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Democratic Trends in Mideast, Burma Headline Rights Report
April 22, 2013

Reforms in Burma led President Obama to visit the country and meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s champion for democracy.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
April 19, 2013

The difficulty of systemic transition in Middle East nations and measured progress toward democracy in Burma are the highlights of the 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, issued by the U.S. Department of State April 19.

“The hope of the early days of the Arab Awakening has run up against the harsh realities of incomplete and contested transitions,” according to the report’s introduction.

Citizens of the region demonstrated for dignity, education and self-determination in 2011, but many found continued resistance in 2012. Secretary of State John Kerry presented the report at a press briefing.

“The vision of so many who have fought and sacrificed across the region will never be realized if their human rights are denied or ignored,” Kerry said. He decried the “murder, mayhem and more bloodshed” that Bashar al-Assad has inflicted on the people of Syria and their two-year pursuit of greater human rights.

Burma’s “historic transition towards democracy” is one of the positive highlights for human rights in 2012. Kerry said the “calm courage” of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has helped bring Burma to this crossroads and will continue to do so in the future.

“After decades of confinement, not unlike Nelson Mandela,” Kerry said, “she has come out and been able to forgive, and to start working alongside her former captors to try to build a stronger and freer Burma.”

If Burma remains on this path, Kerry said, its people will discover what advocates of human rights understand to their bones — where human rights are strong, people have better lives. “Economies thrive, rule of law is stronger, governments are more effective and responsive,” Kerry said. “They are countries that lead on the world stage and project stability across their regions.”

Besides a country-by-country analysis of human rights activity in 199 nations, the 2012 report cites some trends that are gaining disturbing momentum. The findings reveal what is described as a “shrinking space for civil society activism.”

“2012 saw new laws impeding or preventing the exercise of freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, [and] heightened restriction on organizations receiving funding from abroad,” said Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, who appeared at the briefing with Kerry.

She also cited “the harassment, arrest and killing of political, human rights and labor activists.” Nations harm themselves, the report asserts, when they do not open themselves to a lively public dialogue. Discussion and dissent among diverse individuals in a free society brings new ideas and energies into a society.

Open and vibrant media are also an important pillar of a dynamic nation, and the 2012 report reveals disturbing trends in that regard as well.

“Record numbers of journalists were killed in the line of duty or as a consequence of their reporting,” Zeya said. She said some countries are manipulating their laws to incarcerate and stifle journalists, even while citizens are gaining access to technology tools and using new media for social discussion and the exchange of ideas.

The 2012 human rights report also criticized persistent social policies persecuting vulnerable groups, such as women and girls; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons; people with disabilities; and other minority groups. Legal migrant workers are another group that does not receive adequate protection under current laws in many nations, the report states.

While Kerry reviewed this annual presentation many times as a member of the U.S. Senate, the 2012 report is the first to be issued during his term as secretary of state. He called the compilation and release of the report a department activity that inspires great pride, demonstrating the nation’s commitment to fundamental values for all people and to the individuals still seeking those rights in some of the world’s darker corners.

The annual report on human rights is prepared by the State Department under a mandate from the U.S. Congress. The report, begun in the 1970s, is viewed as a national responsibility to highlight international human rights standards. Congress uses the report as a reference in shaping and funding foreign policy decisions.

The full text of 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices is available on the State Department website.