2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Good afternoon. I am Karen Stewart, Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Let me say a few words here at the beginning about the production of the reports and make some brief observations about their content. These congressionally mandated annual reports were delivered to Congress earlier today, and they will be posted on our State Department website after this briefing.
The reports themselves are based on information that we have received from governments, multilateral institutions, from national and international nongovernmental groups, and from academics, jurists, religious groups and the media. They have gone through a lengthy process of checking and cross-checking. As we present these reports, the Department of State remains mindful of the both international and domestic scrutiny of our own human rights record.
President Obama has made it clear that we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community, whether by other governments or nongovernmental actors, to be interference in our internal affairs, nor should other governments regard expressions about their performance as such. We and all other sovereign nations have international obligations to respect the universal human rights and freedoms of our citizens. And it is the responsibility of others to speak out when they believe those obligations are not being fulfilled.
Since the days of our own nation’s founding, we have endeavored to correct injustices and fully promote respect for fundamental freedoms for all of our citizens. These efforts have been spurred and are sustained by an accountable democratic system of government, the rule of law, a vibrant free media, and most important of all, the civic activism of our citizenry.
The U.S. Government will continue to hear and reply forthrightly to concerns about our own practices. We will continue to submit reports to international bodies, in accordance with our obligations under various human rights treaties to which we are a party.
Now, in the introduction to these reports, readers will find overviews highlighting key trends in each geographic region. Each of the regional overviews is followed by thumbnail sketches of selected countries, ordered alphabetically, but were chosen for notable developments – positive, negative or mixed – that were chronicled during calendar year 2008.
For the more comprehensive, detailed information, we refer you to each of the individual country reports. I wish to emphasize that the country-specific reports cover calendar year 2008 only. Relevant developments that have taken place since December 31, 2008 will be covered in next year’s reports.
Each country’s report speaks for itself. However, some broad cross-cutting observations can be drawn. One, in 2008, pushback against demands for greater personal and political freedom continued in many countries across the globe. A disturbing number of countries leveled burdensome, restrictive or repressive laws and regulations against nongovernmental organizations and the media, including the internet. Many courageous human rights defenders who peacefully pressed for their own rights and those of their fellow countrymen and women were harassed, threatened, arrested and imprisoned, killed, or subjected to violent other extrajudicial means of reprisal.
Two, human rights abuses remain a symptom of deeper dysfunctions within political systems. The most serious human rights abuses tended to occur in countries where unaccountable rulers wielded unchecked power or there was government failure or collapse, often exacerbated or caused by internal or external conflict.
And three, healthy political systems are far more likely to respect human rights. Countries in which human rights were most protected and respected were characterized by the following electoral, institutional and societal elements: free and fair electoral processes that include not only a clean casting and honest counting of ballots on election day, but also a run-up to the voting that allows real competition and full respect for the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association; representative, accountable, transparent democratic institutions of government, including independent judiciaries under the rule of law to ensure that leaders who win elections democratically also govern democratically and are responsive to the will and needs of the people; and vibrant societies, including independent nongovernmental organizations and free media. While governments bear the ultimate responsibility for living up to their commitments under international law, the work of individuals, civil society groups and independent media in advancing human rights is vital to the expansion of freedom.
To be sure, even in countries where these elements are present, human rights abuses at times occurred – democratic elections can be marred with irregularities; there can be abuses of power and miscarriages of justice. States having weak institutions of democratic government and struggling economies can fall far short of meeting the needs and expectations of their people for a better life. Corruption can undermine public trust, and long-marginalized segments of populations of some countries have yet to enjoy full participation in the life of their nations.
Insecurity due to internal and/or cross-border conflict can hinder respect for and retard progress in human rights. But when the electoral, institutional and societal elements described above obtain, the prospects are far greater for problems to be addressed, for correctives to be applied, and improvements to be made.
Taken together, the three trends we noted – the growing worldwide demand for greater personal and political freedom, governmental efforts to push back on those freedoms and further confirmation that human rights flourish best in participatory democracies with vibrant civil societies confirm the continuing need for vigorous United States diplomacy to speak out and act against human rights abuses, at the same time that our country carefully reviews its own performance. These trends further confirm the need to combine diplomacy with creative strategies that can help to develop healthy political systems and support civil society.
