The U.S. accused authoritarian regimes around the world Wednesday of suppressing their people with "increasing vigor and viciousness" to control any activities that might threaten their power.
"Governments that deny political liberty forfeit public trust, thereby opening the door to civic unrest of all kinds, including I might add, violent extremism," said Secretary of State John Kerry during a news conference unveiling the 2015 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor affairs, told VOA that information published in the report can be used as a basis to make decisions on security assistance to foreign militaries.
"You can be certain that whenever we have credible evidence that a unit or an individual member of a foreign security force has committed gross violations of human rights, we do not and we will not provide assistance to those units and individuals," Malinowski said in a separate interview.
In its 40th annual human rights report, the U.S. State Department said, "In 2015, this global crackdown by authoritarian states on civil society deepened, silencing independent voices, impoverishing political discourse, and closing avenues for peaceful change."
At a time when technology is increasingly connecting people and making it easier to communicate and organize, the report said, authoritarian governments are making new efforts to stifle civil society "because they fear public scrutiny, and feel threatened by people coming together in ways they cannot control."
The State Department singled out numerous governments for criticism, including what it described as "historically authoritarian regimes" in North Korea, Cuba, China, Iran, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The report also denounced Islamic State terrorists for their brutal attacks on civilians.
"The most widespread and dramatic violations in 2015 were those in the Middle East, where the confluence of terrorism and the Syrian conflict caused enormous suffering," Kerry said.
Cuba, Russia, China under scrutiny
Even as the U.S. has normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba and President Barack Obama recently visited the island nation off the U.S. southern coast, the State Department said Havana "continued its practice of arbitrary, short-term detentions to impede the exercise of freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. The government also re-arrested several political prisoners it had released in January 2015 who had continued their activism during the year."
In China, the report said, "repression and coercion markedly increased during the year against organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy. The crackdown on the legal community was particularly severe."
The State Department said Russia "instituted a range of measures to suppress dissent. The government passed new repressive laws and selectively employed existing ones systematically to harass, discredit, prosecute, imprison, detain, fine, and suppress individuals and organizations engaged in activities critical of the government."
The report said in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula Moscow seized in 2014, Russia has engaged in "systematic harassment and discrimination" against Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars by curbing their ability to speak out against the occupation.
The State Department said Malaysia, Tajikistan and Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S., stifled civil society activity through "overly broad counterterrorism or national security laws," or stiff interpretation of the laws.
The report said governments in Iran, Egypt, Kenya, Cambodia, Uganda, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Ecuador all "deployed burdensome administrative and bureaucratic procedures as a means to restrict freedom of association."
The annual State Department report provides a benchmark for rights groups and organizations around the world tracking government abuses.
Malinowski said it also helps inform Washington's police on foreign assistance.
"We enforce the Leahy Law in every country in the world," Malinowski said, referring to the law authored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which stipulates a process through which the U.S. government vets U.S. assistance to foreign security forces to ensure that recipients have not committed gross human rights abuses.
But some critics say the State Department could do more to follow up on what it details in the report.
Sarah Margon, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, said, "even though this document is so accurate and so clear-eyed about what's going on in many of these countries, it isn't often used in the way that it should be."
Margon added that this year's report highlighted not only non-state actor abuses, but also violations by governments that are "friends or allies" of the U.S.
Criticisms for U.S. politicians
Kerry also took time Wednesday to push back on one particular U.S. foreign policy topic that became an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.
"I want to remove even a scintilla of doubt or confusion that has been caused by statements that others have made in recent weeks and months,” Kerry said. “The United States is opposed to the use of torture, in any form, at any time by any government or non-state actor."
Republican front-runner Donald Trump had suggested that the United States would be more effective at interrogating terrorists and preventing future attacks by torturing terrorist suspects or killing their families. He later appeared to walk back the statement when it was pointed out that ordering such actions would violate U.S. treaties and military codes of conduct.
VOA's Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.