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Friday, March 6, 2009

Human rights in recession


LONDON — "It's the economy, stupid!" declared Bill Clinton during his U.S. presidential election campaign. He was right then as well as now in emphasizing that economic issues are paramount with voters.

President George W. Bush thought that the war on terror overrode all other issues. After 9/11 this was the dominant factor in Western politics even if the term "war on terror" was inaccurate.

We need to beware of minds that fail to understand the dangers to our way of life other than recession and terrorism. There are real threats to human rights in the developed and developing worlds, and if we fail to confront these threats, we will jeopardize our own future.

President Barack Obama has rightly decided that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be shut and has banned the use of torture by U.S. agencies, but efforts are being made by his opponents, and by agencies that feel threatened by the exposure of their methods, to accuse the president of weakness in the defense of U.S. security.

Foreign governments and their agencies, which may have been involved in cases of "extraordinary rendition," have been doing their best to avoid being contaminated in the human rights scandals that tainted the regime of George W. Bush. It's not an attractive picture when governments plead national security as an excuse for a coverup. We also need to bear in mind that even in democratic countries the forces of law and order are sometimes guilty of infringing human rights (as in application of the death penalty).

Still, issues in democratic countries that still need addressing are much less serious than those in countries that cannot claim to be democratic. For example, freedoms are still not protected in China. Political dissidents are persecuted and imprisoned. In so-called autonomous regions, including Tibet, supporters of independence or real autonomy are victimized. Tibet is closed to journalists and most tourists. The situation in other regions colonized by Han Chinese settlers is not much better.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her recent visit to China, appears to have downplayed U.S. concerns about human rights because she wanted to concentrate on seeking Chinese cooperation in dealing with the economic crisis. This was unfortunate if understandable.

North Korea remains a threat to South Korea and to Japan. While the regime looks after its own henchmen, the population suffers. In negotiations over nuclear issues and other threats, including the fate of kidnapped Japanese nationals, the North Koreans behave with singular deceit.

In Southeast Asia abuses of human rights have been reported from Thailand to Indonesia, but the worst examples have surely occurred under the military administration in Burma (also known as Myanmar). The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been far too soft toward this odious regime, and the Japanese government's attitude strikes many observers as, at best, feeble.

The situation in parts of South Asia is unsatisfactory, particularly in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Pakistani Islamic extremists, especially in the North West frontier region, have caused a breakdown in law and order, leading to much ill-treatment and violence.

The Taliban in Afghanistan show a total disdain for human rights. In Iran democratic freedoms are restricted by the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs. It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi government can establish a regime that is acceptable to the Kurds and the Sunni minority as well as to the Shiite majority.

The rest of the Arab world varies greatly in its respect for human rights. In particular, the rights of women are severely restricted in many countries such as Saudi Arabia. Many regimes tolerate torture and restrict press freedom.

In Europe the biggest threats to human rights are in Russia and Central Asia. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, formerly of the Soviet secret police, has become increasingly autocratic and ruthless. He will not tolerate opposition and is determined to limit press freedom.

The biggest threat to human rights in Africa comes from the corruption that pervades almost every regime. In some such countries as Kenya and Nigeria, corruption has become endemic. In others, racial tensions have led to civil wars and genocide.

The situation in the Darfur region of Sudan, Rwanda and the Congo remains dire and appalling amid a continuing loss of life and freedom. Attempts by the United Nations to intervene have largely failed to the shame of the Security Council and member states.

Anarchy in Somalia has lasted for decades, with no respect for justice let alone other human rights. Pirates from Somalia have become a menace to shipping not merely in the Gulf of Aden but also off the east coast of Africa. The contagion has spread to the west coast where countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone still teeter on the brink of anarchy.

Central and South America, by comparison, may seem relatively well governed, but serious blots are soon apparent upon closer look. Cuba remains a one-party state with depressed living standards. Few foreigners would want to live in Haiti or Nicaragua. Autocratic leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela make life unpleasant for many people.

These are only a few examples of disrespect for human rights. The Japanese government could surely do more to uphold human rights especially in Asia. It can no longer plead that it is inappropriate for Japan to criticize other governments because of its own record on human rights up to 1945.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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