Skip Global Navigation to Main Content
Texts & Transcripts

Introduction to 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

24 May 2012

U.S. Department of State
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
May 24, 2012

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011


On January 14, Tunisian president Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali boarded a plane in Tunis with his family and departed for Saudi Arabia. Twenty-seven days later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. After eight months of brutal attacks on Libyans seeking peaceful change, Moammar Qadhafi was overthrown. For the first time in history, the Yemeni President transferred power through the ballot box. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad have committed heinous and widespread human rights abuses against their own people since March 2011, and yet the protesters have not been cowed.

These still unfolding citizen uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have sent aftershocks rumbling around the world. Millions of citizens in many other countries have also expressed their dissatisfaction with governments that fail to deliver results to their people. Whether in grand movements or small acts, people in countries around the world are standing up and demanding their universal rights, dignity, greater economic opportunity, and participation in their countries’ political future.

The yearning for change we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria is inspirational, and yet change often creates instability before it leads to greater respect for democracy and human rights. After decades of repression, during which open political participation was not allowed, it will take time to create diverse political parties, a robust civil society, a climate conducive to freedom of expression, and a transparent political culture. Transitions are times of uncertainty. They can be chaotic, unstable, and at times violent. And even when they succeed, they are rarely linear, quick, or easy. The challenge during these transitions is to keep societies open to political debate. Protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms ensures that negotiations over a country’s future can take place without fear or intimidation, and that anti-democratic forces do not snuff out genuine political participation. As Secretary Clinton said, “All political parties, religious and secular alike, have to abide by basic ground rules: reject violence; uphold the rule of law; respect the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and assembly; protect the rights of women and minorities; give up power if you are defeated at the polls; and especially in a region with deep divisions within and between religions, avoid inciting sectarian conflicts that pull societies apart.” If these fundamental rules are violated, she warned, “The victors of revolutions can become their victims.”

In the turmoil of 2011, thousands of citizens were killed across Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Many others were abused by security forces that used excessive force. But the images of demonstrators who had seemingly lost all fear, risking their lives to oppose governments they deemed illegitimate, inspired people around the world. Even in the most isolated places, the desire for greater freedom and political and economic opportunity began to flicker.

The year 2011 brought remarkable changes in Burma, long isolated because of the government’s poor treatment of its own people. In dramatic fashion, the Burmese government took a number of bold steps to begin the long and difficult process of political reform and reconciliation with those who have struggled peacefully for freedom for decades. In last year’s report, we wrote about the dire situation of hundreds of political prisoners who remained in jail in Burma, some of whom had been imprisoned for decades for taking part in protests or simply for reading “subversive” poetry. In October 2011, the government released more than 200 of these prisoners. As next year’s country report will cover, in January 2012 the Burmese government released 300 more, including some who had been detained for many years, and allowed the National League for Democracy to register and field candidates for parliamentary elections, including party leader Aung Sun Syu Kyi.

Burma offers an example of a government moving towards a model of greater openness, democracy, and liberty, attributes that can lead to greater innovation, prosperity, and inclusion. Much remains to be done to implement reforms and especially to address the legacy of decades of violence against ethnic minorities. But the size of the task ahead does not diminish the excitement of these first steps, or the sense of possibility they may inspire in other closed societies, such as Iran, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, or Sudan.

Several other countries also took important steps in 2011 toward improving their human rights records, although more work remains to be done. In Colombia, the government worked to address the climate of impunity with respect to harassment, intimidation, and killings of human rights workers, journalists, teachers, and trade unionists. Extrajudicial killings declined in large measure due to efforts by the government to stop such crimes. In Zambia, presidential, parliamentary, and local elections held in September were free, credible, and orderly. The incumbent president relinquished power and accepted the will of the Zambian people. In Tunisia, citizens held transparent and credible elections for a Constituent Assembly, which in turn elected a former political prisoner as the country’s interim president. The country is now rewriting its constitution.

Along with such hopeful developments, this report documents a range of negative developments in 2011. A number of countries became less free as a result of flawed elections; the imposition by powerful leaders of less democratic constitutional provisions; restrictions on the universal rights to freedom of expression, assembly, or association, including on the Internet; moves to censor or intimidate the media; or attempts to control or curtail the activities of nongovernmental groups. In Nicaragua, extensive irregularities in the electoral process marked a setback to democracy and undermined the ability of Nicaraguans to hold their government accountable.

Other disturbing trends in 2011 include continued persecution of religious minorities, including, but not limited to, Ahmadis, Bahais, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and others. In many countries there was an uptick in discrimination against members of racial and ethnic minorities; people with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people, all of whom were frequent targets of abuse, discrimination, and violence. In some countries medical personnel were harassed, intimidated, and arrested. Both governments and opposition forces tried to prevent humanitarian assistance from reaching civilians in dire circumstances.

Egypt and Kyrgyzstan held historic elections that were deemed to be generally free and fair. Yet the elections in these countries, as well as the standoff following the 2010 presidential election in Cote d’Ivoire, provided a poignant reminder that elections are a critical but insufficient element in genuine transitions to democracy and the rule of law. Committed citizens in each of these countries continued to work toward building the habits and institutions of democratic governance, including a political culture in which electoral losers understand they must cede power, and elected representatives wield power fairly.

Overall human rights conditions remained extremely poor in many of the countries that were spotlighted in our 2010 country reports, including, but not limited to, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Belarus, and China.

