State official: WikiLeaks poses a threat to human rights

Individuals working to advance freedom under authoritarian regimes were put at risk.

During a briefing Thursday on the declining state of civil liberties worldwide, including freedom of the press, a top State Department official said the publishing of diplomatic cables on the Internet has posed a threat to human rights.

"Whether whatever you're reading is real or not, there is clearly a risk to a whole slew of people," said Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, referring to the boatload of sensitive and classified State documents posted on the anti-secrets website WikiLeaks. "My new normal is to protect people who are unwittingly, unknowingly, often the subject of reprisals because of their mention in those cables."

Posner said, "I'm not supposed to say that anything in there is real ... [but] if you read a lot of the cables you do get a sense that there is a lot of time and energy that goes into these projects" on the part of diplomats to advocate political rights in other countries.

Posner's comments were made, during an event tied to the release of an independent assessment showing that global freedom suffered its fifth consecutive decline in 2010 -- the longest continuous decline in the 40 years researchers have been analyzing political rights and civil liberties internationally.

According to the Freedom House human rights group's annual assessment of freedom in the world, last year saw a drop in the number of democracies, as well as an overall deterioration of freedom in the Middle East and North Africa region. The organization defines a "free" country as one where there is open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life and independent media.

"Elections were an institution that did not decline over the past 10 years," noted Arch Puddington, research director for Freedom House. "Autocrats are willing to have elections as long as they can control the press, as long as they can pay their cronies and smother the [nongovernmental organizations], and especially where they can politicize the judiciary."

Posner agreed with the analysis. The WikiLeaks postings, however, illustrate the tension between free speech and human rights; by releasing sensitive cables, the organization purportedly devoted to increasing government transparency has jeopardized the lives of individuals working to advance freedom under authoritarian regimes.

According to Freedom House, out of 194 countries, the number designated as "free" fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, compared with the 2005 figure of 123. The group argued that oppressive regimes such as China, Egypt, Iran, Russia and Venezuela ramped up suppression with little significant resistance from the democratic world.