The U.S. State Department offered candid assessments of the human rights records of nations across the world on Monday in what is perhaps the bluntest document that comes out of the U.S. bastion of diplomacy each year.
At a press conference to mark the release of the State Department report, Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Kozak said the annual look at 196 countries around the world is not intended to "pass judgment" on the countries but rather to provide U.S. policymakers with the "information" they need to make "decent judgments."
But Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky went further in the press briefing, suggesting that human rights and democracy records of countries form the bedrock of U.S. policy toward them. She noted, "These reports put dictators and corrupt officials on notice that they are being watched by the civilized world and that there are consequences for their actions."
U.S. stands with opponents of tyranny
The State Department report reiterated President Bush’s stated goal of promoting democracy, as well as American unity with nations oppressed by tyranny.
"The United States will work globally to promote democracy, as democracy is the best guarantor of human rights," said Dobriansky, reiterating the president’s policy.
State Department officials also noted that democracy cannot be "imposed" from the outside, but rather that the United States supports with those active inside tyrannies who stand for democracy.
The report, as well as comments by State Department officials, noted democratic progress in a number of countries, including Ukraine, Georgia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority.
Undersecretary Dobriansky noted the recent orange revolution in Ukraine, the purple revolution in Iraq (so-called because of the ink-stained fingers of voters), and said that in Lebanon, "we see a growing momentum for a “cedar revolution.”
More work needed in Middle East
Despite some recent successes, the State Department report noted a continuing need for nations of the Middle East to become more a part of the mainstream and comply with democratic norms.
"If freedom and democracy work in Muslim nations like Indonesia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq, why should they not be the norm in Iran, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia? " Dobriansky said.
There was a very blunt assessment of Saudi Arabia’s tentative moves toward democracy with recent elections and criticism of the exclusion of women from the vote.
"It was good that they had municipal elections. It's not good that women were excluded. It's not good that even though parts of the municipal councils were elected, other parts are appointed still. So that's maybe a partial step forward,” said Kozak.
Kozak also noted that Saudi Arabia, cited last year as a "country of particular concern" in the annual U.S. report on religious freedom, could be sanctioned for the lack of religious freedom allowed in the kingdom.
Israel and the occupied territories were also cited in the report for questionable circumstance surrounding many the deaths of over 800 Palestinians on 2004.
Unexpected progress in Egypt
The Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s announcement on Saturday of forthcoming multi-candidate presidential elections was welcomed at the State Department as a "positive sign."
However, as the details of Mubarak's plan remain unclear, Kozak cautioned that it may be too soon to say whether it is the "breakthrough" for which Washington has been pushing.
A senior State Department official told NBC News that the U.S. knew Egypt was considering this democratic move, but that they did not know Mubarak would make an announcement this past weekend.
In addition, while discussing Egypt's announcement, Kozak called on Egypt to allow Ayman Nour and other opposition figures to take part in any elections. "Letting opponents participate, not putting them in jail, would be a first good step," he said.
The report detailed problems among many of the usual suspects when human rights abuses are discussed — North Korea, China and Cuba — as well as recent problems in Sudan and the apparent backsliding of democracy and freedom in Russia.
The report was critical of North Korea's repressive regime, noting that, "An estimated 150,000-200,000 persons are believed to be political prisoners in detention camps in remote areas, and defectors report that many prisoners have died from torture, starvation, disease, exposure, or a combination of causes."
China’s progress on human rights during 2004 was also called out as “disappointing.”
In addition, the report slammed Belarus, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Iran, but lauded political progress in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Iraq.
Iran is still considered, "out of phase with what's going on in the rest of the world," according to Kozak. "Iran's got a real problem. If it wants to become a respected member of the family of nations, it's not doing the things that get you there."
U.S. problems acknowledged
While the report does not cover questionable American practices because of the argument that a U.S. report on the United States would suffer for a lack of credibility, events at Abu Ghraib were acknowledged as “a stain on the honor of the US,” by Kozak.
However, the State Department noted that the real question is not whether human rights abuses have taken place somewhere, but what the country is doing to prevent them from happening in the future and to hold people accountable.
"The president's been very clear on the issue of torture, which is we are against it, and by torture, by anyone's common-sense definition of it, not some fancy definition," Kozak told reporters in response to questions about the criticized practice of rendering suspects to countries that permit torture.
Kozak added that under treaty obligations, the United States considers whether someone is likely to be tortured before sending him or her to a certain country, adding that is one of the key issues in the decisions on whether to send some Guantanamo Bay detainees back home.