U.S. Department of State
Overview of Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
January 30, 1997
1996 HUMAN RIGHTS REPORTS
THE GLOBAL STRUCTURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Half a century ago the building of a global structure of human rights
protection was given special urgency by the unprecedented horrors of the
Holocaust, of World War II, and of modern totalitarianism. So it was that
the close of the war was followed by the Nuremberg Tribunals and the
adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This effort
has continued to the present day, and while it was given special impetus by
the tragic events of our century, its foundations lie deep in the moral
values of all humanity and the experience of oppressed people throughout
Throughout history, whenever fundamental human values have been
assaulted by governments and their leaders, the result has come at horrific
human and moral cost. That is what happened over the centuries, in every
part of the world, including North America. And that is what happened in
this century in the Armenian massacres, in the Nazi concentration camps, in
the Soviet Gulag, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in the apartheid
society of South Africa, in the killing fields of Cambodia, and more
recently in the acts of genocide carried out in the former Yugoslavia,
Rwanda, and Burundi. These and other massive human horrors, past and
present, are a standing affront to civilization and all it stands for.
The idea of universal human rights and the measures taken to bring those
ideas to life are the measure of these horrors and of the commitment of
modern civilization not to repeat them. The evolving legal and political
structure of human rights is a framework within which nations and
governments seek to honor this commitment. It is, of course, a work in
progress, and it is in many ways the most important work of governments and
A broad consensus has been, and is, steadily emerging against such
fundamental abuses of human beings as genocide, extrajudicial killings,
torture, enslavement, sexual violence, the forced separation of families,
the destruction of religion, and the suppression of thought and speech.
Even those who engage in these practices rarely seek to justify their
Contemporary disparagements of human rights take several forms. Some
dismiss the very notion that there is an international consensus to support
them, an argument belied by the deep striving for justice and dignity
evidenced throughout history on every continent by people of goodwill.
Others argue, for example, that there is no room for civil and political
rights until economic development has been achieved, and even then, that
such rights as free speech and association get in the way of economic
well-being and social stability.
To the contrary, respect for human rights, free expression, the rule of
law, and equal rights for all men and women serve to stabilize societies
and the international community in the long term, and have a substantial
and meaningful role to play in economic development in this burgeoning age
of globalization and information technology. That was the position adopted
by delegates to the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, who
unequivocally declared that: "While development facilitates the enjoyment
of human rights, the lack of development may not be invoked to justify the
abridgement of internationally-recognized human rights."
Indeed, it is now well established that the ultimate economic crisis--
famine and mass starvation--is not occurring at the end of the 20th century
in those countries whose rulers bear the consequences of their decisions,
whose people participate in their own governance, and in which information
freely circulates; that governments accountable to their citizens and to
international law will be less prone to conflict and aggression; that the
rule of law offers a solid ground for economic investment; and that civil
society, fostered by freedom of association, supports the networks of
social solidarity that are essential to successful, stable, long-term
While these truths are increasingly evident to vast numbers of people
around the globe--indeed, the global movement for human rights is one of
the most extraordinary political developments in modern history--they are
still, sadly, far from being realized in many countries.
The greatest works of the human spirit take a long time to come into
being, and they must be constantly nurtured lest they collapse, with
horrific results. In particular, the evolving global network of laws and
institutions protecting and promoting human rights has taken a long time,
but its roots lie deep in the hopes, aspirations, and beliefs in human
dignity of all cultures and societies.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF THE POST-COLD WAR WORLD
We have left the Cold War period in which human rights issues served as
an ideological battleground. We have entered a period in which
totalitarianism has been thoroughly discredited, and in which economies and
societies around the world are afforded increased opportunities for
integration and cooperation, due in large part to new technologies, as well
as the passing of the Cold War, which divided much of the world into
opposing blocs. Today, human rights concerns are increasingly incorporated
into bilateral relations among countries, including with friends, and these
efforts can be part of a genuine dialog among nations on the shape of the
societies we hope to foster in the next century.
There are also greater opportunities for multilateral cooperation as the
relationship between human rights, democracy, and development is becoming
better understood, and we see greater strength and involvement of
nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) in pressing for human rights and
democracy in all parts of the world. The extraordinary activity and
effectiveness of the NGO conference parallel to 1995's U.N. Conference on
Women was a striking demonstration of this phenomenon.
