5.05.2007

The U.S. Record on Supporting Human Rights and Democracy 2006

The U.S. Department of State released the "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2006" report on April 5, 2007, in which the Department report on actions taken by the U.S. Government to encourage respect for human rights. This fifth annual submission complements the longstanding Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2006, and takes the next step, moving from highlighting abuses to publicizing the actions and programs the United States has employed to end those abuses.

Here are some excerpts on Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon from the Middle East report:


"The Lebanese people are determined to build a strong state: a state which can reclaim the position of Lebanon as a haven of moderation, where tolerance and enlightenment triumph over fanaticism, ignorance and oppression; where individual initiative and potential can be fulfilled; a state that rekindles the beacon of freedom and democracy in Lebanon where justice and the rule of law prevail."

--Fouad Siniora, Prime Minister of Lebanon


Egypt

The Arab Republic of Egypt has been governed by the National Democratic Party since 1978. In September 2005, President Hosni Mubarak won a fifth 6-year term, with 88 percent of the vote, in the country's first multi-party presidential election, a landmark event that was otherwise marred by low voter turnout and charges of fraud. The government’s respect for human rights and the overall human rights situation remained poor. Significant human rights problems included limitations on citizens’ ability to change the government and broad use of a decades-old Emergency Law, including the use of emergency courts and indefinite administrative detentions. Human rights organizations and independent observers questioned the government's commitment to protecting and expanding human rights as a result of several events, including the imprisonment of an opposition leader, Ayman Nour; persistent and credible reports of abuse and torture at police stations and in prisons; and police violence against protestors, including during May demonstrations in support of judicial independence. The government remained publicly committed to a program of political reform, but did not make significant progress during the year. Human rights groups and other independent observers criticized new laws restricting the press and the judiciary. A culture of impunity discouraged prosecution of security personnel who committed human rights abuses. There were arbitrary and sometimes mass arrests and detentions, poor prison conditions, executive influence over the judiciary, restrictions on religious freedom, corruption, a lack of transparency, and societal discrimination against women and religious minorities, including Christians and Baha’is.

The U.S. human rights and democracy strategy addressed human rights problems and supported efforts to build a more robust civil society, promote the rule of law, and encourage the growth of democratic institutions, including an independent media. On February 21 in Cairo, the secretary of state reiterated the U.S. position that "Egypt, which has so often led this region in times of decision, needed to be an important voice in leading this region again as it faces questions of democracy and reform." While noting positive changes in 2005 and "a president who has sought the consent of the governed," the secretary further remarked that, "There have been disappointments and setbacks as well, and we have talked candidly about those because the United States comes to discuss these issues as a friend, not as a judge...But this is a country of greatness and this region needs this country to be at the center of positive change." On May 21 in Sharm El Sheikh, the deputy secretary of state said the United States urged the government to "follow through" on its political reform plans and reiterated U.S. concerns about the conviction and imprisonment of opposition politician Ayman Nour in December 2005. He criticized the government’s use of security forces against the political opposition but also urged opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to make clear their commitment to following a democratic process and to nonviolent solutions. Other senior U.S. officials urged the government throughout the year to lift the Emergency Law and implement other critical political reforms. In official exchanges, senior officials raised U.S. concerns about civil society development, political participation (including electoral reform), and basic political rights, including the imprisonment of opposition leader Ayman Nour.

The United States promoted a democratic, open, and participatory political process through diplomacy and technical assistance. U.S. programs focused on promoting greater participation, accountability, and transparency for Egypt's elections. U.S. democracy programs supported international and local NGOs working to improve Egypt's electoral processes. Major U.S. nongovernmental democracy institutes continued their programs for the first six months of the year, assessing assistance needs of political parties, facilitating discussions on electoral administration, and assisting in the development of an alternative election law. In June, the government ordered the suspension of these activities—on the grounds that they had not yet received legal status in Egypt. As a result these groups were unable to continue their work in support of electoral reform and political party strengthening. With U.S. support, local NGOs worked to sustain the engagement of election monitors trained in 2005 by using them to document inaccuracies in voter registers and to advocate for an effective voter registration system.

The United States promoted freedom of speech and of the press. Local media, opposition figures, and civil society were able to voice strong public criticism of the government and its policies. However, these freedoms were challenged during the year by several defamation lawsuits against outspoken independent journalists, as well as the passage of a new press law, which allows for imprisonment of journalists who "vilify" heads of state and for levying harsh penalties against journalists and bloggers whose writings are judged by the government to have spread false news or disturbed public order. The United States continued its efforts to promote greater independence and professionalism in the media and to assist Egyptian television, radio, print, and electronic media to improve professionalism, sustainability, and diversity. Several grants to local NGOs complemented these activities by documenting and countering instances of intolerance and hate speech in the print media, providing legal support to journalists, supporting freedom of expression, and using the media to promote civic participation.

