With US credibility undermined by the Bush administration's use of torture and detention without trial, the European Union must fill the leadership void on human rights, Human Rights Watch said in releasing its World Report 2007. Today marks five years since the United States first sent detainees to Guantanamo. The Bush administration has proven largely incapable of providing leadership on human rights, while China and Russia are embracing tyrants in their quest for resources and influence. But rather than assuming the leadership mantle, the European Union's approach is mired in procedures that emphasize internal unanimity and rotation over the effective projection of EU influence to protect human rights, said the 556-page volume's introductory essay.
"Since the US can't provide credible leadership on human rights, European countries must pick up the slack," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Instead, the European Union is punching well below its weight."
Human Rights Watch lamented the "lowest common denominator approach" to rights protection by EU member states, in which governments that favor accommodation drag down those seeking a tougher approach to serious rights abuses. Examples include the EU's backtracking on the sanctions it imposed following the May 2005 massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan and its weak response to the 2005 royal coup in Nepal. Similarly, while abusive governments banded together to block effective action at the United Nations' new Human Rights Council, the EU's ability to respond was crippled by its micromanaging approach and need for consensus.
The report identifies many human rights challenges in need of urgent attention. Iraq has degenerated into sectarian and political blood-letting, with civilians the principal victims. Ruthlessly repressive governments in North Korea, Burma, and Turkmenistan deprive their people of fundamental rights and dignity. Dictatorships persist in Saudi Arabia and Syria. China is moving backwards. Russia and Egypt are cracking down on non-governmental organizations. Iran and Ethiopia are silencing dissident voices. Robert Mugabe would rather drive Zimbabwe to ruin than tolerate political opposition. Civil war is reigniting in Sri Lanka and intensifying in Afghanistan and Somalia, while conflict continues in Colombia. Israel launched indiscriminate attacks in Lebanon and littered southern Lebanon with cluster bombs during its war with Hezbollah. For its part, Hezbollah attacked Israeli cities without distinguishing between military and civilian objectives.
No situation is more pressing than the bloody crisis in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said, with more than 200,000 dead, approximately 2 million displaced, and around 4 million dependent on international food relief. The conflict is now destabilizing Chad and the Central African Republic.
"Civilians in Darfur are under constant attack and the conflict is spilling across Sudan's borders, yet the five permanent members of the UN Security Council managed little more than to produce stacks of unimplemented resolutions," said Roth.
US abuses against detainees in the "war on terror" remain a major concern. In September, President George W Bush even defended torture - referring to it euphemistically as "an alternative set of [interrogation] procedures" - and secret CIA prisons. In October, the US Congress, acting at the behest of the Bush administration, denied Guantanamo detainees the possibility of challenging their detention in court via the hallowed right of habeas corpus. Human Rights Watch called on the United States to close the Guantanamo camp, noting that it is long past time to either bring to trial or set free the detainees who remain there.
"The new US Congress must act now to remedy the worst abuses of the Bush administration," Roth said. "Without firm and principled congressional action, the loss of US leadership on human rights will likely persist."
Human Rights Watch noted some positive developments coming out of the global South, including African leaders' support for the human rights trials of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and former Chadian President Hissène Habré, and Latin American support for the International Criminal Court. But it also urged southern democracies to do more to support human rights, such as by breaking with abusive regional leaders to play a more constructive role at the UN Human Rights Council.
"Because many new democracies of the global South have emerged from periods of extreme repression, whether colonialism, apartheid or dictatorship, they could have special moral authority on human rights," Roth said. "But few have shown the consistency and commitment to emerge as real human rights leaders."
Human Rights Watch's World Report 2007 contains survey information on human rights developments during 2006 in more than 75 countries. In addition to the introductory essay on the European Union, the volume contains essays on freedom of expression since 9/11, the plight of migrant domestic workers, and a human rights agenda for incoming UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.