No, Israel’s not the world’s big human rights problem

If you monitor United Nations proceedings, listen to political debates on college campuses, and take in much mainstream and new media, you might think that Israel is the world’s greatest human rights abuser.

The reality is quite different, as this week’s release of the U.S. State Department’s latest annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices makes clear. The reports are both hopeful and sober reading, a mix of notable progress in individual countries and brutal crackdowns in all too many others.

More than anything, the reports remind us that we live in consequential times for freedom and democracy. As Freedom House has outlined in its annual Freedom in the World reports of recent years, as Joshua Kurlantzick explains in his important new book Democracy in Retreat, and as the State Department now fleshes out, the advance of freedom and democracy has stalled and even lost some ground of late.

The causes are multiple – not the least of which include America’s preoccupations with economic weakness, fiscal imbalance, and military overreach that convinced U.S. leaders to lower America’s profile in promoting human rights, and more aggressive and effective efforts by autocrats to suppress dissent and retain power.

While lowering the U.S. profile, however, the Obama Administration clearly recognizes that the direction of human rights has real implications not just for the world at large but for the United States as well.

“It is in our interest to promote the universal rights of all persons,” Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in the “Preface” to his department’s reports. “Governments that respect human rights are more peaceful and more prosperous. They are better neighbors, stronger allies, and better economic partners.”

“Conversely,” he went on, “governments that threaten regional and global peace, from Iran to North Korea, are also egregious human rights abusers, with citizens trapped in the grip of domestic repression, economic deprivation, and international isolation.”

We’re reminded that most regions suffer from human rights abuses of real significance, whether we look at Africa or the Near East, Europe or the Western Hemisphere, East Asia and the Pacific or South and Central Asia.

For instance, human rights “continued to deteriorate” in China, where authorities cracked down on activists, increasingly censored the internet, and restricted civil society. Rights deteriorated in Vietnam, where the government imprisoned dissidents and harassed activists and their families. North Korea remained a humanitarian horror show, with “extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, arrests of political prisoners, and torture.”

In the Congo, with its weak central government, rebel militias engaged in “unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, the recruitment and abuse of child soldiers, and gender-based violence, including mass rapes.” In Mali, where armed forces overthrew civilian rule, rebels, terrorists, and other Islamist militants executed civilians, used child soldiers, amputated the hands and feet of suspected thieves, intimidated journalists, and destroyed ancient monuments. In Nigeria, Boko Haram militants bombed churches, police stations, and banks, kidnapped and killed British, Italian, and German hostages, and engaged in extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and arbitrary detention.

Elsewhere, Russia significantly restricted civil liberties, cracked down on the press, and continued to severely abuse human rights in the North Caucasus. Iran executed criminals for minor offenses, sometimes in public; intensified its crackdown on civil society; severely restricted freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion; arrested journalists, students, lawyers, artists, and ethnic and religious activists; and engaged in politically motivated torture, beatings, and rape. Cuba’s communist government severely limited free speech and a free press, and detained people in record numbers. Venezuela politicized its judiciary, prosecuted political, union, business, and civil society critics, and harassed, intimidated, and even assaulted the media.

The Near East remained the region of so much hope and horror, so much uncertainty about the future. Egypt held a fair and credible democratic election, but voters have since adopted a constitution that limits freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly. Meanwhile, President Mohamed Morsi’s government brought charges against those who allegedly “blasphemed or denigrated religions, government figures, and the Prophet Muhammad.” Women’s and minority rights are under siege, while government backers and demonstrators continue to clash violently on the street.

Libya suffers from a similar mix of hope and reality, as inspiring parliamentary elections were followed by deadly violence on the street that a weak central government lacked the wherewithal to stop. Meanwhile, Syria’s horror continues, with Bashar al-Assad’s government slaughtering civilians by assaulting, for instance, “funeral processions, breadlines, schools, places of worship, and hospitals throughout the country, asserting these were rebel safe-havens.”

Oh, and Israel – the subject of such outsized global attention, such high-brow ridicule, such angry condemnation? For all of its faults and imperfections, the Middle East’s sole true democracy simply didn’t make the State Department’s “2012 Country Highlights” of human rights problems.