To strengthen civil society, the United States supported local organizations working on human rights, religious tolerance, and women's and children's issues. Several dozen small grants supported local, grassroots initiatives, including training for youth activists, support for both model parliamentary workshops and a model U.S. Congress program at Cairo University, legal systems training and exchanges for lawyers and judges, civic education summer camps, and programs focused on women's and children's rights. The International Visitors Leadership Program supported exchanges on civil society, as well as human rights, good governance, the media, elections, and women's rights. Other grants supported advocacy by domestic NGOs in support of judicial independence and anti-corruption. The United States provided two grants to the NGO Support Center to build the capacity of local democracy NGOs in proposal development and project implementation and to promote business social responsibility and collaboration between NGOs and the business community at the community level.

The United States supported lawyers and civil society advocates to improve the legal and political environment for civil society and facilitate NGO registration. Other significant grants promoted the efforts of NGOs to increase citizen awareness and political participation throughout Egypt. These programs focused particularly on women and youth. They helped citizens seek accountability from elected and appointed government officials at the national and local levels.

U.S. programs continued to support nationwide reform of the judicial system, with a pilot program streamlining court procedures and enhancing judicial transparency. The bilateral assistance agreement also initiated a program to provide more effective counsel to criminal defendants and improve administration of criminal justice through development of a public defense system and a human rights curriculum for prosecutors and judges as well as automation of selected areas of the prosecutor general’s office. Under an ongoing criminal justice project with the prosecutor general's office, Egyptian judges and prosecutors visited the United States to study best practices and network with U.S. federal judges. The United States expanded its involvement in the rule of law by initiating a program to build the capacity of the Council of State, which oversees the Administrative Courts. The program will strengthen the competency of State Council members and administrative officers in several legal areas and share international experience in comparable areas of administrative justice.

In support of an Egyptian government initiative, the United States provided support for improved public accountability, in order to improve the quality, transparency, and scope of dissemination of government budgets; strengthen the government’s capacity to promote public accountability and transparency; increase public understanding and exposure to transparent budgets; and improve public awareness and understanding of corruption.

The United States funded a number of human rights initiatives, including reaching an agreement with the National Council for Human Rights to undertake a media campaign to build a culture of human rights. With U.S. support, two other councils will strengthen legislation and regulations that protect the rights of women and children. U.S.-funded civil society organizations responded to acts of violence against women and children. Local NGOs produced human rights books for children and integrated human rights education into university programs.

The United States promoted religious freedom for all and raised specific concerns about the issue of the government requiring notation of religious affiliation on national identity cards, a practice that discriminates against citizens who wish to convert away from Islam and members of religions not recognized by the Government. U.S. officials also raised concerns about discrimination against the country's Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities. U.S. officials maintained excellent relations with representatives of the country's various religious communities.

There were reports that Egypt was used as a transit country into Israel for women trafficked for sexual exploitation. The Embassy also worked to support media attention to the issue of trafficking in persons.


Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic, constitutional republic dominated by Shi'a religious leaders. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dominates the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, directly controls the armed forces, and controls internal security forces. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a four-year term after a flawed election in 2005 and heads the executive branch. The unelected 12-member Guardian Council and parliamentary electoral committees screened candidates for the December 15 Assembly of Experts and Municipal Council elections respectively, disqualifying hundreds of reformist candidates as well as some hardliners. The election of a conservative and ideologically driven president in 2005, following the seating of a hardline conservative parliament in 2004, negatively impacted the human rights of Iranian citizens. Hardliners opposed to change closed down many reformist newspapers, and continued to pressure and intimidate the media and control the flow of information by other means as well.

During the past year, the government committed a number of serious human rights abuses. Summary executions, denial of fair trials, discrimination based on ethnicity and religion, harassment and arrest of journalists and bloggers, disappearances, extremist vigilantism, widespread use of torture, and other degrading treatment remained problems. The government continued to detain and torture dissidents and individuals exercising freedom of expression, including scores of political prisoners. Bloggers continued to endure arrest and stiff penalties for expressing their ideas on the Internet. There were also reports of executions based on charges of homosexuality, but details remained difficult to verify.

Although the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with Iran, it continued a multi-faceted effort to support the Iranian people's aspirations to live in a democratic country with an accountable, transparent government that respects the human rights of its citizens. For instance, the United States publicly condemned specific human rights abuses and funded programs to support the efforts of the Iranian people to promote democracy and the respect of human rights. The U.S. human rights and democracy strategy included urging friends and allies to condition improvement in bilateral and trade relations on positive changes in the country's human rights policies. Furthermore, the United States actively supported the UN and other international scrutiny and other resolutions condemning the government's human rights record and practices and publicly highlighted the government's abuse of its citizens' fundamental rights and freedoms. The United States also supported in various ways the continuing efforts of the Iranian people to broaden real political participation and reassert their right to fundamental freedoms.

