Watchdog slams UN, EU’s human rights ‘cowardice’

The UN and EU stand accused of “cowardice” for claiming to tackle human rights abuses in places like China through soft diplomacy, Human Rights Watch said in its annual report Monday.

Highlighting its claim, the report on global human rights violations was issued in Brussels the same day the European Union hosted controversial Uzbek President Islam Karimov amid protests.

The New York-based NGO’s executive director Kenneth Roth lambasted “the failure of the expected champions of human rights to respond” to violations in 100-plus regimes.

In his eyes, the fundamental error made by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others is to place the focus on discreet cooperation, a euphemism for “other interests at stake.”

Roth cites a “tepid” response to repression in Myanmar, noting that the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in November 23 was not matched on 2,100 other political prisoners.

The UN was criticised for adopting a “deferential” attitude towards Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir, with Ban said to have placed “undue faith” in his gentle approach.

The EU’s top diplomat, much-criticised English baroness Catherine Ashton, is said to hide behind an “obsequious approach to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan” where energy interests dominate trade and political ties.

There is “absolutely no question of trading off one interest in exchange for the other,” said a spokeswoman for EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, who met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov although neither faced questions.

“Near-universal cowardice” marked challenges to China’s “deepening crackdown on basic liberties,” with huge investments — whether in African natural resources or western public debt — ensuring silence is preferred.

The EU cancelled a press conference after a summit with China last year, and the report noted that the Obama administration “seemed determined to downplay any issue such as human rights that might raise tensions.”

Ashton’s “quiet dialogue and cooperation often look like acquiescence” leading rights defenders to “sense indifference rather than solidarity,” Roth wrote in the International Herald Tribune.

Britain, France and Germany were each all cited as appeasing Beijing.

As the report only covers the period up to the end of November 2010, France’s controversial diplomatic stand over events leading up to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution this month do not figure.

But Roth told a Brussels press conference that it was not until former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali “was basically out the door” that France took sides. “The EU, the US and others learned a lesson,” he added.

HRW says it is only when a government’s behaviour is so outrageous that it overshadows other interests, as in Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe, that leaders step in, noting the effect of “their own counterterrorism abuses.”

Roth highlights US President Barack Obama’s “misplaced faith in rubbing shoulders with abusive forces,” extending military aid to governments that use child soldiers — in Chad, Sudan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

From the North Korean gulags, where some 200,000 people are said to be held in appalling conditions, to the Congo, which tops the charts for impunity in crimes of rape (some 8,000 in six months), HRW details abuses round the globe.

They examine Colombia’s paramilitary, drug-backed terror groups, Russia’s “deeply negative” climate or oil-rich Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, particularly well insulated given their large oil reserves.

Saudi Arabia was accused of neglecting the rights of millions of women, foreign workers and Shiites, with Egypt practising “widespread discrimination” against its Christian and other religious minorities.

Meanwhile the United States, already guilty of racial discrimination, HRW said, set a dubious world record with 2,574 minors serving life sentences at the time the report was written.

Pascal Mallet (AFP) – Brussels

January 24, 2011

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