Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
March 11, 2008
Respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is, as President Bush has said, “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Today, on every continent, men and women are working, often against great odds and at great risk, to secure the basic rights to live in dignity, to follow their conscience and speak their minds without fear, to choose those who would govern them and hold their leaders accountable, and to obtain equal justice under the law.
Increasingly, democracy is seen as the form of government capable of securing those rights and fundamental freedoms. No form of government is without flaws. Democracy is a system of government of, by, and for the people, based on the principle that human beings have the inherent right to shape their own future, but that they are flawed creatures and that therefore there must be built-in correctives. Our citizens claim a proud history of striving in every generation since our nation’s founding to bring our democratic practices closer to our cherished principles, even as we are seeking to confront the injustices and challenges of each new age.
As we publish these reports, the Department of State remains mindful of both international and domestic criticism of the United States’ human rights record. The U.S. government will continue to hear and reply forthrightly to concerns about our own practices, including the actions we have taken to defend our nation from the global threat of terrorism. Our laws, policies, and practices have evolved considerably in recent years, and we continue to strive to protect innocent civilians from attack while honoring our longstanding commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. As part of this effort, the United States submits reports to international bodies in accordance with its obligations under various human rights treaties to which it is a party.
We take all of our human rights commitments seriously and, in our good faith efforts to meet those commitments, we value the vital role played by civil society and independent media. We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community to be interference in our internal affairs, nor should other governments regard expressions about their performance as such. Indeed, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is the right and the responsibility of “every individual and every organ of society to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”
These congressionally mandated reports describe the performance in 2007 of other governments across the globe in putting into practice their international commitments on human rights. The reports will inform U.S. government policymaking and also may serve as a reference for other governments, intergovernmental institutions, non-governmental organizations, individuals, and the media. Each country report speaks for itself. Some cross-cutting observations can, however, be drawn from the reports regarding the advancement of human rights and democratic principles worldwide. The country-specific examples we provide below are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive.
In 2007, the countries that experienced serious regressions in human rights and democracy captured the headlines. Some countries scored significant advances despite formidable remaining challenges, but the vast majority struggled somewhere between making incremental progress and suffering setbacks. We cite the following in illustration:
The April inauguration in Mauritaniaof a president elected in polls deemed by the international community to be largely free and fair marked the country’s first successful transition to democracy in its 50 years of independence. These polls, coupled with the parliamentary elections in November 2006, created a tolerant environment in which participation in the political sphere was broad and increasingly inclusive. The new government led to improved focus on addressing human rights problems, particularly the vestiges of slavery, the unequal political and social status of Black Moors and Afro-Mauritanians, and the repatriation of Mauritanian refugees living in Senegal.
Ghana celebrated its 50th anniversary as an independent state in March 2007. The past 15 years have seen successive free and fair democratic elections, the emergence of a vibrant civil society, and a commitment to seek sustainable reforms through the responsible administration of its branches of government. Under the leadership of President Kufuor, who is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third term and who served until recently as African Union (AU) Chairman, Ghana also has taken an active role in promoting democracy and stability in other African countries.
As part of a broader reform process in Morocco, September parliamentary elections were transparent and accompanied by the increased influence of the Consultative Council on Human Rights. While observers noted problems in the campaign period and there were reports of vote-buying and other manipulation, the government published participation statistics and popular vote results by district within 48 hours, and all political parties accepted the final results as accurate. Some prison reforms, including access by NGOs, accompanied an overall public commitment to develop a culture of human rights. Human rights problems continued, however, such as restrictions on freedom of the press and reported abuses in the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara.
Haiti held three rounds of democratic elections in 2006, including electing a new president and parliament. In 2007, however, Haiti failed to hold the required Senate elections.
The interim government in Nepal twice postponed elections for a Constituent Assembly after the November 2006 peace agreement ended thedecade-long insurgency. While abuses by security forces did decrease significantly, members of the Maoists and the Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League, as well as other small, often ethnically-based armed groups, committed numerous grave human rights abuses and engaged in attacks against civilians, government officials, members of particular ethnic groups, each other, or the Maoists. Lacking political backing, police were often reluctant to intervene, particularly against the Maoists. The government took a positive step by appointing commissioners to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in September, but it did not release the whereabouts of approximately 700 disappeared persons identified in 2006 by the NHRC and the UN. Impunity for human rights violators, threats against the media, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy pretrial detention were serious problems.