Several broader trends were prominent in 2011. New connective technologies spread news of citizen activism, and political change, around the world. People continued to find innovative ways to use technology to break down the walls of fear and isolation that undemocratic governments erected to try to keep their populations quiescent. They used these technologies to speak out against societal discrimination, corruption, and restrictions on civil and political liberties that are keeping them from enjoying equal rights, dignity, or respect. Yet repressive regimes also used those same technologies to spy on their own citizens for the purposes of silencing dissent.

As we consider the implications of connective technologies on human rights and democracy, we realize that technology itself does not usher in progress on human rights. People do. Technology can help people exercise their universal human rights, connect with others across borders, and transcend time zones and even language barriers. But technology is a platform, not a substitute for political organizing, advocacy, or persuasion. The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did.

Because the story of how people express themselves, associate with one another, and share ideas and opinions is increasingly unfolding online, protecting and promoting Internet freedom is a core priority of the United States. We report on its status in the pages that follow.

We also report on the status of media freedom, which remained poor in many countries and declined in others. The year 2011 brought an increase in the number of journalists and bloggers silenced to death or jail as they attempted to bring news to the public. These reports also chronicle the many ways in which some governments attempted to censor the media through regulations or laws that are contrary to the universal right to freedom of expression and opinion, and through harassment, intimidation, or violence. In Ecuador and Venezuela, government actions against independent media outlets had a chilling effect on media freedom.

This year’s reports highlight the treatment of marginalized people, including LGBT people and people with disabilities. Too many countries still criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity, and LGBT people face discrimination and violence in many more countries. We continue to focus on other vulnerable populations, including women and children. Domestic and societal violence and discrimination against women continue to be serious problems in many countries. Women and children are often the first to suffer during conflicts.

In addition, we continue to monitor challenges to civil society organizations promoting respect for human rights and democratic transitions in their own countries. In last year’s Human Rights Reports, we noted a surge in efforts by repressive governments to control and stifle independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Over the last several years, more than 90 governments have sought to pass laws that hampered the ability of NGOs to register, operate freely, or receive foreign funding. In a number of countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Algeria, Cambodia, and Russia, governments have imposed or threatened greater restrictions on foreign funding of these organizations, taken other measures that severely hamper their operations, or sought to intimidate them or shut them down completely. In many other places, the work of these organizations is misunderstood, or actively misrepresented by insecure governments that fear independent scrutiny of their actions. These trends intensified in 2011, when we saw a sharp escalation of official restrictions on the work of human rights and democracy advocates.

As President Obama has said, societies change from within. Civil society organizations lead that change by engaging citizens in conversations about how people want to be governed. These organizations spotlight human rights abuses, fight discrimination, and monitor whether authorities are upholding the rule of law. They speak out against the exclusion, persecution, or hatred of vulnerable minorities, and document where their societies fall short. By holding up a mirror to society, they ask their governments and their citizens to do better and to be better. In all of these ways, civil society groups are the lifeblood of free and open societies, and they are most vital in countries where democratic traditions and institutions are just beginning to take root.

The events of 2011, as documented in these pages, remind us once again that human rights and global security are inextricably linked. From Tunis to Tehran, from Cairo to California, from Moscow to Rangoon, citizens were ever more interconnected and so were the interrelationships between their freedoms, economic opportunity, and the security and prosperity of their societies.

Around the world, we see that where human rights are consistently abused or threatened, by authorities or by criminal, sectarian, or other undemocratic groups that enjoy impunity, the result is frequently political strife, economic contraction, and destabilization that too often spills across borders. In contrast, where human rights are respected, the rule of law is enforced, and government actions are transparent, societies are more stable and secure. People who feel empowered to engage in the political process and who see their rights respected are less likely to join extremist groups that threaten domestic tranquility and international stability.

They gradually develop a greater trust of their government and feel a greater stake in the success of the system. In this way, respect for human rights builds political stability and lays the foundations for democratization, economic growth, shared prosperity, and enhanced global security.

This critical connection between human rights and national security plays out repeatedly in the pages that follow. It will continue to play out in the transitions to democracy occurring in the Arab world and beyond. The people who took to the streets to demonstrate in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, and Sanaa have proven that change can come without turning to extremism. In 2011 we saw too many governments crack down in the name of restoring order when their citizens demanded universal human rights and a voice in how they were governed. These acts of repression triggered more confrontation, more chaos, and ultimately greater instability. The events of the year showed that the real choice is not between stability and security; it is between reform and unrest.

I want to add a word about the production of these reports. Each year, they are prepared by human rights officers at U.S. embassies and other posts around the world, working with their counterparts in Washington, D.C. Each country team collects, analyzes, and synthesizes information from a variety of sources, including domestic and international human rights organizations, other governments, multilateral organizations, and members of civil society. Once the reports are drafted, they are rigorously edited, reviewed, and fact-checked to ensure accuracy and objectivity.

This year, we made the human rights reports easier to read online. Readers can jump directly to topics of interest with a new table of contents, share reports on social media, and research topics across countries with the Build a Report tool. Our goal is to allow readers to gather information quickly across regions on the issues that most interest them.

We have also attempted to make the reports more accessible to a broader spectrum of readers. Over the past 35 years, the length of the human rights reports had expanded, even as Congress mandated separate annual reports on the status of international religious freedom and human trafficking. This year, we have developed a streamlined format for each country report. As a result, we do not attempt to catalog every incidence, however egregious, of a particular type of human rights abuse in a country. Rather, we spotlight examples that typify and illuminate the types of problems frequently reported in 2011 in that country. The mention of fewer cases in a particular report should not be interpreted as a lessening of concern for the overall human rights situation in any particular country. Rather, our goal is to shed light on the nature, scope, and severity of the reported human rights abuses. For the first time, we have also added an executive summary at the top of each report. We hope readers will find these changes useful.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor