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ARAB WORLD: Human rights group criticizes 'soft' approach to repressive Middle East regimes

January 24, 2011 |  8:48 am

Benalihosp

If it's true that the recent unrest in Tunisia is prompting Western leaders to rethink their support for conveniently placed dictators, they would do well to read the newest annual report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which slams the international community for "soft-talking" some of the world's most egregious abusers.

Although HRW was particularly critical of the European Union for its alleged double standards when it comes to enforcing human rights, the report also had some harsh words for Americans.

"U.S. President Barack Obama increased his focus on human rights in his second year in office, but his eloquent statements have not always been followed by concrete actions," read a statement released by HRW. "Nor has he insisted that the various US government agencies convey strong human rights messages consistently, with the result that the Defense Department and various US embassies –- in Egypt, Indonesia, and Bahrain, for example –- often deliver divergent messages."

The 649-page report summarizes the human rights practices in over 90 countries around the world, including the Middle East and North Africa, where some of the most repressive governments are also Washington's closest allies.

The report apparently was written before the recent protest movement in Tunisia forced former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power. But even back then, the authors noted severe repression by authorities and only minor progress on the part of the U.S. to put pressure on Tunisia to reform.

"At this writing, the United States 2011 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill would provide $15 million in Foreign Military Financing assistance to Tunisia," the report read. "For the first time, the bill conditions $1 million of that sum on the Tunisian government making 'significant efforts to respect due process and the rights of its citizens to peaceful expression and association and to provide access for its citizens to the Internet.'"

But perhaps the most blistering indictment of U.S. priorities in the region was the section of the report devoted to oil-rich monarchy, Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the United States and the United Kingdom and both countries continued in 2010 to laud Saudi counterterrorism cooperation," the report read. "US pressure for human rights improvements was imperceptible. In September the Pentagon proposed for Congressional approval a US$60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the biggest-ever US arms sale."

--Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, at far left, maintained close relations with the West, especially France and the United States, until shortly before he was driven out of the country by a national protest movement sparked by the self-immolation of a young man named Mohamed Bouaziz, who lies in the hospital bed at right. He would later die of his injuries. Credit: Tunisian government via AFP/Getty

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