In Georgia, the advance of human rights and democracy was uneven. The government’s human rights record improved in some areas during the year. The government opened the High School of Justice to train judges, and Parliament adopted legislation that prohibited communication between judges and parties about cases outside the courtroom and a Code of Ethics for Judges. Respect for freedoms of expression, press, and assembly, however, suffered during the fall political crisis, when police and protestors clashed and the government used excessive force to break up demonstrations, temporarily suspended operations at the most watched television station, as well as two others, and declared a temporary state of emergency. In the wake of the crisis, President Saakashvili resigned and called for early presidential elections.
Although Kyrgyzstan’sdemocracy andhuman rights record improved considerably in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 presidential elections, 2007 saw a continuation of conditions in 2006 characterized by government efforts to place restrictions on peaceful assembly, detention of organizers, and hurried changes to the constitution, electoral code, and government. While the government generally respected freedom of expression, pressure on independent media increased. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other Western election observers and independent local monitors reported serious, widespread violations in the October constitutional referendum, while nationwide parliamentary elections in December failed to meet international standards.
In Russia,centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, onerous NGO registration requirements, harassment of some NGOs, and media restrictions continued to erode the government’s accountability to its citizens. By directly owning media outlets, influencing the owners of major outlets, and harassing and intimidating journalists into practicing self-censorship, the government continued to weaken press freedom in Russia. Killings of journalists remained unresolved. The law on extremism was used to limit freedom of expression and association. The government severely restricted the ability of opposition political parties and individual candidates to participate in the political process. The December elections to the State Duma were marked by problems during the campaign period and on Election Day, which included abuse of administrative resources, media bias in favor of the United Russia party backed by President Putin, harassment of opposition parties, lack of equal opportunity for opposition in registering and conducting campaigns, and ballot fraud. International observers concluded that the elections were not fair and failed to meet standards for democratic elections. The human rights record remained poor in and around the Chechen Republic and worsened considerably in the Republic of Ingushetiya, where there was an increase in violence and abuses committed by security forces.
Despite President Musharraf’s stated commitment to democratic transition, Pakistan’s human rights situation deteriorated during much of 2007. After President Musharraf suspended the Chief Justice in March, lawyers and civil society responded with widespread protests in support of an independent judiciary, resulting in mass detentions. This prompted a protracted lawyers’ strike. In November, President Musharraf declared a state of emergency prior to the Supreme Court’s expected decision on whether or not he was eligible for re-election as President. During the state of emergency, President Musharraf suspended the constitution and dismissed and arrested eight members of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice, and 40 provincial High Court judges. Under emergency provisions, Pakistani authorities also arrested approximately 6,000 opposition political party workers, human rights advocates, lawyers, and judges. At the end of the year, there still were 11 suspended judges and three lawyers under house arrest, and media outlets were required to sign a code of conduct that prohibited criticism of the government in order to operate. On the positive side, President Musharraf resigned as Chief of Army Staff at the end of November, re-took the presidential oath of office as a civilian, and lifted the state of emergency in December. The leaders of the two major opposition political parties returned from abroad and parliamentary elections were scheduled. The elections later were postponed in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
The government of Bangladesh’s human rights record worsened, in part due to the state of emergency and postponement of elections. The Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, imposed by the government in January and effective throughout the year, suspended many rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of press, freedom of association, and the right to bail. The anti-corruption drive initiated by the government, while greeted with popular support, gave rise to concerns about due process. For most of the year the government banned political activities, although this policy was enforced unevenly. While there was a significant drop in the number of extrajudicial killings by security forces, these forces were accused of serious abuses, including custodial deaths, arbitrary arrest and detention, and harassment of journalists.
