03/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Human Rights Watch To Obama: Less Rhetoric, More Action

As abusive governments intensified their attacks on human rights defenders and journalists documenting rights violations in 2009, the Obama administration delivered little but rhetoric in response, Human Rights Watch said today in issuing its World Report 2010.

According to the 612-page report that summarizes major human rights trends worldwide, the "devastating series of killings and threats" against lawyers, activists and journalists fighting human rights abuses in Burma, China, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Afghanistan, Iran and a number of other countries over the past year is an unfortunate side effect of renewed human rights movements in those countries.

Authoritarian governments also routinely shut down and censor human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations, the group said. Ethiopia recently instituted a new law prohibiting NGOs that receive more than $10,000 a year in foreign funding from operating within its borders, and China and Iran used the disbarment of lawyers, staged attacks and restrictive criminal libel laws to silence critics.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, called on the Obama Administration to take a more active approach to international human rights issues, arguing that the only way abusive governments will cease their assault on rights defenders is if governments that support human rights are willing to aggressively criticize and demand change.

"With the Obama administration, we've seen a dramatic improvement in human rights rhetoric, but the president's speeches have not been translated into shifts in policy and practice," Roth said. "In Africa, the president delivered a nice speech on the fact that the continent needs strong institutions rather than strong men, but no sustained pressure has been put on those leaders to implement the institutions. In Moscow, the President waxed eloquently about the importance of civil society, but there has been no follow-up."

In the wake of China's cyber-attack against Google, the Obama administration should take the lead in sharply criticizing China's legacy of repression and be more outspoken on the problem of internet censorship worldwide, Roth said. But so far, Obama has been silent on the issue.

"Governments that consider themselves human rights supporters often keep silent in the face of these abuses by allies, citing diplomatic or economic priorities," Roth said. "But that silence makes them complicit in the abuse. The only proper response to serious human rights violations is to turn up the heat on the abusers."

While Obama has taken some positive steps in defense of human rights violations committed by his own country -- he has banned torture and promised to close Guantanamo -- these steps were "not as large or enduring as we hoped," said Roth. He urged Obama to investigate and prosecute former Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others who have ordered, facilitated, or carried out torture.