US accused of hypocrisy on human rights

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A LEADING human rights group has delivered a harsh critique of the American record,accusing Washington of tolerating systematic abuses within the United States - in other words of failing to practise itself what it preaches so loudly and self-righteously to others.

In its latest annual report published today, Human Rights Watch lists a whole series of shortcomings by the US.

These include the denial of full human rights to certain minority groups, including homosexuals and immigrants, a particularly brutal prison system, and capital punishment, of which the US is among the world's most zealous practitioners, exceeded only by such countries as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The largest US-based human rights group claimed the Clinton administration's policy on the subject suffered from "large blindspots," and that human rights rarely ranked with its other interests.

Ignorance of international human rights norms is widespread, the group says.

"Both the federal and state authorities have resisted applying to the US the standards that the US, quite rightly, applies elsewhere."

Nor does Britain escape censure, despite the Northern Ireland peace agreement, which addresses the main source of human rights abuses of which the UK is regularly accused.

On paper, the deal's human rights provisions are strong, the report notes. But the BritishGovernment had shown littlecommitment when it comes to translating words into action - as evidenced by the granting of even wider powers to the security forces after the Omagh bombing in August.

Despite the continuing violations of human rights in scores of countries around the world, Human Rights Watch is upbeat about the progress that has been achieved in the 50 years since the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose anniversary falls next week.

Over the past half century, human rights has been transformed from something of a dilettante cause to "the legitimate concern of the international community."

The arrest of, and the subsequent denial of immunity to General Augusto Pinochet of Chile "makes a nice anniversary present," said the group's director, Kenneth Roth. But he called for a permanent international system of justice, "to make sure no despot gets away with his crimes".

The key to this, he argues, is quick ratification of the treaty setting up the UN-sponsored international court of justice, agreed by 120 nations in Rome last July, and now signed by 133. But here again Washington is taken to task.

Alone of the world's major developed nations, the US refuses to sign up to the international court, placing it in a select group with Iraq, Libya, China and Iran. The Clinton administration has also cold- shouldered initiatives seeking to outlaw landmines, and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Even when Washington does deign to ratify international treaties, Human Rights Watch says, it typically "carves away added protection for those in the US", by tacking on various reservations, declarations and understandings.

Among the special problem areas singled out by the report are many African countries, the "depressingly familiar" abuses across much of South Asia, and countries such as Algeria and Afghanistan, torn by violence and civil war.