Yet despite this promising situation, there is a yawning gap between the
possibilities that these positive developments seem to present and the
realities of a world in which there often seem to be more conflicts and
human rights abuses than ever. Among the problems we are seeing are
terrible ethnic and religious conflicts exploited by cynical leaders,
refugee movements, and the persistence of authoritarianism in too many
One way in which the international community is increasingly responding
to this challenge is by fostering new institutions of justice,
accountability, democracy, and civil society.
In particular, a series of new means and mechanisms of accountability
have appeared in recent years in countries around the world, with
institutions such as the National Truth Commissions of El Salvador, Haiti,
and South Africa and National Human Rights Commissions in India, Indonesia,
and Mexico. Meanwhile, regional bodies like the Organization of American
States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are
deepening and broadening their human rights efforts and capabilities.
At the international level the most significant and promising of the
institutions are the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former
Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, which may herald a new era of international
justice and pave the way for an International Criminal Court to bring to
the bar of justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity throughout the
world. The characterization of rape as a prosecutable war crime is another
notable feature of the Tribunals' work. In addition, the Dayton Peace
Agreement provides a case-in-point of how human rights and justice
institutions can be synthesized with military intervention and other
multilateral actions to effect a major effort of conflict resolution.
We are also witnessing the development of quasi-international human
rights institutions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the former
Yugoslavia, which witnessed the development in 1996 of both the Commission
on Human Rights for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the International Commission on
Missing Persons in the Former Yugoslavia.
Created by states, managed by international human rights and
humanitarian affairs experts, funded by the international community and yet
having legal character under domestic law, these institutions represent
creative attempts to forge new structures capable of protecting human
rights and advancing humanitarian interests in the trying new circumstances
of post-Cold War conflict.
In 1996 patterns of repression and systemic human rights abuse continued
in many countries, including some of the world's largest and most
In China, where Marxist ideology has in recent years given way to
economic pragmatism and increasingly robust ties of trade and commerce with
the United States and many other countries, human rights abuses by a strong
central Government persist in the face of legal reform efforts and economic
and social change.
The Chinese Government in 1996 continued to commit widespread and well-
documented human rights abuses, in violation of internationally accepted
norms, stemming from the authorities' intolerance of dissent, fear of
unrest, and the continuing absence of laws protecting basic freedoms. All
public dissent against party and government was effectively silenced by
intimidation, exile, or the imposition of prison terms, administrative
detention, or house arrest. No dissidents were known to be active at
year's end. Abuses included torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced
confessions, and arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention. Severe
restrictions were also continued on freedom of speech, the press, assembly,
association, religion, privacy (including coercive family planning), and
worker rights. In minority areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, controls on
religion and other fundamental freedoms intensified. During 1996, Hong
Kong's civil liberties and political institutions were threatened by
restrictive measures taken by the Chinese Government in anticipation of
Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese sovereignty in July of 1997.
In Nigeria the military council headed by General Sani Abacha, which
seized power in 1993, remains in control, and its human rights performance
remains dismal. Throughout the year General Abacha's Government regularly
relied on arbitrary detention, arrests, and wide- scale harassment to
silence its many critics. Security forces committed extrajudicial
killings, tortured and beat suspects and detainees; prison conditions
remained life threatening; and security officials continued routinely to
harass human rights and democracy activists, labor leaders,
environmentalists, and journalists. Nonparty local elections held in March
were nullified by the Government, and numerous parliamentarians remain in
jail. All these abuses occurred in a climate of infringements of freedom
of speech, assembly, association, travel, and workers rights.
Cuba remains a totalitarian anachronism, where human rights deteriorated
in 1996, and suppression of dissent worsened.
Despite formally ending Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, the military
regime in Burma stepped up its "rolling repression" and systematic
violation of human rights. North Korea remains an outpost of totalitarian
After more than two decades in power, the Ba'thist regime exercises
absolute dictatorial authority in Iraq. Elsewhere in the Middle East,
repressive regimes in Iran, Syria, and Libya are responsible for the
systematic denial of their citizens' basic human rights.
