U.S. criticizes Afghanistan's 'poor' human rights record

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 11, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has a "poor" human rights record, tarnished by widespread impunity for security forces who commit abuses; violence against women; torture and extra-judicial killings, the State Department said in an annual report released Thursday.

"The country's human rights record remained poor," the report said. Afghan police, now being trained by NATO countries — to speed a U.S. troop withdrawal — enjoyed "pervasive" impunity for abuses ranging from extorting bribes from citizens trying to avoid jail to sexual violence against boys at police checkpoints.

The report noted that Taliban-led insurgents trying to topple Karzai's government were responsible for two-thirds of the estimated 2,412 civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009.

"There are a number of developments in Afghanistan that are of concern," said Michel Posner, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, while noting that the country is grappling with a fast spreading insurgency and worsening security conditions.

He cited a move by Karzai last month to gain control of the independent Electoral Complaints Commission, by appointing its members. The ECC led the investigation into last year's fraud-marred election, in which Karzai prevailed, and threw out nearly a third of the votes he claimed.

Posner said the U.S. is studying a newly enacted law that shields powerful warlords and others from prosecution for abuses committed during Afghanistan's long civil war, before the December 2001 formation of the first post-Taliban government. Human Rights Watch and other private groups said Karzai had promised not to sign the law and called for its repeal.

This is the first annual report compiled under President Barack Obama, who some rights advocates say is pursuing an overly pragmatic human rights policy. Shifting policy, Obama has pursued engagement with repressive regimes in Iran, Burma and Sudan and has lowered the profile of human rights in foreign policy.

The administration, Posner said, is pursuing a policy of "principled engagement" with rights abusers. "Words alone don't change behavior," he said.

Globally, the report describes a disturbing trend in which more governments are trying to suppress dissent by clamping controls on the media, particularly the Internet, and on private, nongovernmental organizations.

"Restrictions on freedom of expression, including on members of the media, are increasing and becoming more severe. In many cases, such restrictions are applied subtly by autocrats aiming to avoid attention from human rights groups and donor countries," the report said.

"In a significant number of countries, governments have imposed new and often draconian restrictions on NGOs. Since 2008, no fewer than 25 governments have imposed new restrictions on the ability of these organizations to register, to operate freely, or to receive foreign funding," it said.

It cited numerous countries for restricting freedom of expression or assembly, including China, Cuba, Russia, Venezuela and Belarus.

Egypt, a major U.S. partner in the Middle East, "failed to respect the freedom of association and restricted freedom of expression, and its respect for freedom of religion remained very poor," the report said.

In 2009, it said, "many governments applied overly broad interpretations of terrorism and emergency powers as a basis for limiting the rights of detainees and curtailing other basic human rights and humanitarian law protections."

Human rights groups and many foreign governments say that's precisely what the U.S. did in the years after 2001, with a program of harsh interrogation, secret prisons and indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who introduced the report, said the Obama administration is committed to scrutiny of its own record. This fall, she said, the U.S. will present a report on U.S. policies to the United Nations Human Rights Council, its first.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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