As the torch passed yesterday at the pinnacle of US diplomacy, Condoleezza Rice the incoming Secretary of State, identified a new category of miscreant states - half a dozen "outposts of tyranny" that may replace President George Bush's "axis of evil" in the international political lexicon.
The six countries where Ms Rice said the US had a duty to help foster freedom are Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma and Belarus, as well as Iran and North Korea, the two surviving founder members of the original "axis of evil". Ms Rice offered her new definition as a Congressional panel voted to confirm her as Secretary of State to replace Colin Powell.
Quite what practical action the US intends against the sextet is unclear. But the gesture signals Ms Rice's commitment to the over-arching foreign policy goal proclaimed by Mr Bush, of extending liberty and democracy around the world.
After a day and a half of sometimes stern questioning, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave Ms Rice its backing by 16 votes to two. The dissenters were two Democrats, the former presidential candidate John Kerry and Barbara Boxer of California, who once again accused the former national security adviser of misleading the country on the war in Iraq.
Ms Rice is expected to be formally approved by the full Senate this morning, shortly before President Bush takes the oath of office.
Cool and unyielding, she served notice yesterday that she was first and foremost the President's servant, intent on minimising the differences with the White House that often emerged when General Powell was almost the sole moderate in Mr Bush's national security team.
"I want to be clearly understood - we are one administration, with the President in the lead," she told Democrats on the committee, many of them visibly irritated by her reluctance to admit that mistakes had been made in the handling of Iraq. Finally 50-year-old Ms Rice did acknowledge that "some bad decisions" had been made over Iraq. But she adamantly denied that she or anyone else in the administration had misled the public.
Accused by Ms Boxer of "rigidness", Ms Rice insisted that she had always told the President her honest opinions: "Sometimes he agrees and sometimes he doesn't." Nonetheless she is widely regarded as one of the less impressive recent national security advisers, often elbowed aside by Dick Cheney, the vice-President, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Despite her overwhelming approval, Committee Republicans as well as Democrats showed unease. Joe Biden, the senior Democrat, said he was voting for her confirmation "with some frustration and reserve", accusing Ms Rice of stonewalling and "sticking to the party line". On the Republican side, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a noted party moderate, urged Ms Rice to explore reconciliation with Iran, in the administration's sights for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. But she gave that notion short shrift.
Government type: Parliamentary democracy
Human rights record: Amnesty International says: "The record of arbitrary arrests, unfair imprisonment, torture and impunity speaks for itself."
With Zimbabwe's sixth parliamentary elections only weeks away, President Robert Mugabe has brought in further repressive laws.
A new law threatens journalists with mandatory 20-year prison sentences for publishing anything that "endangers state security" or insults the President. Existing media laws have already been used to ban three private newspapers, arrest at least 48 journalists and expel all foreign correspondents.
Under the Public Order and Security Act, police permission has to be granted for any political gathering involving more than five people.
Foreign funding of local non-governmental organisations has been banned, and foreign NGOs, many of which have been providing famine relief, are also banned from the country.
Lovemore Madhuku, a law professor from the University of Zimbabwe, said: "Zimbabwe's repressive legislative machinery possibly puts it on a par only with North Korea. That's why Condi Rice is right."
With the election looming, starving families in opposition strongholds are being denied food relief. Hundreds of activists, opposition officials and trade unionists have been arrested for trying to hold peaceful demonstrations. The state-run broadcast media, which has a monopoly over the airwaves, is banned from covering the political opposition.
Government type: Theocratic republic
Human rights record: "Far-reaching restrictions on freedom of expression, association and political participation," says Human Rights Watch
Designated a founder member of the "axis of evil" in 2002, Iran has further blackened its reputation in Washington by pursuing its nuclear programme with even greater vigour. Experts reckon that Tehran may be as little as three years away from possessing nuclear weapons capability. The country is still committed to the destruction of Israel and is adopting a belligerent tone towards the US.
The fate of Saddam and persistent rumours that Iran may be next has arguably strengthened the hand of an unpopular theocratic government. Student protests in favour of greater democracy have shaken the regime, but the reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, has failed to curb the authoritarian tendencies of the religious elite that controls the Guardian Council.
