems Washington and European governments will accept
even the most dubious election so long as the 'victor' is a strategic
or commercial ally," Roth said.
The United States and some allies have made it harder to demand
other governments uphold human rights when they are committing
abuses in the fight against terrorism. And when autocratic governments
deflect criticism for violating human rights by pretending to
be democrats, the global defense of rights is jeopardized, Human
Rights Watch said.
In Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf has tilted the electoral
playing field by rewriting the constitution and firing the independent
judiciary, parliamentary elections are due in February. But the
United States and Britain, Islamabad's largest aid donors, have
refused to condition assistance to the government on improving
In Kenya, the United States has at least expressed concern about
the apparent rigging of December's presidential poll and the violence
that to date has claimed more than 700 lives. But having accepted
the results of oil-rich Nigeria's February 2007 vote, despite
widespread and credible accusations of poll-rigging and electoral
violence, Washington left the impression in Nairobi that fraud
would be tolerated. It has not even threatened to withhold aid
to push the government to negotiate with the opposition.
"Nigeria's leader came to power in a violent and fraudulent
vote, yet he's been accepted on the international stage,"
said Roth. "It's no wonder Kenya's president felt able to
rig his re-election."
Bizarrely, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE), which is supposed to promote democracy, human rights,
and security, agreed to give its chair in 2010 to Kazakhstan,
which has vast oil and gas reserves coveted by both the EU and
Russia. The OSCE decision came after the Kazakh ruling party "won"
every seat in August parliamentary elections, in which, according
to the OSCE's own monitors, the media was censored, the opposition
suppressed, and the counting flawed.
Human Rights Watch noted positive developments in holding abusive
leaders to account. Alberto Fujimori and Charles Taylor, the former
presidents of Peru and Liberia, are on trial for human rights
abuses. The International Criminal Court holds its first trial
The World Report 2008 includes essays on China's foreign policy;
how activists helped create the Yogyakarta Principles for gay
rights; the scourge of violence against children at school, in
the home, on the streets and in institutions; and the British
government's erosion of the torture ban through "diplomatic
assurances" against ill-treatment.
Human Rights watch