Rights Report Focuses on Plight of NGOs

The State Department's annual Human Rights report this year finds that many nations are impeding the work of non-governmental organizations. Amnesty International says the war on terrorism has cost the U.S. the moral high ground on human rights.

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The Bush administration talks of spreading democracy, but times are tough for the world's democracy promoters. The State Department's annual Human Rights Report says many countries have been tightening laws for nonprofit groups and cracking down on free speech on the Internet.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: For Russian human rights activist Oksana Chelysheva, the troubles began shortly after Ukraine's Orange Revolution, a popular uprising that overturned fraudulent elections in that former Soviet Republic. She says the Kremlin came to the conclusion that Western-funded, non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, could cause trouble.

Ms. OKSANA CHELYSHEVA (Russian Chechen Friendship Society): Programming analysts, they even claim that the only possible way for the West to destabilize the situation in Russia is to act through NGOs.

KELEMEN: Her nonprofit, the Russian Chechen Friendship Society, was forced to shut down last October. The State Department Human Rights Report uses that case as an example of what one official, Barry Lowenkron, described as a new trend.

Mr. BARRY LOWENKRON (Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor): I call 2006 the year of the pushback. A disturbing number of countries passed or selectively applied laws and regulations against NGOs and the media. Examples include Russia's restrictive new NGO law and Internet restrictions in China.

KELEMEN: Lowenkron, who is the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, met with Chelysheva when she was in town last week. A group of dissidents from Belarus also stopped by his office.

Mr. LOWENKRON: There is nothing good to say about the regime in Belarus except the fact that civil society is still trying.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has vowed to be a defender of the defenders of human rights. Oksana Chelysheva says she has noticed a change in attitude on the part of U.S. officials, who didn't just take notes and listen to her on her latest trip.

Ms. CHELYSHEVA: I assured many of high-ranking U.S. officials, assuring me that they will provide us with all possible kind of supports.

KELEMEN: Amnesty International says that while the State Department's report does recognize the plight of human rights defenders around the world, the U.S. may not be able to help as much as it used to. Larry Cox, the executive director for Amnesty International USA, says U.S. policies and the war on terrorism have undercut America's ability to stand up to repressive governments.

Mr. LARRY COX (Executive Director, Amnesty International USA): The United States is not responsible for the repression in Russia or for that matter for the torture in Egypt. I mean, these countries have been violating human rights for a long time. But our ability to take the moral high ground and shame those governments has just been severely undermined.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice made a point in her remarks yesterday to respond to such criticism.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): We do not issue these reports because we think ourselves perfect, but rather because we know ourselves to be deeply imperfect, like all human beings and the endeavors that they make. Our democratic system of governance is accountable, but it is not infallible.

Mr. COX: It's not clear to the rest of the world, it's not clear to groups like my own - just how accountable we are.

KELEMEN: Again, Larry Cox, who read the State Department's report with a particularly critical eye on the section for Iraq.

Mr. COX: The section on Iraq doesn't give any information about human rights abuses against Iraqis that have been carried out by U.S. personnel. It doesn't talk about what's going on now and what has gone on for a long time in the detention centers.

KELEMEN: But the report was more openly critical of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government and the Shiite death squads linked to it. It also said Sunni Arab groups were responsible for much of the violence. The report said Afghanistan's performance in 2006 remained poor, and it describes the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan as the most sobering reality of the last year.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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