December 10th of 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. In the decades since the declaration’s adoption, there have been remarkable gains on every continent for the rights it enumerates. Still, 60 years later, hundreds of millions of people are denied fundamental freedoms by their governments.
The United States is a country founded on human rights and the rule of law. In publishing these reports, we seek to be a source of information, hope, and help to people everywhere who are oppressed, silenced, and marginalized. We are committed to working at all levels – national, regional, and global – to ensure the human rights enshrined in the universal declaration are protected and respected.
And now, I’ll be happy to take your questions. Please state your name, and the news organization you represent.
QUESTION: Excuse me, I’m Matthew Lee, with AP.
QUESTION: I’m Jill Dougherty, with CNN.
QUESTION: Hold on a second, Jill.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Sorry.
QUESTION: There’s a procedure we go through here.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Sorry, I’m –
QUESTION: Yeah. It’s unfortunate that the Secretary left before taking any questions, but this is really probably a question better directed to her. But since you are the one who is up here, I’m wondering if you can square some things, especially about China. This report is highly critical of China, or at least it notes that there were some – there were severe and substantial human rights abuses in China last year.
There are 44 pages of pretty damning accounts of these abuses, and I’m wondering how you can square – how you square this with Secretary Clinton’s comments last week that the human rights dialogue with China cannot be allowed to interfere with cooperation in other areas, broader areas like the financial crisis and climate change.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, with China, the report certainly concludes that China’s human rights reports remain – human rights record remains poor in 2008, and it worsened in some areas. I think, though, you should look at all the remarks that the Secretary made and what she did when she was out in China. As she says, human rights area is a fundamental aspect of our foreign policy. We – and in all bilateral relations, we work to achieve all of our goals and national interests. Human rights problems were raised, have been raised in the past, were raised by the Secretary in China, will continue to be raised, and we will continue to express our concern for specific cases and for the overall issues that we would like to see improvements in.
QUESTION: So you’re not worried about a disconnect or that this report, in singling out – well, in raising these abuses that were committed by the Chinese authorities will in any way hurt the dialogue in these other areas that the Secretary spoke –
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: I don’t think there is a disconnect. We put out in these reports as factual and as objective a report as we can of what we saw happening in 2008.
QUESTION: And you’re not concerned about any negative reaction or any unwillingness, based on this report, of the Chinese to cooperate in the other areas.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: I think we’ll have a full dialogue with the Chinese on all areas.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: May I follow up?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: It was – I did choose this woman first, so --
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. There was a lack of clarity during that trip. The impression, whether it was right or wrong, that was given was that the U.S. was going to downplay, or was downplaying, human rights. Now, what we’re hearing from the Secretary today says, “I want results. I’m looking for results, and I’m going to reach beyond governments alone.”
What exactly is she saying?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, I think we’ve always wanted results, and she is underlining that this is still our policy to see results in human rights, but also that we are looking -- as a new Administration, we are looking at most – at all of our policies, and at creative ways to approach human rights.
She mentioned going – it’s not just what you say government-to-government; it’s building networks with NGOs, it’s reaching out to the media, it’s reaching out to people and trying to approach human rights issues in all the different ways -- aspects that you can.
There’s also the fact that we work with other partners, with other countries. We work in multilateral organizations. To my way of thinking, it’s just making clear that we are going to try this from all different approaches.
QUESTION: But is it downplaying the government-to-government? In other words, you’re dealing with an end run around a government, so to speak?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: I don’t think it’s downplaying; I think it’s adding to it.
QUESTION: Talking about government-to-government, what about cases like Iran, which the report states that the human rights situation got worse throughout the last -- you know, 2008? Is there going to be any – are you going to reach out to Iranian officials regarding this situation?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, our policy towards Iran remains under review. And as long – until that review is completed, I’m not able to get into the detail of that. I would just repeat that in general, as we’ve said, promoting human rights is going to be a – is and remains a central tenant of our foreign policy. We will continue to encourage Iran to abide by its international commitments, to respect human rights, and in this report, we call attention to where we see the problem areas.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), Radio Marti. Concerning Cuba, in this year, have you seen any improvement with the changing government in Cuba on human rights?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: There were some very minor improvements in Raoul allowing, I think, some cell phones and such, but nothing that really significantly affected the lives of the people, still very concerned, there were – I guess the number of political prisoners also reduced by a few, but we’re still very concerned, and called for the release of the 200-plus political prisoners still there, and for generally allowing the Cuban people the freedom to – all the basic freedoms of press and association and expression, which they still do not have.