In Sri Lanka,the government’s respect for human rights continued to decline, as armed conflict created an increasing cycle of violence to which both sides of the conflict contributed. Credible reports cited unlawful killings by government agents, assassinations by unknown perpetrators, politically motivated killings and child soldier recruitment by paramilitary forces associated with the government, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, and numerous other serious abuses. Extrajudicial killings in the government-controlled Jaffna Peninsula sharply increased. There were numerous reports that the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups participated in armed attacks against civilians and practiced torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and extortion with impunity. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a recognized terrorist organization which maintained control of large sections of the north, continued to engage in attacks on civilians and in torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and other abuses.
In 2007, insecurity due to internal and/or cross-border conflict continued to threaten or thwart gains in human rights and democracy. By the same token, improvements in the security situation created conditions more conducive to progress in these areas.
The Colombian government’s steps to improve the human rights and security situation showed demonstrable results. The Justice and Peace Law process helped clarify more than 3,000 crimes and led to the exhumation of mass graves, facilitating the identification of more than a thousand remains. The Supreme Court and Prosecutor General’s investigations of links between politicians and paramilitary groups implicated a number of elected leaders, several of whom were in jail at year’s end. A Ministry of Defense directive resulted in the transfer of approximately 600 human rights cases from the military justice system to the civilian courts.
In Iraq, the constitution and law provide a framework for the free exercise of human rights, and many citizens contributed to efforts to help build institutions, both civil and security, to protect those rights. Nonetheless, sectarian, ethnic, and extremist violence, coupled with weak government performance in its ability to uphold the rule of law, resulted in widespread, severe human rights abuses and the creation of large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The year began with the war’s most deadly six-month period, followed by a steep reduction in civilian deaths in the second half of the year as a new strategy gained ground. Aided by new military efforts, violence declined as a ceasefire by some Shi’a militias took hold and local citizen watch groups countered extremists. During the year, government institutions were greatly stressed and faced difficulty in successfully responding to the challenges presented by widespread human rights abuses and attacks by Al Qaida in Iraq terrorists and extremist groups. Terrorist groups continued to attack civilians and security forces.
Despite important progress since the fall of the Taliban in 2001,Afghanistan’shuman rights record remained poor due to a deadly insurgency, weak governmental and traditionalinstitutions, corruption and drug trafficking, and the country’s two-and-a-half decades of conflict. While the government deepened its authority in provincial centers, the Taliban or factions operating outside government authority controlled some areas. During the year over 6,500 persons died as a result of the insurgency, including by suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and combat-related violence, a dramatic increase from last year. Abuses by national security forces continued, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, official impunity, and torture. However, the government worked to professionalize its army and police force. Increased oversight of police by internal and external monitors helped to prevent abuses, and human rights training became a regular element for police and army personnel.
Democracy and human rights progress inLebanon continued to face opposition in the form of a campaign of violence and assassination and foreign-backed efforts to prevent the functioning of the government. Militant groups continued efforts to terrorize public and political figures, including through a series of car bombings and assassinations during the year. The May to September Nahr al-Barid conflict between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam resulted in a death toll of 168 LAF soldiers and an estimated 42 civilians and the internal displacement of some 30,000 Palestinian refugees. The Lebanese opposition, backed by outside forces, continued to block the election of a president by refusing to allow parliament to convene. Nonetheless, the Lebanese Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, continued to work intensively to ensure the functioning of the government.
In Democratic Republic of the Congo,historic democratic presidential and legislative elections took place in 2006, concluding the transitional process launched in 2002, which ended the destructive civil war and regional conflict. Despite this landmark event, significant human rights problems remain. The government’s human rights record remained poor in 2007, press freedom declined, and official corruption remained endemic. Internal armed conflict continued in certain mineral-rich regions of the east, where security forces and armed groups acted with impunity throughout the year, committing numerous serious abuses, including unlawful killings of civilians, extreme sexual violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers, and harassment of UN human rights monitors. In November, however, the Congolese government reached agreement with the Rwandan government on an approach for dealing with remaining armed groups in eastern Congo, including the Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda.
