(Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch's executive director, speaks at a news conference in Almaty June 3, 2009. A human rights group accused Kazakhstan on Wednesday of failing to act on its pledges to make democratic reforms ahead of its chairmanship of Europe's top security and rights organisation next year. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov )

Western democracies should overcome their aversion to Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in North Africa and the Middle East and encourage them to respect basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report. HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the group’s annual report that the past year’s Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings across the region have 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 West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, he said in HRW’s 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide.

“The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,” he said. “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.” “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 said in the introduction to the report.

He added that the international community “should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends.”