The U.S. State Department Wednesday issued its annual report on human rights practices world-wide, saying there were rights developments in 2003 ranging from dramatically uplifting to disappointing.
It cited "backsliding" in China's human rights record and said the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ended years of grave human rights violations by the Saddam Hussein government.
It was the 28th annual report issued since the State Department began the congressionally-mandated assessments and it included criticism of U.S. allies and adversaries alike.
Introducing the two-million-word document at a news briefing, Secretary of State Colin Powell said President Bush regards the defense of human rights as the United States' "special calling" and said the annual reports are a "vital instrument" in policy making.
Mr. Powell said the past year saw important strides for human rights and democratic freedoms in a number of countries including Iraq, where he said the United States and its allies unseated an "outlaw regime" that had flouted 12 years of UN Security Council resolutions, not the least of which were human rights measures:
Secretary Powell said,"Today Iraq no longer threatens international peace and security. Saddam Hussein's torture chambers have been put out of business. Mass graves no longer await his victims. And we are working intensively with our coalition partners and the United Nations to help the Iraqi people achieve a united stable country and move toward democracy and prosperity under a representative government that respects the rights of all its citizens."
Mr. Powell said that in 2003 an Afghanistan, freed from what he termed the "dual tyranny of the Taleban and the terrorists," established a new constitutional order that recognizes fundamental freedoms including the rights of women and minorities.
He said that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is working to insure that respect for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are built into international reconstruction efforts, and put into practice by the new leaderships there.
The report said the United States had hoped that China would have continued with what were termed "incremental" human rights advances in 2002.
But it instead accused the Chinese leadership of "backsliding" last year with arrests of democracy activists and Internet essayists, repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and a continuing crackdown on Muslim Uighurs in the name of fighting terrorism.
The State Department's top official for human rights, Assistant Secretary Lorne Craner, said China's failures make it likely the United States will sponsor a resolution criticizing Beijing at the meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission opening next month in Geneva:
Mr. Craner said,"We're heading in that direction. We are still talking to China. But we over the past year have not had much progress in our own dialogue, and that has come against a backdrop of continued arrests within China but now arrests of people taking advantage of the political and structural space that has been opened up in China this past couple of years."
The report called North Korea one of the world's "most inhumane regimes" where basic freedoms are unheard of. It said Burma's extremely poor human rights record worsened with the May, 2003 attack on a convoy of opposition National League for Democracy members that left its leader Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest and hundreds of other supporters wounded, raped or dead.
It also accused Burma of "egregious abuses" of ethnic minority civilians.
The report did not spare some close U.S. allies. It said despite some positive signs, Saudi Arabia's human rights record remained poor and there were credible reports of torture and abuse of detainees by Saudi security personnel.
It said Israeli security forces committed serious human rights abuses against Palestinian detainees and used excessive force in raids into Palestinian areas. But it also said members of Palestinian security services and members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement took part with terrorist factions in attacks on Israeli civilians inside Israel's pre-1967 borders and in West Bank and Gaza settlements.
Mr. Craner said the ultimate answer to those human rights problems is an Israel-Palestinian peace accord:
Mr. Craner said, "These are issues that we're always addressing. But clearly the majority of these issues are going to be solved when there is peace between a Palestinian state and Israel. And until you have that, the majority of these human rights violations on both sides, I should add, are going to continue."
The report spoke of a "dramatic worsening" of human rights abuses in Cuba underlined by the long prison terms handed down to 75 prominent rights activists.
The outlook was not entirely bleak, with the report highlighting democratization strides in Arab states including Qatar, Oman, Yemen and Jordan.
It also said some Central Asian governments, including the Kyrgyz Republic, were showing signs of recognizing the importance of human rights, though it said Turkmenistan intensified a harsh crackdown on political opponents.