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Report: Democracy no guarantor of rights

State Department report singles out Iran, Venezuela, Russia

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The State Department on Wednesday said that laudable human-rights practices tend to occur in democracies, but it noted in its annual report on human rights that democracy does not guarantee what President Bush has called a commitment to "the non-negotiable demands of human dignity."

Human rights are linked closely to democracies that provide long-term stability and security, said Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Barry Lowenkron, who oversaw the report's compilation.

But, he said, "Some states still have weak institutions of democratic government and continue to struggle; others have yet to commit fully to the democratic process."

The report cited Venezuela and Russia as democratically elected governments that do not always adhere to democratic principles.

The congressionally mandated document -- based on reports from governments, multinational institutions, indigenous groups, academics, jurists and the news media -- has evaluated the status of individual rights and freedoms since 1977.

The release sparked criticism from Amnesty International, which alleged the United States has "outsourced torture" to some of the countries the report criticizes.

Unaccountable rulers

The report said countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers tend to be the world's most systematic human rights violators. It cited Burma, North Korea, Belarus and Zimbabwe as examples of societies where civil rights are "restricted severely."

"States that severely and systematically violate the human rights of their own people are likely to pose threats to neighbors and the international community," Lowenkron said.

The report cited Iran as a case in point.

"Iran's deprivation of basic rights to its own people, its interference in Iraq, its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organizations, and its refusal to engage constructively on these issues, have further isolated it from the world community," the report said.

Some of the most serious violations of human rights are committed by governments in the context of internal or cross-border conflicts, he said, citing what the United States has termed "genocide" in Sudan.

Where civil societies are under siege, with laws passed or applied against non-governmental organizations and the news media, fundamental freedoms are often undermined, Lowenkron said, citing Zimbabwe, China and Belarus.

China's restrictions on Internet use have had a "chilling effect on freedom of expression, association and assembly," he said.

Progress in Iraq, Afghanistan

Democratic elections tend to put a country on the path to reform, he said, citing last year's elections in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last year was marked by "major progress for democracy, democratic rights and freedom" in Iraq, the report said, citing the January elections and the growth of NGOs and other civil society associations that promote rights.

In Afghanistan, the report noted, September parliamentary elections "occurred against the backdrop of a government still struggling to expand its authority over provincial centers, due to continued insecurity and violent resistance in some quarters."

U.S. allies were not spared. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, came under sharp criticism.

"Despite President Musharraf's stated commitment to democratic transition and 'enlightened moderation,' restrictions remained on freedom of movement, expression, association and religion," the report said.

Israel, too, was faulted.

Though the government "generally respected" its citizens' human rights, there were "serious abuses by some members of the security forces against Palestinian detainees," the report said.

About Egypt, which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited last month, Lowenkron said U.S. officials would like the country's political system to open up, "so secular voices will also be heard."

The report cited Syria for refusing to "respect the fundamental freedoms of its people and end its interference in the affairs of its neighbors" by continuing to support terrorist groups and not supporting the U.N. investigation into the murder of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon.

The report praised Ukraine, Liberia and Lebanon for their democratic transitions and said the Balkans demonstrated "a marked overall improvement in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law over the past several years."

But Uzbekistan's human-rights record, "already poor, worsened considerably in 2005," the report said. It cited the violent uprising in May in the city of Andijon that "led to disproportionate use of force by the authorities and a wave of repressive government actions that dominated the remainder of the year."

Kremlin power grabs troubling

Amid continued concerns about democratic backsliding in Russia, the report said efforts in the country "continued to concentrate power in the Kremlin and direct democracy from the top down."

It singled out Zimbabwe for maintaining "a steady assault on human dignity and basic freedoms, tightening its hold on civil society and human-rights NGOs and manipulating the March parliamentary elections."

And, as it has for years, the report criticized the Cuban government, contending it "continued to control all aspects of life through the communist party and state-controlled mass organizations.

The report said human-rights violations continued in Colombia, though it praised the government's efforts for accountability and said a military offensive has reduced the number of killings and kidnappings.

"In Venezuela, new laws governing libel, defamation and broadcast media content, coupled with legal harassment and physical intimidation, resulted in limitations on media freedoms and a climate of self-censorship," the report said.

Asked whether the cases of prisoner abuse by U.S. authorities at Abu Ghraib or on Guantanamo had caused the United States to lose the moral high ground on human rights, Lowenkron said they had not.

"This in no way has hindered me from my job, hindered me from my efforts to advance the democratic agenda or the human rights agenda," he said. "If somebody wants to talk about Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib or detainees, I say fine. I'm willing to discuss that with them."

He added that the United States has corrective mechanisms that include "a robust and vigorous press, a Congress that is elected by the people, and an independent judiciary."

Asked about the issue of rendition -- in which detainees are sent for questioning to other countries, some of which allow torture -- Lowenkron said rendition was done "case-by-case" and only after "we get solid assurances" that the detainees would not be tortured.

The report did not scrutinize human rights in the United States. State Department officials said that the credibility of such a self-review would be questioned, and they noted that independent reviews of U.S. policy are carried out by other entities.

Amnesty International USA was quick to jump into that gap.

"The Bush administration's practice of transferring detainees in the 'war on terror' to countries cited by the State Department for their appalling human rights records actually turns the report into a manual for the outsourcing of torture," said William F. Schulz, the group's executive director.

"The United States government considers itself a moral leader on human rights issues, but its record of indefinite and arbitrary detentions, secret 'black sites' and outsourced torture in the 'war on terror' turns it from leader to human-rights violator."

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