With the assistance of the UN and the international community, order was restored in Timor-Leste following the violence of 2006, and the country successfully conducted two rounds of democratic elections: presidential voting in April and May and parliamentary elections in June. The government launched reforms, including a restructuring of the national police, but continued to rely heavily on external security forces not under its direct control. Although the judiciary made some progress toward reform, it remained heavily dependent on international personnel and assistance. Despite efforts to address the regional, personal, and political rivalries at the root of the country’s disorder, the ongoing presence at year’s end of armed renegades continued to pose a significant threat to Timor-Leste’s democratic development.
Great hope met the March signing of the Ouagadougou Political Agreement for Côte d’Ivoire brokered by Burkina Faso President Compaore. Ivoirian President Gbagbo and former rebel New Forces leader Guillaume Soro moved quickly to form a transitional government, but key aspects of the peace process – including disarming armed factions, reunifying the country, determining citizenship of persons lacking documentation, and preparing for elections to identify a new president – have proceeded slowly and sporadically in an atmosphere of weak political will.
In Uganda, security and human rights conditions have improved significantly since the military pushed the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) out of the northern part of the country in 2005 and began peace talks, brokered by the Government of Southern Sudan, in 2006. There were no reports of LRA attacks during 2007. Approximately 400,000 displaced Ugandans returned to or near their homes in 2006 and 2007, with more poised to do so if the ceasefire holds. Improved security in the north has virtually eliminated the practice known as “night commuting,” where children traveled from conflict areas or IDP camps each night to urban centers to avoid abduction by the LRA.
Countries in which power was concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers remained the world’s most systematic human rights violators.
The repressive North Koreanregime continued to control almost all aspects of citizens’ lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricting freedom of movement and workers’ rights. Reports of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and arbitrary detention, including of political prisoners, continued to emerge from the insular country. Some forcibly repatriated refugees were said to have undergone severe punishment and possibly torture. Reports of public executions also continued to emerge.
Burma’s abysmal human rights record continued to worsen. Throughout the year, the regime continued to commit extrajudicial killings and was responsible for disappearances, arbitrary and indefinite detentions, rape, and torture. In September, security forces killed at least 30 demonstrators and detained over 3,000 others during a brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, including monks and pro-democracy protesters. Despite promises of dialogue, the regime did not honor its commitment to begin a genuine discussion with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority groups. Defying calls from the UN Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the early release of all political prisoners, the regime continued to hold opposition leaders under incarceration, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who remained under house arrest.
The Iranian regime violated freedom of speech and assembly, intensifying its crackdown against dissidents, journalists, women’s rights activists, labor activists, and those who disagreed with it through arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, abductions, the use of excessive force, and the widespread denial of fair public trials. The regime continued to detain and abuse religious and ethnic minorities. Authorities used stoning as a method of execution and as a sentence for alleged adultery cases despite a government moratorium in 2002 banning the practice. The regime continued to support terrorist movements and violent extremists in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon and called for the destruction of a UN member state.
Syria’shuman rights record worsened this year, and the regime continued to commit serious abuses such as detaining an increasing number of activists, civil society organizers, and other regime critics. The regime sentenced to prison several high-profile members of the human rights community, including a number of leaders of the National Council for the Damascus Declaration in December. The regime continued to try some political prisoners in criminal courts. For example, in April and May, respectively, authorities convicted human rights activists Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo in criminal courts on charges of “weakening the national sentiment during the time of war.” The Syrian regime continues to support international terrorist groups and violent extremists, enabling their destabilizing activities and human rights abuses in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and elsewhere.
The year2007 was the worst year yet for human rights defenders in Zimbabwe. Despite recent efforts by regional leaders to resolve the ongoing crisis, the assault against human rights and democracy by the government significantly increased. The Mugabe regime accelerated its campaign to limit political opposition. Official corruption and impunity remained widespread. Security forces harassed, beat, and arbitrarily arrested opposition supporters and critics within human rights NGOs, the media, and organized labor, as well as ordinary citizens. Recent reporting from independent organizations operating in Zimbabwe cite over 8,000 instances of human rights abuse in 2007, including some 1,400 attacks against students alone and at least 1,600 cases of unlawful arrest and detention.Human rights groups reported that physical and psychological torture perpetrated by security agents and government supporters increased during the year. Victims reported beatings with whips and cables, suspension, and electric shock.