Iran's conservative clergy came to power in 1979 and has steadfastly resisted calls for democratic reform. In the latest example of its repressive mindset, Shirin Ebadi, Iran's first Nobel Peace Prize winner, was summoned to a Revolutionary Court last week to face unspecified charges.
Government type: Ostensibly a republic; in fact a dictatorship
Human rights record: Failed to ensure free and fair election in 2004, by attacking independent media and undermining freedom of association
Belarus has been blacklisted as a pariah nation by Washington for some time. Ruled by Soviet-era farm boss Alexander Lukashenko, a man known as Europe's last dictator, it became independent from the USSR in 1991. In power since 1994 Mr Lukashenko has ruthlessly crushed any opposition, paid scant respect for human rights and is accused by his critics of ordering a series of political murders and disappearances.
He is also accused of vote-rigging, most notably last October when he won a referendum allowing him to over-ride the constitution and serve a third term. American economic sanctions against Belarus, including a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko, are already in place. When they were approved by the US Congress last year Mr Lukashenko said: "They've gone totally nuts, those dumb-asses don't know what they're doing."
Mr Lukashenko recently said there would be no Ukraine-style revolutions in Belarus, which he insisted needed stability.
Belarus reacted angrily to its new "outpost of tyranny" label, calling it one of several "false stereotypes and prejudices". Ms Rice "shows that her vision of the situation in Belarus is unfortunately too far from reality now," said a foreign ministry spokesman.
Government type: Military regime
Human rights record: "Dire," according to Human Rights Watch: forced labour; arbitrary detention and restriction on basic civil liberties
America has had a strained relationship with Burma since 1988, when the ruling junta seized power in a military coup and thousands were killed in violently suppressed pro-democracy riots. The corrupt regime regularly comes under fire from the international community, particularly the US, which insists on isolating the country through the imposing of political and economic sanctions.
Western countries criticise Burma not only for its stubborn disregard for political freedom, which has seen the junta remain in power since the late 1980s despite having lost the 1990 election, but also for its human rights record.
The detention of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now entering its 12th year, and her National League for Democracy Party, which won 82 per cent of the votes in the last election, is as far as ever from power. Senior general Than Shwe, the country's military leader, is believed to be in no rush to change the status quo.
The junta's alleged human rights abuses range from the forcible relocation of civilians to the widespread use of forced labour. It is also accused of recruiting child soldiers, some as young as 11, into the national army and persecutingreligious minorities.
Government type: Communist regime
Human rights record: Basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, movement and fair trials frequently withheld
Relations between Fidel Castro's Cuba and the rest of the world deteriorated two years ago after a brutal crackdown by the Havana regime that included the imprisonment of 75 dissidents for alleged anti-government activities. This month, the European Union, on the urging of Spain, will consider lifting sanctions imposed at the time. By contrast, the re-election of George Bush means the US-Cuba enmity, dating from when Castro seized power in 1959 and the failed US invasion of Cuba in 1961, is hardly likely to ease.
Within 48 hours of the re-election, the State Department said: "The US condemns the Cuban regime's abuse of advocates of peaceful change and reform. We call on the regime to cease its repression and release all political prisoners."
In his first term, Mr Bush tightened restrictions, making it harder for Cuban-Americans to visit the island or send money there. But Cuba welcomed two million tourists in 2004, mostly from Canada, but many from Britain and elsewhere.
Government type: Communist state; one man-dictatorship
Human rights record: The Pyongyang regime "routinely and egregiously violates nearly all international human rights standards" - Human Rights Watch
In January 2002, George Bush included North Korea in his list of countries in an "axis of evil" and accused it of resuming its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Relations between Pyongyang and Washington have been in crisis since. The dictatorship of President Kim Jong-Il, son of the late Kim Il-sung, forbids political opposition and is accused of human rights abuses on a terrifying scale, with thousands of political activitists behind bars or in forced labour camps. The citizens of North Korea suffer hunger and deprivation in one of the world's weakest economies.
Mr Bush has pushed for multilateral talks involving itself, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. Last week Pyongyang told a visiting US Congressional delegation it was ready to resume contacts and it wanted to be a "friend" of the US. Reaction in Washington was sceptical.
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