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Human Rights Watch urges West to accept Islamist rise to power, support Arab Spring protesters

Human Rights Watch urged world powers to accept Islamist parties as legitimate political powers and to support the rights of Arab Spring protesters after they ousted long-time regimes once backed by the West, in its annual report released on Sunday. Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also heralded Arab protesters in their annual reviews.

"Many democracies have allowed their ties with repressive allies to temper their support for human rights in the Arab Spring protests," Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in World Report 2012, launched in Cairo on 22 January - three days before the anniversary of the revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

"The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference," while at the same time "insist that Islamist governments abide by international human rights obligations, particularly with respect to women's rights and religious freedom," Roth also stressed. In Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist parties won unprecedented majorities in recent elections.

Roth said many Western nations in their dealings with the region made what he called an "Arab exception" that included legitimising fear of political Islam and terrorism, the need to keep oil supplies flowing and a longstanding policy of relying on autocracies to maintain Arab-Israeli peace.

For example, says Human Rights Watch, the United States and the European Union were strongest in standing up to repression in Libya and Syria, whose leaders were considered unfriendly to the West, and were slow to challenge Egypt's Mubarak, a perceived bulwark of regional "stability," until his fate was virtually sealed.

"It is time to end the 'Arab exception' and recognise that the people of the region deserve respect for their rights and freedoms as much as anyone else," he added.

The report also says that transitional governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt "need help revising their repressive laws and building the government institutions that autocrats deliberately left weak and underdeveloped."

The 676-page report documents human rights practices worldwide over the past year, with summaries of conditions in more than 90 countries and territories.

Meanwhile, Freedom House has called the Arab Spring uprisings "the greatest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism," and said they have brought hope to people around the world who live in countries with oppressive governments.

The conclusions come in Freedom House's latest Freedom in the World index, which has been published annually since 1972 and measures the ability of people to exercise their political and civil rights in 195 countries and 14 territories.

For the sixth consecutive year, the number of countries with declining levels of freedom (26) outnumbered those that improved (12). "This continued pattern of global backsliding - especially in such critical areas as press freedom, the rule of law, and the rights of civil society - is a sobering reminder that the institutions that anchor democratic governance cannot be achieved by protests alone," says Freedom House.

And while the Middle East and North Africa region experienced the most significant gains - especially in Tunisia, which showed one of the largest single-year improvements in the history of the index - it also suffered the most declines. Syria and Saudi Arabia fell from already low positions to the worst possible ratings.

"The past year's trends give reason for hope - especially because they arose in a region of the world where many observers dismissed the idea of democratic change as futile," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. "We are at a historic moment, and it is imperative that the United States be fully involved in the difficult process of democracy building that lies ahead."

The report emphasises that 2011 will stand out for being "the first time in some years [that] governments and rulers who mistreated their people were on the defensive."

Reporters Without Borders has weighed in with its 10th annual Press Freedom Index, which also found the Arab world to be "the motor of history in 2011."

"Many media paid dearly for their coverage of democratic aspirations or opposition movements. Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes. The past year also highlighted the leading role played by netizens in producing and disseminating news," said RSF.

"The equation is simple: the absence or suppression of civil liberties leads necessarily to the suppression of media freedom. Dictatorships fear and ban information, especially when it may undermine them," RSF added. Syria, Bahrain and Yemen got the lowest-ever rankings this year.

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