Democracies around the world are ignoring abuses by repressive regimes and opting for improved relations rather than condemning rights violations and curtailing aid, Human Rights Watch said Monday.
In its annual report, the international watchdog decried what it called the increasing use of soft measures without any guarantees to ensure that changes occur in regimes.
"'Dialogue' and 'cooperation' with repressive governments is too often an excuse for doing nothing about human rights," said Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director.
For instance, he criticized EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for meeting in Brussels on Monday with autocratic President Islam Karimov of energy-rich Uzbekistan.
"For him to be received warmly by Mr. Barroso is in a sense a culmination of this gradual capitulation," Roth said. He called Karimov a "ruthless leader," and the Human Rights Watch report said Uzbekistan's human rights record remains "abysmal," with crackdowns on opposition and media, and persecution of religious believers.
"The European Union has epitomized this failure, this tendency to fall for subterfuge used by these governments to avoid serious pressure," Roth said.
But Barroso said human rights stood at the heart of his private talks with the Uzbek leader.
"I have raised all key concerns of Europe, notably regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms, which stand at the heart of EU foreign policy," Barroso said.
"I believe it is through such a robust eye to eye dialogue, and not an empty-chair policy, that we can further the EU's unanimously agreed policy of engagement most effectively," he said.
Overall, the report said many democracies are abandoning political pressure and accepting the rationalizations of authoritarian governments.
It criticized U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for failing during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao last year to publicly criticize China's rights record or its imprisonment of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Ban has said he raised the issue of human rights publicly in three Chinese cities and in private talks with Chinese leaders.
Regarding the U.S., the report criticized the alleged use of illegal interrogation methods involving the torture of terror suspects during the Bush administration.
The report also said President Barack Obama's "famed eloquence ... has sometimes eluded him when it comes to defending human rights." This was especially noticeable in contacts with countries that are important to U.S. interests, such as China, India, Indonesia, Egypt and Bahrain, the group said.
During Hu's visit to Washington last week, Obama pushed China to allow fundamental freedoms but assured Hu the U.S. considers the communist nation a friend and vital economic partner.
Human Rights Watch praised the Norwegian Nobel committee for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, despite China's displeasure.
But the group said a shifting global balance of power — particularly China's rise as an economic and military force — was leaving the West reluctant to confront other nations on moral grounds, especially regarding their "abusive counterterrorism techniques."
Human Rights Watch's list of most abusive countries included Belarus, China, Colombia, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. Without outside pressure, Roth said, the list will grow.
"A dictator will weigh this cost-benefit analysis and decide that repression pays. The aim of the international community is to make repression not pay," he said.
The group also complained about what it called the West's "soft reaction to certain favored African autocrats, such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia."
Defending human rights "may sometimes interfere with other governmental interests," Human Rights Watch said. "But if governments want to pursue those interests instead of human rights, they should at least have the courage to admit it."
The report said the West's fading interest in human rights issues is partly caused by a decline in international news coverage, which has serious implications for human rights groups working under repressive regimes who need the Western media to get their message out.
The 648-page report also documented human rights abuses in Western nations, such as the widespread and institutionalized discrimination in European Union countries against members of the Roma (Gypsy) minority.
It said the EU's "record of discrimination and rising intolerance against migrants, Muslims, Roma, and others" suggests the EU and its member states "need to show greater political commitment to ensure that respect for human rights at home matches the EU's rhetoric abroad."