WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed China’s mass detention of Muslims but took a lighter hand on North Korea as the State Department released its annual human rights report Wednesday.
Iran also came in for harsh criticism while rival Saudi Arabia, cited for many identical domestic rights abuses as well as the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was given easier treatment.
And in a semantic change, the report appeared to shift the US view of Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights seized from Syria in 1967, calling it “Israeli-controlled” instead of “Israeli-occupied” as before.
Introducing the annual report, a fact-based country-by-country review, Pompeo excoriated Beijing for its allegedly deteriorating rights situation.
China is “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations,” Pompeo said.
He said Beijing intensified its campaign of repression against Muslims in the far western province of Xinjiang “to record levels” during 2018.
“Today, more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims are interned in reeducation camps designed to erase their religious and ethnic identities,” he said.
“The government also is increasing its persecution against Christians, Tibetans, and anyone who espouses different views from those or advocates those of government — or advocates change in government.”
The State Department also singled out Iran, the United States’s main adversary in the Middle East, for a human rights record that “remained extremely poor and worsened in several key areas,” noting 20 deaths and thousands of arrests in protests during 2018.
Tehran was also cited for contributing to rights abuses in Syria through its support for President Bashar al-Assad, and, in Yemen, for backing the Huthi rebels battling for control of the country.
In the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela and Nicaragua came in for strong criticism for extrajudicial murders, disappearances, torture by security forces, and denial of basic freedoms.
Pompeo assailed Nicaragua for the government’s use of snipers and live ammunition to repress protests that the report says left “at least 325 persons dead and more than 2,000 injured” last year.
“In Nicaragua, when citizens peacefully protested social security benefits, they were met with sniper fire. Critics of the government have faced a policy of exile, jail, or death,” Pompeo said.
North Korea criticism moderated
Pompeo acknowledged that despite extreme abuses in many countries, Washington would work with them if needed.
“The policy of this administration is to engage with other governments, regardless of their record, if doing so will further US interests,” Pompeo writes in the report’s preface.
That appeared to extend to North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un is being wooed by President Donald Trump, who is aiming to persuade the regime to give up its nuclear weapons.
While human rights experts consider Pyongyang one of the worst offenders in the world, Trump barely mentions rights violations when he talks about the country.
Last year’s report said: “The people of North Korea faced egregious human rights violations by the government in nearly all reporting categories.”
This year, it abbreviates that line to “Human rights issues included” and then details a familiar list of abuses including unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government, torture, and “substantial interference with” the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.
Semantic signals on Israel?
While the report is generally based on factual reporting, the US can use it to signal changes in its views of other governments.
The 2017 report changed its designation for the former “Israel and the Occupied Territories” to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza,” and stuck with that again this year.
But the State Department insisted Wednesday that calling Golan “Israeli-controlled” instead of “Israeli-occupied” was not a policy shift in Israel’s favour.
“There’s no change in our outlook or our policy vis-a-vis these territories and the need for a negotiated settlement there,” said Michael Kozak of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
“What we try to do is to report on the human rights situation in those territories.”
“And ‘occupied territory’ has a legal meaning to it; I think what they tried to do is to shift more to just a geographic description.”