For the fourth year in a row, the United States cosponsored and actively supported a resolution that passed in the UN General Assembly's 61st Plenary Committee condemning the human rights situation in the country. This sent an important signal to the people and their government that serious concerns regarding the government's overall behavior would not be overshadowed by other concerns regarding Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and support of terrorism.

The United States also regularly raised concerns about the government's poor human rights record in consultations with allies, urging them to raise these concerns during any formal human rights dialogue or other bilateral contact with the government. U.S. policy consistently called for the government to respect the human rights of its citizens, and public statements reflected this core issue. In the run-up to the December Assembly of Experts and Municipal Council elections, the United States issued a statement condemning the disqualification of hundreds of aspiring candidates on purely ideological grounds and the continued crackdown on media outlets. The statement expressed continued support for the Iranian people in their efforts to exercise their basic rights including the freedom of expression and participation in electoral competition. President Bush and senior U.S. officials repeatedly expressed support for the population in its quest for freedom, democracy, and a more transparent and accountable government. U.S. officials reached out to the Iranian people to convey the U.S. message and gave interviews to U.S. and European Persian language media highlighting the Iranian public's aspirations for increased respect for human rights and civil liberties and a more democratic and open government.

Under current law, the country is ineligible for most assistance from the U.S. Government. However, the United States continued to obligate funds for democracy and human rights promotion programs through an Iran-specific appropriation from Congress to promote democracy and human rights. These funds allowed the United States to initiate a wide range of democracy, human rights, educational, and cultural programs, as well as to significantly expand efforts to improve the free flow of information.

Under the limited special authority granted by Congress, the United States renewed a grant to document the abuses of citizens. This program provided subgrants to educational institutions, humanitarian groups, NGOs, and individuals to support the advancement of democracy and human rights. The project sought to raise public awareness of accountability and rule of law as an important component of democratization. This program produced and disseminated a case report illustrating chronic, systemic problems in law enforcement and justice systems. The report examined specific violations of Iranian and international law that occurred and identified numerous structural impediments to accountability for human rights violations, concluding that significant reform of the judicial system is needed to counter ongoing impunity for violators.

In addition to this program, other U.S.-funded programs promoted respect for human rights and advocacy for freedom of assembly, free speech, political participation, independent labor activities, and rule of law. During the past three years, the United States directed funds to projects that promoted respect for human rights, empowered citizens in their call for more representative political participation, and supported NGOs to conduct capacity-building training and to provide technical assistance to domestic NGOs.

In addition, the United States continued to support the advancement of democracy and human rights standards inside the country via Voice of America radio and television broadcasts, a Web site in Persian carrying stories promoting democracy and human rights issues, and Persian-language Radio Farda, which operated 24 hours a day.

U.S. officials regularly met with individuals and members of various groups suffering human rights abuses, documenting incidents for dissemination to other governments and for inclusion in the annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices and the Report on International Religious Freedom. The secretary of state also redesignated Iran as a Country of Particular Concern for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. At the end of the year, a U.S.-funded program documenting abuses inside the country sent to publication a report on the persecution of the Baha'is, exploring how Baha'i religious practice has effectively been criminalized. The report found rising levels of persecution since the 2005 election of President Ahmadinejad and resurgence of other conservative political figures.

Iran was believed to be a source, transit, and destination country for commercial sexual exploitation and labor-related trafficking in persons. Although lack of access prohibited a full assessment of official anti-trafficking efforts, the government took measures to sign memoranda of understanding with source countries and international NGOs to prevent human trafficking. Victims of trafficking in the country reportedly have access to counseling, legal, and health services; however, victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation were vulnerable to arrest, prosecution and sometimes execution for prostitution and adultery. The United States encouraged the government to improve screening of trafficking victims to distinguish them from illegal immigrants and to pursue cooperation with neighboring countries to monitor borders.


Lebanon

Lebanon is a parliamentary republic in which the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the chamber of deputies a Shi'a Muslim. In 2005, the country made significant progress with respect to human rights under a democratically elected parliament and a reform-oriented government. With the end of the Syrian occupation, press and media self-censorship decreased, and government attempts to restrict freedom of assembly during mass demonstrations dissipated. On July 12, Hizballah killed three and abducted two Israeli Defense Force soldiers during a cross-border attack from southern Lebanon, resulting in a conflict that lasted until August 14. According to the UN, Israel's air and ground operations in Lebanon killed 1,191 persons and injured 4,409 persons. Approximately 900,000 Lebanese were internally displaced, and sectarian tensions were heightened. Following the conflict, political tensions between the democratically-elected government and the antigovernment opposition, led by Hizballah, rose significantly. Sectarian demonstrations further increased tensions, particularly after the November 23 assassination of Maronite leader Pierre Gemayel.

