WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pledged Thursday to make the promotion of human rights, especially religious liberty, a top priority of U.S. foreign policy as her department issued its annual 1,400-page report documenting repression in China, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Cuba and other countries--including some staunch U.S. allies.
"These reports reflect the American people's commitment to high standards of respect for human dignity and freedom for all people," said Albright, who underlined the point by personally opening a news conference on the subject. Recent secretaries of state have left the task to others.
"That commitment matters a great deal to me, for I am a beneficiary of it," she added, referring to her experiences as a Czech exile first from the Nazi occupation and later from Communist rule.
She said support for human rights is "a key element in our foreign policy, both in our bilateral relationships and in our leadership within international organizations."
The new emphasis on religious liberty is a departure from the past, when Washington has tended to gauge human rights abuses more by yardsticks of police brutality and authoritarian politics. That shift opened the way for the report to level greater criticism at several countries that are traditional allies of Washington, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
While giving Germany generally high marks for religious freedom, the report says the Bonn government has systematically restricted the rights of members of the Church of Scientology.
In her remarks, Albright said religious repression persists "in too many countries, from Sudan to Vietnam to Iran, [and] in a few, including China, it has increased."
Albright, however, plans to visit China next month as part of a round-the-world tour of leading capitals.
President Clinton said earlier this week that, although the administration's policy of doing business with China has failed to produce human rights advances, there are no plans to change it.
John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, said the policy of "engagement" is, in the long run, the most effective way to promote human rights in China.
He said an attempt to isolate China would only make matters worse, even though the United States does attempt to isolate other human rights offenders, such as Libya, Iran, Iraq and Cuba.
"The way to advance human rights is different in each country," Shattuck said.
The report, actually a compilation of 194 separate reports on individual countries, says the situation deteriorated last year in China, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Indonesia, Albania, Cuba, Belarus and Algeria.
It notes improvements in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Russia, Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ghana, Mali, Sierra Leone, Bulgaria, Romania and Liberia, although in many of those countries, such as Yugoslavia and Liberia, the situation remained dismal despite advances.
In a tacit acknowledgment that in previous years the report sometimes underscored the rights violations in Communist-ruled countries while glossing over abuses by anti-Communist regimes, the State Department says: "We have left the Cold War period in which human rights issues served as an ideological battleground."
Still, the report is hardest on countries with which Washington disagrees on other matters as well.
The department criticizes several U.S. allies, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which are accused of condoning police torture, especially of terrorism suspects.
The report says the Palestinian self-rule authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip violated basic human rights "in its intensive efforts to counter and prevent terrorism."
Other senior U.S. officials have long applauded those efforts as an indication that the authority is serious about its pledge to prevent militant Palestinians from attacking Israelis.
In its section on religious repression, the report says Christians are "subject to difficulties ranging from interference to outright persecution in many countries, including Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan."
The report says the German government subjected Scientologists to "increasing scrutiny" last year.
The department acknowledges the German government's claim that Scientology "is not a religion but a for-profit organization" and offers no conclusions of its own as to whether Scientology should be considered a religion.
Overall, it asserts that "the German government fully supports religious freedom." And it praises the German Interior Ministry for rejecting a call from the ruling Christian Democratic Union to place Scientologists under surveillance by the federal police.
The department is outspoken in its criticism of Indonesia, despite the flow of campaign contributions to the Democratic Party from Indonesian-influenced sources. The Indonesian government "continued to commit serious human rights abuses," the report says.