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Published:April 7th, 2006 06:48 EST
Presses To Expand Human Rights, Democracy in South Asia

Presses To Expand Human Rights, Democracy in South Asia

By SOP newswire

The United States continued to press governments in South Asia during the past year to open their political systems and expand democratic freedoms, according to the State Department’s fourth annual report, Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2005-2006.

The congressionally mandated annual report, a companion to the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, recaps the actions and programs the United States has taken to end human-rights abuses noted in the country reports. Legislative elections in Afghanistan, a generally free and fair presidential election in Sri Lanka, a supreme court ruling in Nepal granting women equal citizenship rights, peaceful dialogue between India and Pakistan, and effective action against human trafficking were among the successes noted in the report-- which was released April 5.

In addition to sending high level officials-- including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to the region to emphasize the importance of advancing democracy, the United States backed the establishment of a U.N. office in Nepal to monitor human-rights abuses, partnered with India on the Global Democracy Initiative, and provided training for Pakistani parliamentarians and their staffs.

The report highlighted U.S. support for independent media, particularly radio, in Pakistan as a means to strengthen freedom of expression. Journalists in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan and students at Peshawar University received journalistic training, according to the report. The radio broadcasts provided important information to survivors of the earthquake that struck Kashmir in October 2005, the report added.

The report contains details on the human rights and democracy situations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2005 – 2006, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor commented that, “One person alone cannot do this. I am only able to stand up if the whole world is behind me. The little hope that I’ve got for justice is because of the support I’m getting from the rest of the world.”

Mukhtar Mai, Pakistani rape survivor and human rights activist in South Asia, experienced a number of encouraging successes during the year that resulted in expanded democracy and human rights. In September 2005, Afghanistan held its first democratic legislative elections since 1969. In a challenge to impunity, President Karzai’s cabinet approved a transitional justice action plan in December that acknowledges the suffering of the Afghan people and calls for the investigation of past war crimes and human rights abuses. In November, Sri Lanka held a presidential election generally deemed free and fair despite a boycott by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In Nepal, the Supreme Court ruled on three important cases that recognized women as equal citizens under the law. India and Pakistan remained engaged in peaceful dialogue on a range of issues and worked together to assist victims in the aftermath of the devastating October 8 earthquake. In Pakistan, the Anti-Trafficking Unit (ATU) became fully functional, resulting in an increase in arrests and prosecutions of human traffickers. Cooperative efforts between the Pakistani military, ATU, and international organizations prevented an increase in human trafficking following the October 8 earthquake.

 

Despite these positive developments, long-standing ethnic conflicts and insurgencies hindered progress, and numerous human rights and development challenges continued to threaten stability and democracy in South Asia. A number of worrisome events made clear that good governance and respect for human rights continued to face serious obstacles. The King of Nepal’s February 2005 dismissal of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, followed by a declaration of a state of emergency and the subsequent arrests of members of the political opposition threw the country into political turmoil and played into the hands of the Maoists. In Bangladesh, rising extremism, abuses by security forces, and intractable polarization of the two major political parties presented serious threats to advances made over the past 15 years.

The United States continued to press governments in the region to open their political systems and allow greater freedoms of speech and assembly. High-level U.S. visitors, including the Secretary of State, raised the importance of making progress on democracy directly to the region’s leaders. Ambassadors and other U.S. officials highlighted the significance the United States places on respecting human rights and ending impunity, and stressed the importance of national elections in securing a mandate from the people. Throughout the region, the United States urged South Asian governments to protect the rights of women and religious minorities and empower judiciaries to seriously address the issue of impunity.

 

In Nepal, the United States helped fund the establishment of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and worked closely with OHCHR to monitor human rights abuses in eight of the country’s regions. In Sri Lanka, the United States helped build capacity of the Human Rights Commission to record and process tens of thousands of unresolved cases of disappearances. U.S. law enforcement officials also led a training course on community policing, emphasizing basic interrogation and investigation skills that eliminate the use of torture as an information gathering method.

