WASHINGTON — The State Department hailed improvements in Moscow's observation of human rights as it released its annual report on the issue Wednesday, but it cautioned that the changes are "less than fundamental."
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter, who heads the department's Bureau of Human Rights, told a news conference that the Soviet Union remains a one-party dictatorship, despite the new style of Kremlin leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"Glasnost (Gorbachev's policy of openness) lets people speak up about one aspect of the society, as long as one accepts the basic premise that the system is a good system," Schifter said in releasing the report. The study of 169 countries is used by Congress when it considers foreign aid appropriations.
"But there has been some leniency," he added, "in that people that circulate letters don't get seven years of hard labor any more or (are) possibly committed to a mental institution."
The report, noting that leniency toward dissenters was largely confined to Moscow and Leningrad, said that change was barely noticeable in the rest of the country. "Reforms are taking place at the direction of the party and are primarily the product of political decisions, not the result of legal reform," it said.
However, the study acknowledged that "Soviet authorities currently are reviewing their entire set of interlocking criminal codes, and Soviet officials have said repeatedly that significant reforms are expected."
Their effect on the human rights of Soviet citizens will not be clear until the revised criminal code appears and is implemented."
In examining the Middle East, the report cited the uprising of Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where "beginning in early December, 1987, there were several weeks of violent confrontation, involving demonstrations and provocations by Palestinians and harsh reprisals by Israeli occupation authorities."
Schifter was asked if he would recommend a cut in Israel's $2-billion allocation of U.S. aid funds in the light of continuing conflicts in the occupied territories that have resulted in 51 Palestinian deaths.
"The provision in the law is that there has to be a gross pattern of (human rights) violation," he replied. "I don't believe we're dealing with a gross pattern of violations. What we are talking about is use of excessive force on a number of occasions."
Schifter, invoking an argument used by Israeli officials, noted that deaths in many other areas have exceeded those in the occupied territories.
Of the East Bloc, Schifter said that Poland and Hungary continue to be the two Soviet satellites "most tolerant of the expression of internal dissent."
He noted that Poland, for the first time in many years, completed the full calendar year "without a single person convicted and incarcerated for the mere expression of dissenting political views."
Schifter also cited progress in Asia, crediting U.S. diplomatic intervention for the achievement of the first presidential election in South Korea last year after 17 years of military governments.
North Korea, however, continued to rate at the bottom of the report along with South Africa. The Pyongyang regime's rating was attributed to the ruling Kim family and its "scant respect for basic human rights and human dignity." The Pretoria government received its poor ranking because of its official policy of racial discrimination.
The report cited slight human rights advances in some Latin American nations, such as Cuba, where the regime of Fidel Castro was said to have exercised more tolerance for human rights activists, who previously been had subjected to harsh measures.
Nicaragua also was credited with limited gains in permitting the publication of an opposition newspaper and broadcasts by non-government radio stations.