NEW YORK - A leading human rights group has urged Western countries to overcome their anti-Islamists' sentiments and respect the people's choice for new Islamist governments in the Arab Spring elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.
"The international community must . . . come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in the group's annual report issued on Sunday, January 22.
"Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule."
Focusing on the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings, HRW's 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide has shown it is vital for the West to end its policy of backing "an array of Arab autocrats" in exchange for supporting Western interests.
The report also focused on supporting elected groups in North Africa and the Middle East and encouraging them to respect basic rights.
Rights-respecting governments should support international justice regardless of political considerations.
It's misguided to believe that allowing countries to sweep past abuses under the rug will somehow avoid encouraging future atrocities, Roth said.
"Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights - just as the Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do," he added in the introduction to the report.
Islamist blocs have emerged as major political forces in Tunisia , Egypt and Morocco.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's party gained more than 45% of the vote, while Salafists got nearly 23%.
Moderate Islamist Ennahda party won most votes in last month's elections in Tunisia.
In Morocco, moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) had won parliamentary elections and formed the first Islamic government in the country.
HRW said the West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, condemning Washington reluctant positions to abandon autocratic rulers in the Middle East who serve its interests.
The people driving the Arab Spring deserve strong international support to realize their rights and to build genuine democracies, said Roth.
Loyalty to autocratic friends shouldn't stand in the way of siding with democratic reformers. International influence is also needed to ensure that the new governments extend human rights and the rule of law to all, especially women and minorities.
While praising the US and European Union for their stance on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the situation was not the same for Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh.
HRW said Washington was reluctant to abandon Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, seen as key to maintaining regional stability and peace with Israel.
"Western governments imposed no meaningful consequences for killing protesters on the government of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they viewed as a defense against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," he said.
The report's blame was not laid only on western democracies.
The Arab League has also been inconsistent. Even worse has been the African Union, which he called "shamefully complacent."
"Ostensibly founded to promote democracy, it has acted like a dictator's support club, siding with whichever government happens to be in power regardless of its conduct," Roth said.
"As the revolutions proceeded in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya the AU was at best irrelevant, at worst unhelpful."