WASHINGTON – As coalition troops continue the task of liberating the Iraqi people, Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a fresh warning Monday to despotic regimes that violate human rights.
"Saddam Hussein's regime is a classic illustration of the fact that such regimes, which ruthlessly violate the rights of their citizens, tend to pose the greatest threats to international peace and stability," Powell said in announcing this year's annual human rights report.
"These country reports on human rights practices will help to shape the Bush administration's policy decisions as we work toward a safer, freer world," he said.
The 196-nation Country Reports on Human Rights Practices touches on every country that seeks both to advance the causes of human rights or repress them. It takes great pains to point out the worst violators, including many governments in the Middle East, who have been scolded for repression of basic human freedoms such as the rule of law, independent media, religious liberty and the rights of minorities.
And with the United States at war in the region, Mideast nations that both oppress their people and oppose the campaign against Saddam Hussein have received extra scrutiny this year. In particular, Syria, which has been increasingly criticized in public by the Bush administration, faced particular censure.
Though the State Department said there had been no political killings or politically-motivated disappearances in the past year, Syria's Ba'ath Party leadership continues to repress fundamental rights.
"The government continued its practice of threatening or detaining the relatives of detainees or of fugitives in order to obtain confessions, minimize outside interference, or prompt the fugitive's surrender. There have been reports that security personnel force prisoners to watch relatives being tortured in order to extract confessions," the report details.
Among other descriptions, the report states that arbitrary arrests and detentions are significant problems, free speech is restricted and free assembly rights don't exist and citizens don't have the right to change their government.
Syria's poor showing in this year's human rights report probably won't upset Damascus too much — the nation is also on the State Department's list of states that harbor terrorists — but experts say it's an important point to make in public, especially in conjunction with other anti-U.S. behavior.
"I don't think Syrians care one jot what we think about their human rights abuses but I think it's a good way for America to sell the argument to the rest of the world that these are very bad guys who do not share our values, who are not on the right side," said John Hulsman, a research fellow specializing in terrorism at the Heritage Foundation.
U.S. officials point out Syrian values very publicly. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Syria is funneling military equipment like night-vision goggles to Iraq, and last night Powell pointed another finger.
"Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences,' Powell told an annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The Syrian government says it has made up its mind. In a statement, the foreign ministry says Syria chose to side with the "brotherly Iraqi people who are facing an illegitimate and unjustifiable invasion" and accused the U.S.-led coalition of "all sorts of crimes against humanity."
While no one is suggesting that war is a possible consequence Syria might face for its support of Iraq, Hulsman said this pronounced public attention may be helpful.
"We can't follow every night-vision goggle going across the border, but on the other hand by saying, 'We're watching you, we've got our eye on you, and there's a price to be paid,' you may very well slow that down," he said.
Fox News' Teri Schultz contributed to this report.