COUNTRIES IN TRANSITION
The extraordinary democratic revolution of the past decade is as yet
unfinished. In many countries, democracy is still fragile, civil- military
relations are not properly defined, elections are subject to manipulation,
women cannot fully participate, and the institutions of justice and civil
society that guarantee human rights over the long term have not yet fully
The picture in Russia is mixed. It continues to undergo profound
transformations as its as yet unfinished democratic institutions and
practices continue to evolve. July 1996 saw Russia's first-ever
presidential election, and in December 1995 its second multiparty
parliamentary elections. Human rights NGO's were generally free to
operate. However, prison conditions--always harsh--have worsened, and
lengthy pretrial detention continued. Violent hazing of military
conscripts sparked new protests.
The major Russian media have functioned relatively unhindered and for
the most part have reported freely on the Chechen conflict despite
government pressure and heavy-handed treatment by Russian troops in the war
zone. In addition, journalists throughout Russia covering controversial
issues were subjected to pressure, physical violence, and even death, while
the Government appeared unresponsive to requests for investigation of these
cases. Legal reform has proceeded unevenly in the absence of the approval
of key pieces of implementing legislation. The development of an
independent judiciary continues but slowed considerably, and judges were
often subject to manipulation by political authorities. Discrimination
against minorities remains a problem, and discrimination against women in
some sectors has intensified in recent years.
One genuine bright spot at year's end was the withdrawal of Russian
forces from Chechnya, where conflict had claimed tens of thousands of
Bosnia and Herzegovina enjoyed a year of comparative peace in 1996 as
implementation of the 1995 Dayton Accords proceeded. The September
elections for major offices were, despite their shortcomings, an important
step in solidifying the foundations of peace and establishing
The largest challenge facing Bosnia has been to overcome the staggering
effects of 3 years of warfare. In 1996 the international community sought
to promote reconciliation. Yet political authorities continued, in varying
degrees, to violate basic human rights. Members of the security forces
mistreated citizens. Judicial institutions did not function effectively,
freedom of movement was restricted, refugees were not able to return to
their homes, freedom of the press and expression were curtailed, and ethnic
discrimination was widespread. In the Serb entity and the Croat parts of
the Federation, war criminals remained at large.
At year's end, the Serbian Government's blatant efforts to manipulate
the results of the November 17 municipal elections had the effect of
invigorating democratic forces, who were mounting the most serious
challenge yet faced by the current regime.
Serious backsliding occurred in Belarus, where the President conducted a
constitutional referendum generally regarded by the international community
as illegitimate and subsequently replaced the Parliament with a
rubber-stamp legislature while extending his own term. Progress toward
democracy was set back by flawed elections in Armenia and fraudulent
elections in Albania. Presidential power has grown in Kazakhstan and
Kyrgystan to the point where the executive overshadows the legislature and
the judiciary, while Uzbekistan--and to a greater extent Turkmenistan and
Tajikistan--lag even further behind in the development of democracy and
respect for human rights.
There was marked progress in Guatemala, where a peace accord between the
Government and guerrillas ended a 36-year civil war. Some serious abuses
did continue, although the Government demonstrated the political will to
combat impunity, and courts have, in marked contrast to past years,
convicted some members of the security services.
Haiti continued the democratic advances begun in 1994, although abuses
and the poor condition of its judicial system remain issues of concern.
In the Middle East, the peace process suffered setbacks in 1996, which
had negative effects on human rights in both the Occupied Territories and
the areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Terrorist acts had a
deeply chilling effect on both diplomacy and human rights observance. The
successful completion of elections for the Palestinian Council in March of
1996 marked a significant step in the development of Palestinian
institutions; and there was some progress towards year's end in the easing
of some aspects of Israel's closure of the Territories, in increased
cooperation on the ground between Israeli and Palestinian authorities, and
in the talks on Israeli redeployment within Hebron, which then reached a
successful conclusion in January of 1997.
