21 January 2009


New U.S. President Barack Obama must retake leadership of the global agenda that has been hijacked by "spoiler" states like China, Egypt and Russia, and put human rights at the heart of it, said Human Rights Watch in issuing its annual world report. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) voiced a similar sentiment in a letter to Obama.

"The Obama administration must undo the enormous damage caused by the Bush administration and begin to restore the U.S. government's reputation and effectiveness as a human rights defender," said the report.

Human Rights Watch said the change must begin in Washington, with steps such as closing the Guantanamo Bay military detention centre, ending coercive interrogation of terrorism suspects and detention without trial, and seeking membership of the UN Human Rights Council.

"Changing U.S. policy on how to fight terrorism is an essential place to start," said the report. "It's not only wrong but ineffectual to commit abuses in the name of fighting terrorism or to excuse abuses by repressive governments simply because they're thought to be allies in countering terror."

Human Rights Watch said the "spoilers", governments opposing basic rights, such as Algeria, China, Egypt, Pakistan and Russia, had rushed to fill a vacuum left by controversial U.S. policies. These governments often "set the human rights agenda in international forums" and deflected international scrutiny away from their own or their allies' violations.

Democracies are also singled out, such as South Africa for failing to address the crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe, and India for not addressing repression in Burma out of political solidarity or economic interests.

The best way to successfully defend human rights is to lead by example, say Human Rights Watch and CPJ.

"Journalists in many countries who risk their lives and liberty upholding the values of free expression look to the United States for support," CPJ wrote to Obama in a letter dated 12 January. "To assert moral authority we must first put our own house in order."

CPJ focuses on how Obama can lead specifically in press freedom. CPJ urges Obama to end the U.S. military's practice of open-ended detention of journalists, and to investigate fully the deaths of journalists from U.S. forces' fire.

According to CPJ, the detention without trial of journalists has reduced the U.S.'s standing in the world and "may have contributed to the overall global increase in jailed journalists by emboldening the many tyrants who look for pretext or justification to throw critical journalists in jail." U.S. allies and close friends such as Azerbaijan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco and Pakistan are among the 10 countries where press freedom has most deteriorated, says CPJ.

Fourteen journalists have been held for prolonged periods of time without due process in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer working for Reuters who was detained on 2 September by U.S. forces in Baghdad, is still behind bars. The practice violates the U.S. military's own commitment to review journalist cases within 36 hours of detention, says CPJ.

CPJ is also hoping that the Obama administration will commit the military to fully investigate the killing of journalists at the hands of U.S. forces. According to CPJ, at least 16 journalists have died and others have been seriously wounded by U.S. forces' fire in Iraq since 2003. The handful of investigations that were carried out by the U.S. military authorities exonerated the soldiers involved in each case, says CPJ.

Read the letter here: http://tinyurl.com/9cqnyy
Human Rights Watch's "World Report 2009" documents ongoing human rights abuses by states and non-state armed groups in 90 countries, including attacks on civilians in conflicts, political repression, and violations by governments trying to curb terrorism, among others. Read the 564-page report here: http://tinyurl.com/7z7x53
Individual country reports will be uploaded to the IFEX website.

(21 January 2009)

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