Cuba remained under totalitarian control under Acting President Raul Castro and Communist Party First Secretary Fidel Castro. The regime continued to deny citizens basic rights and democratic freedoms, including the right to change their government, the right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and the right of association. Although the estimated number of political prisoners decreased to 240 from the 283 reported the previous year, prison conditions remained harsh and life-threatening, and authorities beat, harassed, and made death threats against dissidents both inside and outside prison. Of the 75 peaceful activists, journalists, union organizers, and opposition figures arrested and convicted in 2003, 59 remained in prison. Government-directed mob attacks against high-profile dissidents decreased in number and intensity compared to previous years, but the rate of short-term arrests and detentions of ordinary citizens expressing dissent from the regime appeared to rise.
In Belarus,the authoritarian Lukashenko government restricted freedom of press, speech, assembly, association, and religion. Scores of activists and pro-democracy supporters were arrested and convicted on politically motivated charges. One of Lukashenko’s opponents in the 2006 presidential election, Alexander Kozulin, remained a political prisoner. In January, Lukashenko further consolidated his rule through local elections that failed to meet international standards. The United Nations General Assembly for the second year adopted a resolution condemning the human rights situation in Belarus and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and other individuals detained for exercising or promoting human rights.
Authoritarian President Karimov and the executive branch of government dominated Uzbekistan’s political life and exercised nearly complete control over the other branches. Security forces routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees under interrogation to obtain confessions or incriminating information, and there were several deaths in custody of prisoners who were allegedly members of organizations viewed by the regime as threatening. In November, the UN Committee Against Torture concluded that torture and abuse were systemic throughout the investigative process. The government sought to control completely all NGO and religious activity.
The Eritrean government’s human rights record remained poor. There were severe restrictions of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion, particularly for religious groups not approved by the government. Authorities continued to commit numerous serious abuses, including the abridgement of citizens’ rights to change their government through a democratic process; unlawful killing by security forces; torture and beating of prisoners, some resulting in death; arrest and torture of national service evaders, some of whom reportedly died of unknown causes while in detention; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; arrests of family members of national service evaders; executive interference in the judiciary; and the use of a special court system to limit due process.
Sudan’shuman rights record remained horrific, with continued reports of extrajudicial killings, torture, beatings, and rape by government security forces and their proxy militia in Darfur. Despite the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, violence increased in 2007, and the region sank further into chaos as the government continued aerial bombardment of villages, rebel groups splintered and stepped up attacks, and intertribal warfare intensified. Since 2003, at least 200,000 people are believed to have died from violence, hunger, and disease. The U.S. government called the conflict genocide and innocent civilians continued to suffer from its effects during the year. By year’s end, the protracted conflict had left more than two million people internally displaced and another 231,000 across the border in Chad, where they sought refuge. The government obstructed international efforts to deploy an AU-UN hybrid peacekeeping force there, and government security forces obstructed lifesaving humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian workers increasingly found themselves to be among the targets of the violence. According to the UN, 13 human rights workers were killed, 59 were assaulted, 61 were arrested and detained, and 147 were kidnapped during the year.
Some authoritarian countries that are undergoing economic reform have experienced rapid social change but have not undertaken democratic political reform and continue to deny their citizens basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.