There are still areas in the government's human rights record that require improvement to meet international standards, specifically poor prison conditions; insufficient legal protections for certain segments of society, particularly the poor; migrant workers and child laborers; and lack of judicial independence, especially when dealing with politically sensitive cases. During the year, before the conflict broke out, the government took significant steps to increase freedom of assembly and association at mass demonstrations and by facilitating the formation of new political associations and parties. The government also took concrete measures to prevent unauthorized eavesdropping on private citizens.

The United States continued to help Lebanon rebuild as a sovereign and independent country founded on respect for human rights and democratic principles after decades of Syrian occupation and civil conflict. The United States worked with the government and international allies to support the goals outlined in UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 and worked with a coalition of international partners, known as the Core Group, to support Lebanese plans for economic, fiscal, and political transparency and reform.

Governance programs funded by the United States further enhanced the government's efforts to promote transparency and accountability, strengthened civil society, built greater independence of the judiciary, promoted respect for the rule of law, and supported the conduct of free and fair elections. U.S. diplomatic engagement also promoted freedom of the press, women's rights, and universal education.

U.S. assistance programs promoted the development of independent political parties with members from all religious groups represented in the country. The United States identified a diverse representation of young political leaders for local, regional, and U.S.-based training programs and seminars that included discussions of independent platform-based electoral politics. The United States also continued to support a municipal reform program that has been credited with successfully rebuilding essential local government foundations. This assistance focused on enhancing administrative and financial capabilities, expanding social services, encouraging public participation, and increasing accountability.

The domestic press is generally independent and free. In the wake of the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, journalists were emboldened to speak out, but some of the country's most courageous voices for democracy were killed. U.S. officials emphasized the importance of protections for freedoms of speech and press and noted the critical role of journalists in advancing democracy and human rights protections. The press benefited from a number of U.S.-funded programs to strengthen press freedom and independence of the media, which included training for the media and civil society in the role of the press and on the importance of free expression in promoting democracy and human rights.

Because the role of civil society continued to grow in the country, the United States expanded its support of local advocacy groups, NGOs promoting transparency in government, and civil society organizations. U.S. programs continued to support building effective civil society networks in isolated and underserved municipalities in the north and the eastern Bekaa valley. Numerous street demonstrations throughout the year emphasized the high value citizens place on freedom of assembly and their willingness to play a role in effecting changes in their government and society.

The law provides for equality among all citizens, but in practice, some aspects of the law and traditional customs continue to discriminate against women and other disadvantaged groups. The United States supported a wide range of programs to promote rule of law and improve legal rights without bias, as well as wider access to education and health care for women. With U.S. funding, an international NGO incorporated substantive and practical human rights within the legal education framework. The United States worked to protect the rights of persons with disabilities through grants that assisted persons with disabilities to earn a dignified wage. The United States continued to advocate on behalf of the refugees in the country and supported numerous unilateral programs in training and education. It remained the largest contributor to UN Relief and Works Agency and UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

To promote religious freedom, which is provided for under the Constitution, U.S. officials met regularly with religious leaders and members of the Council on Religious Understanding and facilitated an International Visitors Leadership Program, including an Islamic-Christian interfaith dialogue. The United States maintained contact with a variety of faith-based organizations and documented incidents for dissemination to other governments and inclusion in the annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

The United States continued to press the government to acknowledge trafficking in persons as a serious issue and take immediate steps to eliminate it. In March the United States sponsored an International Migration Organization training course for law enforcement officers and supervisors on the most advanced techniques for combating human trafficking activities. A U.S. program continued to fund a local NGO to protect trafficking victims, a first for the region. NGO officials interviewed victims with the support of social workers, as well as screened and referred trafficking cases to the country's judiciary so that abusive employers could be prosecuted. The United States continued its support of the only safe house in Beirut for victims under governmental protection.

U.S. officials met regularly with labor leaders to reiterate U.S. support for labor rights and for economic liberalization and reform. U.S. officials encouraged labor leaders to engage in dialogue with the private sector and government to promote reforms, and U.S.-funded programs provided the country's labor unions the opportunity to train with American unions on labor organization, labor law, and workers' rights.

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Some related articles by Nassim Yaziji:

- The Neo-Internationalism After 9/11 and Middle East Democratization

- The Struggle for the New Middle East

- Lebanon's Independence and Democracy

- The U.S. Syria Democracy Program

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Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

Nassim Yaziji's Articles

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