WASHINGTON – A chemicals weapons attack in Syria last summer that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people was the world’s worst human rights violation of 2013, the Obama administration concluded Thursday.
The report by the State Department also foreshadowed the unrest that has gripped the Ukraine in recent weeks and toppled its government.
The survey singled out some usual suspects in its annual roundup of abuses: Iran, for manipulation of elections and civil liberties restrictions; North Korea, for rampant reports of extrajudicial killings, detentions and torture; and Belarus, for beatings of protesters and lack of checks and balances by the authoritarian government.
But the department said the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs in Syria was “one of many horrors in a civil war filled with countless crimes against humanity, from the torture and murder of prisoners to the targeting of civilians with barrel bombs and Scud missiles, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.”
“The tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people stands apart in its scope and human cost,” the report concluded.
The U.S. has said at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, were killed in the attacks. The U.S. cites intelligence reports but has not provided specifics on how the figure was obtained.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, has reported a far lower death toll.
In a sign of things to come, the report also highlighted government crackdowns on peaceful protests in Ukraine and Russia’s refusal to punish human rights abusers during 2013.
Those findings showed the brewing unrest in Ukraine over the past year that erupted this month, forcing President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev. On Thursday, Russian news agencies reported Yanukovych was staying at a Kremlin sanatorium, outside Moscow, for protection.
In Ukraine, according to the report, parliamentary elections did not meet international standards for fairness or transparency, and security forces beat protesters with batons and other forms of force at a peaceful Nov. 30 demonstration against the government at Kiev’s main square.
But the report said the most egregious abuse in Ukraine last year was the government’s crackdown on media, including violence against journalists. It criticized Yanukovych’s government for increasing pressure on civil society activists and nongovernment organizations.
The report said Ukrainian security forces beat detainees, maintained unhealthy prisons, fostered corruption in the courts and across the government, and harassed or otherwise discriminated against ethnic minorities and gay people.
In nearly every area of the globe — from hazardous labor conditions in Bangladesh, where a factory collapse killed more than 1,100 workers, to harassment of media in Venezuela — the department’s survey found human rights abuses. It also criticized Egyptian security forces for killing at least 600 protesters in two deadly demonstrations.
In Asia, U.S. officials said the region’s human rights record in 2013 remained poor, from China’s crackdown on activists to flawed elections in Cambodia and widespread violence against Muslims in Myanmar.
The report documented a litany of abuses across the continent, with especially strong criticism of North Korea, where it said conditions “remained deplorable.”
An estimated 80,000 to 200,000 people are in prison camps and detention systems in the isolated communist state, facing “harsh and life-threatening” circumstances, as well as “systematic and severe human rights abuses.”
And despite minor successes in China, such as the abolition of labor camps and a change to the one-child policy, the economically resurgent country of more than 1 billion people remained “an authoritarian state.”
“Repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy . . . were routine,” the report said. “The government systematically used its laws to silence dissent and punish individuals, as well as their relatives and associates, for attempting to exercise their right to free expression.”
It also noted Beijing’s continued repression of ethnic Uighurs and Tibetans.
Many governments meanwhile were tightening controls on the Internet despite a thirst among their populations for greater openness.
“In Vietnam, the government strengthened monitoring and surveillance of the Internet, further limited privacy rights, and continued to restrict political rights, imprisoning and prosecuting activists under vague national security law,” the report noted.
Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy Uzra Zeya said Washington continues “to call on the government of Vietnam at the highest levels to make progress to comply with its international human rights obligations and commitments.”
Washington had also raised the fate of Hanoi’s political prisoners including the November conviction of 13 Roman Catholic bloggers.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted concerns about the lack of accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, “where attacks on civil society activists, journalists and religious minorities sadly still continue.”
And he insisted that countries that embrace human rights can become more stable and “stronger partners for peace and prosperity.” He pointed to Myanmar, referring to it as Burma, as an example of a government now seeking to take a different path and in return seeing international embargoes lifted.
“In Burma, we continue to see a country that was isolated for so many years slowly moving away not just from dictatorship, but toward a more productive partnering with the United States and the international community,” Kerry told reporters.
However the report pointed out that “significant human rights problems” across Myanmar “persisted, including conflict-related abuses in ethnic minority border states.”
In Bangladesh, where a factory collapse in April killed 1,000 garment workers, “politically motivated violence, official corruption . . . as well as poor working conditions and labor rights remained serious human rights problems.”
And in Cambodia, “a flawed and poorly managed electoral process disenfranchised a significant number of eligible voters during the July 28 national elections,” the report noted.