While Indonesia exhibits a surface adherence to democratic forms, its
political system remains strongly authoritarian. The President, his
associates, and the military still dominate the country and maintain an
ideological program of social cohesion through the restriction of
opposition, the repression of independent labor unions, the stifling of
dissent, and other harsh measures. In the regions of Irian Jaya and East
Timor the human rights climate is particularly harsh. Freedoms of assembly
and association were curtailed in 1996 through arrests, surveillance, and
other forms of intimidation. One positive development was the Government's
tolerance of a National Human Rights Commission.
Some militaries continue to resist civilian, democratic oversight, as in
Colombia, where entrenched conflict among security forces, guerrillas,
paramilitaries, and narcotics traffickers has resulted in a climate of both
abuse and impunity.
In some countries, such as Egypt and Turkey, campaigns against
extremists have resulted in abuses, including torture.
A disturbing aspect of the post-Cold War world has been the persistence,
and in some cases the intensification, of religious intolerance, religious
persecution, and the exploitation of religious and ethnic differences for
narrow and violent ends. In 1996 many religious groups around the world
continued to face persecution and other difficulties in practicing their
faiths and maintaining their cultural loyalties.
In China the Government intensified its policy of severely restricting
and bringing under official control all religious groups, including
Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists.
Christians are subject to difficulties ranging from interference to
outright persecution in many countries, including Iraq, Pakistan, and the
Sudan. In Cuba persecution continues, despite the easing of some of the
Non-Muslims are prohibited from public worship in Saudi Arabia, while
elsewhere in the Middle East anti-Semitic materials regularly appear in
government-controlled media. The Government of Iran continued its
repressive practices against members of the Baha'i faith. In Vietnam both
Buddhists and Christians suffer from government restrictions.
Religious groups and figures are playing increasingly significant roles
in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, in efforts at reconciliation
among antagonistic groups, in fostering the peaceful evolution of civil
society, and in respect for human rights.
These initiatives have taken a variety of forms, including peace
activism, mediation, education for tolerance and nonviolence, and creating
models of coexistence. In 1996 religious leaders and groups played an
important peacemaking role in virtually every region, from Northern Ireland
to Nicaragua to South Africa to Cambodia. Religious leaders such as the
Pope, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, Bishop Belo of East
Timor, and Maha Gosananda of Cambodia are engaged in efforts at mediation
and the promotion of tolerance and human rights.
THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN
In the wake of the resoundingly successful U.N. Fourth World Conference
on Women in Beijing in September of 1995, the year 1996 saw a tremendous
increase in activity towards the protection and promotion of the human
rights of women. Some governments have fulfilled obligations undertaken at
the Conference and taken progressive actions to secure rights for women.
Meanwhile, women's NGO's around the world have led the way, stepping up
their activities, pressing governments for change, and providing new and
creative services for women. The Conference's call to action and the
resulting government and NGO activity is having a profound effect on
democracy and economic development around the world.
Among the efforts underway are the development of legislation on family
law in Namibia, on violence against women in Ecuador, and on women's
political participation in the Philippines. Programs are being created for
the economic and educational empowerment of women and for the prevention of
sexual exploitation and trafficking of women and girls.
Alongside these gains, however, women all over the world continued in
1996 to encounter barriers of widespread political, economic, and social
discrimination, often codified in law. Women are often strongly
discouraged and prevented from participating in political life, are
disproportionately poor, are denied the right to privacy, and face serious
impediments to participating in economic life. In addition, laws meant to
protect the human rights of women often go unenforced.
Discrimination reached new heights of severity in Afghanistan with the
rise to power of the Taliban.
Violence against women, both in and outside the home, a particularly
widespread and entrenched violation of women's rights, is either legally
permitted or simply allowed to continue in many countries and is by no
means restricted to the developing world. In a number of countries, the
continued practice of female genital mutilation is a particularly egregious
form of violence against women. Rape has been a particularly cruel tool of
warfare in a number of conflicts. Despite the enormous strides of recent
years, there is much that remains to be done.
THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN
Children are perhaps the least represented members of society in the
councils of government and among the most helpless victims of human rights
abuse and other forms of political violence.
An estimated quarter of a million children, even as young as age 5, have
been conscripted to serve as soldiers in dozens of armed conflicts around
the world some with armed insurgencies, such as the Khmer Rouge, the
Shining Path of Peru, and Palestinian groups in Lebanon, and some in
regular armies, such as those of Cambodia, Uganda, Angola, and Sudan.