For example, China’s overall human rights record remained poor in 2007. Controls were tightened on religious freedom in Tibetan areas and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the treatment of petitioners in Beijing worsened. The government also continued to monitor, harass, detain, arrest, and imprison activists, writers, journalists, and defense lawyers and their families, many of whom were seeking to exercise their rights under the law. Although the government pursued some important reforms, such as the Supreme People’s Court’s resumption of death penalty review power in cases handed down for immediate execution, efforts to reform or abolish the reeducation-through-labor system remained stalled. New temporary regulations improved overall reporting conditions for foreign journalists, but enforcement of these regulations was not consistent, hindering the work of some foreign journalists. The year 2007 saw increased efforts to control and censor the Internet, and the government tightened restrictions on freedom of speech and the domestic press. The government continued to monitor, harass, detain, arrest, and imprison journalists, Internet writers, and bloggers. NGOs reported 29 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents and Internet users remained in jail at year’s end. There was a 20 percent increase over 2006 in convictions of citizens under China’s overly broad state security law that is often used to silence government critics. In December, well-known human rights activist Hu Jia was arrested at his home and detained for suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” His wife and infant daughter were reportedly put under house arrest at the same time. NGOs, both local and international, faced intense scrutiny and restrictions.
Three essential and mutually reinforcing elements must be present for progress to be made and sustained in any democracy:
One: free and fair electoral processes. Democratic elections are milestones on a journey of democratization. They can help put a country on the path to reform, lay the groundwork for institutionalizing human rights protections and good governance, and open political space for civil society. But free and fair elections involve more than a clean casting and honest counting of ballots on Election Day. The run-up to the voting must allow for real competition by peaceful forces opposed to the government in power, and full respect for the basic rights of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. This means that political parties must be allowed to organize and put forth the vision they offer through a free press, rallies, and speeches.
Two: accountable, representative institutions of government under the rule of law. Beyond a free and fair elections process, democracies must have representative, accountable, transparent institutions of government, including political parties based on ideas, not just personalities or tribal or ethnic identification, and independent legislatures and judiciaries that can act to ensure that leaders who win elections democratically govern democratically once they are in office. The rule of law made by democratically elected representatives must replace cultures of corruption. Democracy can prove fragile in countries where institutions of government are weak or unchecked, corruption is rife, and reconciliation has not occurred among ethnic or tribal elements or between the long-disenfranchised and entrenched elites. Poor countries which adopt growth-promoting good governance policies and invest in their people are the most likely to use their development assistance wisely and reach their development goals, thus earning the trust and support of their citizens. A country with accountable, representative government that affords equal protection under the law is one in which violent extremists are less likely to thrive.
And three: vibrant, independent civil societies, including unfettered political parties, NGOs, and free media. An open, resilient civil society helps keep elections and those elected honest, democracy-building on track, and citizens contributing to the success of their countries.
In Venezuela, a democratically elected leader’s efforts to undermine democratic institutions and intimidate civil society met with vigorous resistance. President Chavez pursued efforts in 2007 designed to consolidate power in the executive branch and weaken democratic institutions, independent media, and civil society. He invoked the law permitting the suspension of telecommunication broadcasts, and in May the government refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, effectively forcing one of the few remaining independent networks with a national audience off the air. President Chavez also proposed changes to the constitution that would have extended the length of and eliminated limits on the number of presidential terms, sidelined other elected officials, given the president greater control over the economy, and limited foreign funding for domestic NGOs. Tens of thousands of citizens rallied in sometimes-violent public demonstrations both for and against the proposed revisions. Government supporters harassed and attempted to intimidate the opposition, especially students, firing into groups at rallies and injuring an unknown number of persons. Ultimately, in a December referendum, the proposed changes were rejected by a narrow margin, an outcome accepted by President Chavez.
In the aftermath of severely flawed elections in April, there were positive signs that Nigeria’s fragile democracy was not defeated by the widespread fraud and incidents of violence that marked the April polls for presidential, legislative, and state-level positions. In tribunals established to hear over 1,200 petitions contesting election results at all levels, the judiciary asserted its independence, leading to the nullification of a number of senatorial and gubernatorial election results. In response to strong pressure, the government created a committee to recommend reforms of the Independent National Electoral Commission, whose sluggish preparations significantly undermined the credibility of the polls. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission continued its work to investigate allegations of corruption at all levels of government, but the year-end reassignment of its chairman was widely perceived as a blow to the anticorruption effort.
In August, the interim government in Thailand held a referendum on a new constitution – an important benchmark in Thailand’s return to democracy following the 2006 coup. Parliamentary elections were held in December and were generally considered free and fair, despite allegations of vote buying, intimidation, and minor irregularities. Unofficial election results showed that the People’s Power Party (PPP) won a plurality of seats. The PPP’s leadership was closely affiliated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. At year’s end, the country’s biggest challenge remained consolidating its return to elected government and addressing the underlying causes of the coup by strengthening civilian control of the military; bolstering democratic institutions; demonstrating respect for freedom of speech and the press; making progress in investigations into human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and disappearances during counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics campaigns; and combating official corruption.
The violent aftermath of Kenya’s tightly contested presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections in December revealed fundamental weaknesses in Kenya’s democratic institutions, such as the concentration of power in the presidency and the recognized need for constitutional reform. Observers of the elections concluded that, while the voting and counting process generally met democratic standards, there were serious irregularities in the tallying of results. Mobs and police killed an unknown number of persons from various ethnic backgrounds, and tens of thousands were displaced in December in violence following the elections.
For civil society and the independent media, the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly are oxygen. Without these fundamental freedoms, democracy is deprived of its life’s breath. Regrettably in 2007, governments in every region abused their power and misused the law against NGOs, journalists, and other civil society activists.In addition totherestrictions on and/or repression of civil society and independent media mentioned previously in this introduction, we also cite in illustration the following:
In Egypt, opposition political activists, journalists, and NGOs continued to advocate for reform and criticize the government, despite the government’s attempts to thwart them. The government continued to hold former presidential candidate Ayman Nour as a political prisoner, charge journalists with libel, detain Internet bloggers, and significantly restrict freedom of association. In September, seven independent newspaper editors were convicted on charges ranging from misquoting the justice minister to defaming the president and senior officials of the ruling National Democratic Party. During the year, police detained some active Internet bloggers for periods of several days. In September, the government ordered the closure of the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, an NGO, for accepting funds from foreign donors without government approval; the organization had played a role in exposing several cases of torture by security personnel.
During the year, the scope for media freedom in Azerbaijan significantly deteriorated. Observers considered the conviction and imprisonment of eight journalists during the year, and that of one journalist remaining in prison from 2006, to be politically motivated. (Seven of these journalists were subsequently released in 2007. The other two remained in prison.) Another journalist whose arrest was considered politically motivated remained in pre-trial detention. Two newspapers that the government suspended in May remained closed at year’s end. The number of defamation suits threatening the financial viability of the print media increased. Journalists remained subject to harassment, threats, and acts of physical violence that appeared to be connected to their criticism of the government or specific public officials.
In Rwanda,press freedom declined as the government enforced overly broad and vaguely defined laws. There were increased instances in which the government harassed, convicted, fined, and intimidated independent journalists who expressed views that were deemed critical of the government on sensitive topics, or who were believed to have violated the law or journalistic standards monitored by a semi-independent media regulatory council. Numerous journalists practiced self-censorship.
In Vietnam, NGO activity remained limited because the government closely monitors organizations. Civil society was constrained by the government’s continued crackdown on dissent, which resulted in the arrest of a number of human rights and democracy activists and the disruption of nascent opposition organizations, causing several dissidents to flee the country. The government and Communist party-controlled mass organizations monopolized all print, broadcast, and electronic media and blocked a range of websites on international news and human rights. Some media organizations, however, increasingly pushed the limits of censorship.
In Tunisia, throughout the year the government continued to intimidate, harass, arrest, jail, and physically assault journalists, labor union leaders, and those working with NGOs. The government also continued to place restrictions on foreign funding to organizations not approved by the government. Writer and lawyer Mohammed Abbou, imprisoned in 2005 for posting articles on the Internet critical of President Ben Ali, was released, but he is not allowed to travel outside the country.
Opposition-oriented media outlets in Kazakhstan continued to face government harassment, including targeted tax and regulatory investigations, undue pressure on newspaper printing companies, and alleged blockage of web sites. In November, the government publicly committed to reform its election law with the assistance of the OSCE, liberalize political party registration requirements, and amend the media law, taking into account OSCE recommendations to reduce criminal liability for defamation in the media, and liberalize registration procedures for media outlets.
