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Watchdog: Nations getting away with murder

Amnesty International's annual report on the state of human rights says that despite important gains, 2009 was a year in which accountability and justice remained a remote ideal for many.
Image: A woman holds onto a Chinese policeman as a crowd of locals confront security forces along a street in the city of Urumqi
A woman holds onto a Chinese policeman as a crowd of locals confront security forces along a street in the city of Urumqi, in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Amnesty International cites China's bloody crackdown on the Uighur protests as an example of human rights abuses in 2009.David Gray / Reuters file
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From Iran’s repressive crackdown on anti-government demonstrators to China’s bloody suppression of minority Uighurs, millions of people’s lives across the world continued to be torn apart last year by repression, violence, discrimination and death, Amnesty International says.

The London-based watchdog activist organization’s annual report on the state of human rights in 2009 found a web of repression, as governments failed to prosecute rights violations worldwide.

The report, released Wednesday, says millions face abuse while their tormenters flout justice.

Amnesty International called on governments to ensure accountability for their own actions and fully sign up to the International Criminal Court — something the U.S., China, Russia and a host of other countries have refused to do — to ensure that crimes under international law can be prosecuted anywhere in the world.

"Governments must ensure that no one is above the law, and that everyone has access to justice for all human rights violations," said Claudio Cordone, interim secretary general of Amnesty International. "Until governments stop subordinating justice to political self-interest, freedom from fear and freedom from want will remain elusive for most of humanity.”

Of the 159 countries it looked at, Amnesty International said it found people were tortured or otherwise ill-treated in at least 111; unfair trials in at least 55; freedom of expression restricted in at least 96; and prisoners of conscience held in at least 48.

Signs of progress
But Amnesty International also saw some instances of progress.

In November, for example, Ignace Murwanashyaka, the leader of the Rwanda Hutu rebels, was arrested in Germany and charged with crimes against humanity in Congo. His forces are suspected of killing several hundred citizens, raping large numbers of women and plundering and burning several villages in 2008-09.

Also in 2009, a sitting head of state, President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan, was named in an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer of population, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (for the targeting of civilians).

And in Peru, former President Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of mass murder and kidnapping — a rare instance of a former head of state being found guilty in his own country on human rights charges.

But Amnesty International said accountability and justice seemed a remote ideal for many. It said states claiming global leadership have a particular responsibility to set an example, yet many members of the G-20 group of industrialized and developing countries are failing to keep the promises they have made.

Rights abuses
Among the examples of human rights violations cited in the report:

  • Between January and May 2009, some 300,000 Sri Lankans were trapped on a narrow strip of land between the retreating Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the advancing Sri Lankan military. The U.N. Security Council failed to intervene. At least 7,000 people — some have put the figure as high as 20,000 — were killed. By the end of the year, despite mounting evidence of war crimes and other abuses, no one had been brought to justice.
  • In July, violent riots followed a police crackdown on an initially peaceful protest by Uighurs in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, northwestern China. The Chinese government restricted access to information, arrested non-violent protesters, and set up quick, unfair trials, sentencing many to death and executing nine within months of the violence.
  • In the Middle East and North Africa, governments in states such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia remained highly intolerant of criticism. Iran saw mounting repression in response to protests following the disputed presidential election in June; thousands were arrested and dozens were killed.
  • In Myanmar the government continued to repress political dissent, with 2,100 political prisoners in detention. Among these, Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional 18 months under house arrest after an unfair trial.
  • In the Americas, countries such as Brazil, Jamaica, Colombia and Mexico were plagued by hundreds of unlawful killings by security forces.

The United States, which heralds itself as the defender of democracy, was not spared criticism.

The report noted the U.S. has excluded itself from the jurisdiction of the ICC, so it faces less external pressure to address its own abuses committed in the context of its war on terror.

"When President Barack Obama took office and ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, as well as the end of the secret detention program and the use of so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' the signs were promising,” Cordone wrote in a forward to the report. "However, by the end of 2009 the Guantanamo detentions were still ongoing and little progress had been made in holding anyone accountable for the violations there and in the other aspects of the US-led ‘war on terror.'"

Demand for accountability
The Amnesty International Report 2010argues that the demand for accountability is not confined to punishment for killing or torture, but extends to the denial of all the rights, such as health, education and housing, that people need to live our lives in dignity.

For example, Cordone noted, every year, more than half a million women die from pregnancy-related complications. Maternal mortality rates for women in countries such as Sierra Leone, Peru, Burkina Faso and Nicaragua are directly affected by human rights abuses, he said.

“While legal accountability for crimes under international law is more of a possibility today than ever before, events in 2009 confirmed that two formidable obstacles stand in the way,” Cordone wrote. “The first is the fact that powerful states continue to stand above the law, outside effective international scrutiny. The other is that powerful states manipulate the law, shielding their allies from scrutiny and pushing for accountability mainly when politically expedient.”