U.S. report paints bleak picture of human rights


Photo Courtesy of Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS

Tracy Wilkinson,
Los Angeles Times

The Obama administration castigated China and Russia on Wednesday for their attempts to use legislation to criminalize basic expressions of free speech, religious practice and other civil liberties.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in releasing the State Department’s annual report on human rights in countries around the world, said the Middle East also ranked among the worst regions for civilians facing war, violent extremism and the forced displacement of millions of people.

“The most widespread and dramatic violations in 2015 were those in the Middle East where the confluence of terrorism and the Syrian conflict caused enormous suffering,” Kerry said.

“Given the horrors of these past five years, I cannot imagine a more powerful blow for human rights than putting a decisive end to this war,” Kerry said. A partial cease-fire in Syria is beginning to unravel, and peace negotiations in Geneva, sponsored by the United Nations and backed by the United States, are in doubt.

Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad, held elections Wednesday that many in the international community viewed as a farce. Washington wants Assad to step down.

“Syria is by far the greatest crisis on our mind,” Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, said in elaborating on the report, the 40th produced by the State Department based on information from its diplomats abroad.

“In Syria, we see how human rights abuses in one small country can have consequences far beyond that small country’s borders: from a refugee exodus that is altering the politics of Europe, to the spawning of a terrorist group that threatens us all,” he added.

Malinowski said China and Russia came in for special criticism because as major countries, they have influence on entire regions.

The report noted that Moscow and Beijing have stepped up repression of dissidents, citizens protesting against torture, journalists critical of the government, religious minorities and others.

In many cases, new legislation has been used to institutionalize restrictions on free speech and assembly.

Malinowski said other repressive countries are likely to imitate Moscow and Beijing.

Some U.S. allies also were condemned, most notably NATO member Turkey. “The government has used anti-terror laws as well as a law against insulting the president to stifle legitimate political discourse and investigative journalism,” the report says.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrested prominent journalists and attempted to silence critical media and opposition voices.

He has invoked terrorism to punish moderate Kurdish leaders, lumping them in with armed Kurdish groups.

Erdogan’s government recently shepherded a takeover of one of the country’s top newspapers.

Erdogan, who met with President Obama two weeks ago on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Washington, denied he was cracking down on opponents in Turkey.