The United States and India joined in a partnership to co-launch the Global Democracy Initiative, in which both countries agreed to collaborate on a number of democracy and human rights initiatives worldwide. This partnership between the United States and the world’s largest democracy has already led to the establishment of Virtual Coordination and Information Centers to identify potential opportunities for joint initiatives and share best democracy-building practices. The partnership also generated significant international support for the successful launch of the new United Nations Democracy Fund.

 

In Pakistan, the United States continued to build a framework for democratic institutions. U.S. programming reinforced national and provincial legislatures through the establishment of an Institute for Legislative Strengthening, which will provide ongoing training to parliamentarians and their staff. The United States worked with major political parties to train emerging leaders in the fundamentals of democratic governance. Programs funded by the United States also focused specifically on women’s political participation by training a new generation to enter the political arena and encouraging established leaders to offer their support. The United States continued to press the Government of Pakistan to reform discriminatory legislation and encouraged Pakistan’s efforts to prevent abuse of the blasphemy laws. U.S. officials have spoken out against sectarian violence within the country’s Muslim community.

Discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities, as well as Trafficking in Persons (TIP), child labor, and corruption, further hampered development in the entire region. The United States pursued several anti-trafficking initiatives including the South Asia Regional Initiative on Equity for Women and Children (SARI/Equity). Through SARI/Equity, the United States funded a three-year project that convened TIP prevention groups throughout South Asia and provided grants to anti-trafficking NGOs. The program was designed to enhance social and economic opportunities for women and children to prevent TIP and promote women’s rights on a regional basis. Through the President’s initiative, the United States also funded a law enforcement training program to expand India’s capacity to address trafficking through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Raising Public Voices: Strengthening Freedom of Expression in Pakistan Through Independent Radio

The United States views the strengthening of Pakistan’s media as a critical component to the long-term development of its democracy and civil society. Responding to the Government of Pakistan’s decision to expand the broadcast sector to private ownership, the United States worked with the NGO Internews to build the capacity of independent media and strengthen freedom of expression in Pakistan.

With the support of the United States, Internews advised the Pakistani Government on media law reform and provided training to journalists and station managers of the country’s first private radio stations. Internews was able to accomplish many “firsts” in Pakistan. They supported Pakistan’s first generation of female radio journalists, launched the first independent female radio programming focused on gender issues, established Pakistan’s first university-based community station, wrote Pakistan’s first university broadcast journalism curriculum at Peshawar University, helped get the country’s first nongovernmental radio stations on the air, and trained its first media lawyers working on media policy and regulatory reform.

The project trained local journalists to cover critical human rights, rule of law, and election issues confronting the country through practical training and development of radio programs. U.S. assistance helped foster independent media by creating a space for new and innovative voices to be heard. In an effort to promote awareness of women’s rights, Pakistani female journalists developed a radio program entitled “Meri Awaz Suno” (Hear My Voice), which focused on groundbreaking topics affecting women such as health and education, HIV/AIDS awareness, female political participation, and discussions on violence against women and so-called honor killings. In September 2005, the Meri Awaz Suno team helped with the emergency earthquake information program “Jazba-e-Tameer” (Drive to Rebuild). Female journalists from the program produced 12 segments focused on areas damaged by the earthquake as well as the experience of women living in camps for displaced people. These special programs were played on emergency FM radio stations in the earthquake zone.

The United States also supported training for journalists in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and for students at Peshawar University. The curriculum focused on the fundamental principles of responsible journalism, including presentation, interviewing, news writing, technical skills, and ethics. The training produced new programming entitled “Da Nan Khabara” (Topic of the Day) and “Hawa Aur Duniya” (Women and the World).

Subject highlights included improving relations between India and Pakistan, AIDS prevention and awareness, domestic violence, and the role of women as elected women counselors and their participation in local government affairs.

 

Source: US State Dept.