Khalil Hamra  /  AP
Protesters chant slogans at a rally honoring those killed in clashes with security forces in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, nearly a year after the 18-day uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Activists are now trying to energize the public to demand that the ruling military step down. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
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updated 1/22/2012 12:44:30 PM ET 2012-01-22T17:44:30

Popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world exposed biases by Western governments that supported Arab autocratic rulers for the sake of "stability" while turning a blind eye to their repressive policies, Human Rights Watch said Sunday.

In its World Report 2012, The New-York based group urged democratic governments to adopt persistent and consistent support for peaceful protesters and to press both autocratic rulers and newly emerging democracies to avoid intolerance and seeking revenge.

"The events of the past year show that the forced silence of people living under autocrats should never have been mistaken for popular complacency," HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth said. "It is time to end the 'Arab exception.'"

The Arab Spring revolts began in Tunisia in late 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, deposing or challenging authoritarian rulers as citizens who long seemed incapable or unwilling to rise against decades of repression took to the streets in a stunning awakening.

In some ways, the unexpected uprisings amounted to a slap to the United States and other Western governments, which had supported autocratic regimes that served as bulwarks against Islamists hostile to the West and appeared to offer stability in a volatile region.

Western governments also have been accused of being selective in supporting the protesters, with NATO airstrikes proving key to the ouster of slain Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Meanwhile, the West has stood largely on the sidelines amid continued crackdowns in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

"The people driving the Arab Spring deserve strong international support to realize their rights and to build genuine democracies," Roth said in the group's annual report, which covers some 90 countries. He added that the Arab world is in a "transformative moment," and it will not be an easy one.

Human Rights Watch pointed to five main issues that dominated the relationship between Western governments and their Arab autocratic friends: the threat of political Islam, the fight against terrorism, support for Israel, protection of the oil flow and cooperation in stemming immigration.

Even after the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were toppled, Western governments remained hesitant to lean too hard on other shaky authoritarian leaders, the group said.

As an example, the watchdog group singled out the United States, saying it has been reluctant to "press Egypt's ruling military council to subject itself to elected civilian rule," nearly a year after the country's longtime leader was ousted following an 18-day uprising.

Roth acknowledged Western governments were re-evaluating their policies as new governments emerge in the region, but said changes have been selective.

"The West has not put Bahrain under pressure, and other monarchs, to carry out reforms," he told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the report's release in Cairo.

The organization also blamed the Western hesitation in part on the ascendence of political Islam in most of the countries that witnessed the fall of their autocratic rulers like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

HRW urged the West to recognize that Islamists are the "majority preference," while keeping pressure on the emerging new governments to respect human rights, especially regarding women and religious minorities.

Roth was cautious when asked about concerns about potential human rights violations under Islamist rule, particularly in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis won a majority of seats in the first post-Hosni Mubarak parliament.

He said the Muslim Brotherhood has been "saying the right things" but "we have to see how they govern and how they deal with women, religious minorities. These are the big questions."

The popular uprisings also have alarmed other repressive regimes such as China, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, where rulers were worried about facing similar fates. The group said China and Russia in particular acted "obstructionist," using their veto power at the U.N. security council to halt pressure on Syria to stop killings of protesters.

Saudi Arabia also continues to discriminate against its citizens and workers, according to HRW, which said 9 million women, 8 million foreign workers and 2 million Shiite citizens are either suppressed or lacking rights in the country.

"As we mark the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, we should stand firmly for the rights and aspirations of the individual over the spoils of the tyrant," Roth said.

Outside the Arab world, the last year has not witnessed significant progress in countries with poor human rights records, including China and North Korea, according to the report.

Corruption, poverty and repression still prevail in Equatorial Guinea, the tiny, oil-rich nation off the western coast of Africa, which has been ruled by Africa's longest-serving ruler Teodoro Obiang Nguema since he seized power in a 1979 coup, the group said.

Eritrea continues to be governed by "one of the world's most repressive governments," and its citizens are subjected to torture, detentions, restrictions on freedom of speech, HRW said.

It also cited Colombia, saying armed conflict in the South American country has displaced millions while paramilitary groups with ties to the security apparatus are on the rise.

Cuba, HRW said, remains "the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent."

The group also claimed that even member states of the European Union have violated human rights through restrictive asylum and migration policies.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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