While the challenges remained formidable, 2007 saw concerted international efforts at the global and regional levels in support of human rights and democracy:
Country-specific resolutions passed by the United Nations General Assembly condemned the human rights situations in North Korea, Belarus, Iran, and Burma, and the obligation of governments to protect and nurture human rights and democratic freedoms remains one of the central issues within the Assembly’s Third Committee.
The Burmese regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations by monks and democracy supporters spurred a special session of the UN Human Rights Council, which otherwise was seriously flawed and counterproductive, andthe adoption in October by the UNSecurity Council of a Presidential Statement calling for the early release of all political prisoners, the “creation of the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all concerned parties and ethnic groups,” and “all necessary measures to address the political, economic, humanitarian, and human rights issues that are the concern of its people.”
The challenge of protecting and advancing human rights and democratic principles worldwide requires innovative approaches.
The UN Democracy Fund, proposed by President Bush in his speech to the General Assembly in 2004, continued to grow by leaps and bounds. By the end of 2007, the Fund totaled $36 million and projects were being identified for a second round of grant-making. The number of proposals submitted increased from 1,300 in 2006 to 1,800 in 2007. A priority was funding projects to support the efforts of NGOs in emerging democracies, such as that of Hungary’s International Center for Democratic Transition, and to support for civilian participation in the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative.
The fourth ministerial meeting of the worldwide Community of Democracies met in Bamako, Mali, in November and explored the interrelationship between democracy and development. Ministers decided to create a Permanent Secretariat and issued a Bamako Declaration, which highlighted the essential role of civil society in promoting democracy.
Organizations at the regional level also made strides in promoting human rights and strengthening their institutional capacities to implement human rights commitments more effectively.
TheOrganization of American States (OAS) launched a network of 100 democracy practitioners with expertise in the areas of legal, judicial, electoral, and citizen participation reform. This network will help the region’s elected governments respond to the challenges of democratic governance.
The AU continued to develop bodies and mechanisms to move forward its human rights and democracy agenda, including the adoption in January of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance. The Charter enshrines African governments’ commitments to political pluralism, free and fair elections, and the rule of law and good governance.
Inspired by the Community of Democracies, the OAS and the AU came together in July in Washington to create the OAS-AU Democracy Bridge. Via the Bridge, they will share best practices and lessons learned with a view to better implementing their respective democracy charters and strengthening democratic institutions in both regions.
At their November meeting in Singapore, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders approved a new charter that calls for creation of a human rights body and authorizes the ASEAN Foreign Ministers to determine the terms of reference for the body.
In the Broader Middle East and North Africa, non-governmental groups continued their activities related to the Forum for the Future, culminating in the Parallel Civil Society Forum in Sanaa, Yemen, in December. The gathering brought together more than 300 civil society leaders from across the region. The participants issued a report identifying benchmarks for reform and setting forth action plans for 2008 to address critical issues of freedom of expression and women’s political empowerment.
The OSCE, a regional pioneer in standard-setting and institution-building in the field of human rights and democracy,withstood unrelenting efforts by some participating states to diminish the integrity of election observation as carried out by its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. By deciding not to accept the Russian government’s heavily conditioned invitation to observe parliamentary elections in December, the OSCE defended the principle of unfettered, credible election observation by independent bodies.
The United States’ efforts to promote human rights and democratic freedoms around the world reflect the core values of the American people. They also advance our core interests. As President Bush has said: “Freedom is the non-negotiable right of every man, woman, and child, and the path to lasting peace in our world is liberty.”
We unite our values and our interests when we work in partnership with fellow democracies and human rights defenders to build democratic systems and expose abuses, to foster tolerance and protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and workers’ rights, to promote equal rights for women, and to stop the trafficking in human beings. Our values and our interests are never more in synchrony then when we support the development of vibrant, independent civil societies, work to ensure free and fair elections, and strengthen law-based democracies. Whenever human rights defenders are the targets of repression, our longstanding values and our long-term interests are best served when we show by word and deed our abiding solidarity with them.