In Liberia, for example, children have been the greatest victims of the
civil war, as education and nurture have been completely disrupted, while
children have been recruited into the various warring factions.
But children suffer human rights abuse in contexts outside of conflict.
Millions of children go uneducated and uncared for, and the so-called
street children of the major cities find themselves caught in lives of
crime and drug dependency and subject to harsh police measures. In a
number of countries, incarcerated children suffer intolerable prison
The commercial sexual exploitation of children--through child
prostitution, child pornography, and trafficking in children--is all too
frequent in both developed and developing countries. The World Congress
Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, held in Stockholm in
August 1996, brought new attention to the problem and urged states and
societies to take action against these abuses.
WORKER RIGHTS AND CHILD LABOR
Failure to respect basic worker rights as defined in several key
International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions continues to be a
problem in many countries. These core worker rights include freedom of
association, which is the foundation on which workers can form trade unions
and defend their interests; the right to organize and bargain collectively;
freedom from discrimination in employment; and freedom from child and
Despite broad international recognition of these principles, free trade
unions continue to be banned or suppressed in many countries; in many more,
restrictions on freedom of association range from outright state control to
legislation aimed at frustrating workers' legitimate efforts to organize.
In 1996 the ILO criticized Nigeria, Indonesia, and Burma specifically, as
well as a number of other countries for such practices. The ILO also
repeated its call to Burma to cease its forced labor practices.
The relationships between worker rights and trade were the focus of
discussion in a variety of international forums. The first ministerial
meeting of the World Trade Organization held in Singapore in December
adopted a declaration that renewed the WTO's "commitment to the observance
of internationally recognized worker rights" and stated that "we believe
that economic growth and development fostered by increased trade and
further trade liberalization contribute to the promotion of those
International focus on child labor intensified in 1996 in the ILO and
other multilateral bodies. Consumers in developed countries have taken new
notice of the issue, and this has had some effect on the acceptability of
child labor in export-oriented countries. Nevertheless, the phenomenon
continues, not only in developing countries but in some industrialized
countries as well, with the overwhelming majority of child laborers in
countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Refugees are particularly vulnerable groups and at risk of human rights
abuses. Although the human rights of refugees--especially women and
children--are protected by international law, those rights are sometimes
violated by the very governments to whom they have turned for
These Country Reports for 1996 include specific information on the
treatment of refugees and those who seek "first asylum." Although many
nations treat these groups well, many other countries fail to provide
meaningful protection to refugees and first asylum seekers.
In conclusion, let us remember on whose behalf we labor in the field of
human rights and on whose behalf a global structure of protection is being
built. This structure belongs to all of us, and it is being built for all
of humanity. In building this structure the world is responding to the
pain and need of men and women and children on all continents and to the
historical conscience of mankind.
To those who dismiss those efforts as a form of cultural imperialism,
let me offer in response the voices of indigenous NGO's working throughout
the world to advance the cause of human rights. A powerful example is the
presence of 110 NGO's from the Asia-Pacific region, which, meeting in
Bangkok in 1993, sent the following message to the World Conference on
Human Rights in Vienna:
"We can learn from different cultures in a pluralistic perspective...to
deepen respect for human rights. While we advocate cultural pluralism,
those cultural practices which derogate from universally accepted human
rights...must not be tolerated."
And let us recall the Declaration agreed to at Vienna in 1993 by all the
nations of the world:
"Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human
beings; their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of
It is true that human rights find their realization in a highly
imperfect world. But that does not free us from responsibility to support
respect for human rights in the processes of government and law and does
not permit us to shirk this responsibility by invoking national
sovereignty, or claims of social stability, economic development, or
As we near the dawn of a new century, the international community has an
unprecedented opportunity to engage in respectful dialog on how best to
promote human rights, freedom, and dignity. Every culture, tradition, and
civilization brings its own genius to bear on this monumental effort, and
that moral responsibility rests with every man and woman on this planet,
calling us to a modern-day pursuit of an age-old quest for justice. In the
words of the Talmudic sage Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for
me? If I am only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?"
Assistant Secretary of State
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor