Wars pose biggest threat to human rights, U.S. says

February 02, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Less than three years after the end of the Cold War, armed conflicts let loose a wave of inhumanity in many nations last year, producing widespread civilian deaths and refugee flows, tortures, summary executions and rapes, the State Department reported yesterday.

"Armed conflict posed the most significant risk to human rights," the department's 1994 human rights report concluded -- the worst of those being the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina for its sheer brutality and resistance to a peaceful settlement.

The report thus highlights one of the problems the Clinton administration faces in making democracy and human rights abroad a top priority: the inability to control civil war and regional conflicts and the immense human toll that flows from them.

These small wars overwhelm steps toward reconciliation, progress toward democracy and the awareness of human rights that the Clinton administration and the United Nations have tried to promote. The armed conflicts also have tended to overshadow the repression committed by authoritarian governments.

Since it was first produced under a congressional mandate in 1977, the report has evolved into what is recognized as one of most thoroughly researched and objective descriptions of the condition of the world's people.

The latest report pays more attention than before to "rampant discrimination against women," including the genital mutilation of many African women, sexual and physical violence against female prisoners in Pakistan, the selling of women and girls into prostitution on several continents and the disproportionate abortions of female fetuses in China. Fundamental freedoms are denied to women worldwide, it says.

The most appalling conflict is the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the rape and abuse of women are just one weapon in the civil and ethnic strife.

Serbs, with help from paramilitary forces from the rump Yugoslavia, "persisted in their program of 'ethnic cleansing,' " laying siege to cities, shelling civilian inhabitants, raping and executing noncombatants and interfering with humanitarian aid deliveries, the report says.

Bosnian Croats blockaded the town of Mostar "and brutalized, confined and raped its Muslim residents in an assault containing some of the most extreme human rights abuses in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993," the report says.

The Muslim-led government forces, for their part, "perpetrated a number of abuses and atrocities in 1993, for the most part against the Bosnian Croats," the report says.

Other countries where a harsh spotlight and world efforts failed to bring peace included Somalia.

In Haiti, the focus of world attention since a coup toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, suffering last year included killings by security forces and their allies.

Among the former Soviet republics torn apart was Georgia, where a civil war produced bloodshed and reports of torture. Human rights abuses abounded in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, including the killing of civilians and hostage-taking.

Far from U.S. public view, African conflicts raged with equal or greater ferocity. The assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi "initiated a vicious cycle of ethnic killings and led to a massive outflow of refugees," displacing 1.1 million people and sending hundreds of thousands to face life-threatening conditions elsewhere.

In Zaire, President Mobuto Sese Seko's quelling of political unrest has led to that country's "worst human rights crisis since the end of the civil war in the early 1960s," the report says.

China, the focus of the most consistent U.S. attention for almost a year, has taken "some positive steps," but its rights record for 1993 "fell far short of internationally accepted norms as it continued to repress domestic critics and failed to control abuses by its security forces." These forces engage in torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions, the report says.

Last May, President Clinton renewed China's most-favored-nation terms for a year but linked subsequent renewals to significant progress in specific human-rights areas.

In the Middle East, the overriding objectives of Arab-Israeli peace and the containment of Iraq and Iran make the administration reluctant to publicly confront repressive regimes in Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states and Egypt's harsh crackdown on Muslim extremism.

Human rights were "pervasively abused" in Saudi Arabia, according to the report, citing the torture of prisoners, prohibition of freedoms of speech and religion, and discrimination against women.

In the Israeli-occupied territories, the object of a major peace breakthrough last year, the number of killings by Israeli undercover units was reported to have dropped to 27 from 45 in 1992.

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