Back there, in the back.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) with the Voice of America. Is North Korea again one of the worst violators of human rights in 2008? And how does the State Department plan to address the human rights issue? Will you be prioritizing the denuclearization process over human rights dialogue?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, we don’t – I’m not -- you know, I don’t compare one country to the other, so I’m not doing rankings, or worst in that sense. But North Korea certainly falls in that category that I discussed in the general trends of a country where you have a very authoritarian leadership, and human rights, I have to say, are really, when you look at the whole situation and read the report for North Korea, abysmal, in that case.
Human rights, we have always said and we – will be a part of our overall normalization dialogue when, you know, we’re at negotiations, relations with North Korea, not – so again, I’m not prioritizing it. It’s a part – you have a broad relationship you have to work on when we get to the point of being able to have something like, move towards more talks with North Korea, and it’s a part of that.
QUESTION: May I follow up to that? Are you going to actually follow through and appoint a full-time envoy for human rights to North Korea as was congressionally mandated?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: You know, the – what’s – we will certainly – I – let’s start over. Yes, congressionally mandated and following the law, we will in time, at the appropriate time, but appointments are very early on, still in process.
Yes, sir. I’ll move back here.
QUESTION: Yeah, in Burma and Vietnam, the report seems to point to downward trends or to indications of things getting worse. Could you say something about those two countries? And what is U.S. policy going to aim at in terms of improving that?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, Burma, I think certainly hasn’t gotten any better. It continues – they – in fact, indeed, in 2008, the reports notes the continued, -- again, political prisoners. Numerous democracy activists were given quite draconian prison sentences in 2008. And so, yes, quite a significant increase in the number of prisoners there, and generally, government continues to control all the governmental organs.
We’ve – we are – we will be conducting a review of our U.S.-Burma policy, and again, with the notion of looking for are there any other ways that we haven’t tried, are there more creative ways that we might try to add to our approach to push for greater respect for human rights in Burma. And we continue to urge the regime to heal – to heed the calls of the UN Security Council, which is to release all the political prisoners and to begin a genuine dialogue with the democratic opposition and the ethnic minority leaders.
On Vietnam – remind me what it said in Vietnam – again, a case of – one of continuing restrictions so that, you know, we saw some cracking down on dissent greater than before. We saw some tightening control on press, speech, assembly, association. We’re still concerned about the level of trafficking in persons. So – although I think if you read the report, you’ll get more details of where some steps were positive and others were not. Overall, we find the situation is still unsatisfactory.
MR. DUGUID: Ambassador, you have time for one more question.
QUESTION: Madame --
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Let me get a couple – let me get a couple of these men in the front and back there.
QUESTION: Thank you. Raghubir Goyal from India Globe. On Asia today, two questions, please, quickly. One, Tibetans are crying for human rights. And when Secretary Rice was in China, this issue came up or not, or if they knew about this report on their --
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, I know some things are happening in Tibet or, you know, events even today. But yes, we continue to press the need – our concern that they’re – that that’s one of the areas in which the – China’s human rights record worsened this year was in the errant treatment and the social, cultural, and religious restrictions on Tibet and on the Xinjiang Autonomous Regions.
QUESTION: And second, Amnesty International – just recalling that when this Pakistani delegation was here in the State Department, and what Amnesty is saying, that hundreds of thousands of Baluchs are then – disappeared, and they want to know that – if the Secretary can press this issue as far as human rights in Baluchistan and Pakistan?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, generally, I – again, I’m not aware myself of the details of the Baluch, but we have seen some improvements in human right – in human rights records in Pakistan, but we have – also find that there’s a lot of it that’s still poor, and we – the government has said it’s committed to more reforms, and we’re going to continue to press them and encourage them to fulfill those commitments.
You’re my last one.
QUESTION: With the new emphasis of President Obama on the human rights now, I wonder how much – how you’re going to try to reconcile your principles when it comes to human rights, with your alliances, with, you know, close alliances with some countries like Israel. Now the Israelis’ government – the Israeli government is trying to inform the – or inform the Palestinians of Jerusalem, 1,500 families, that they have to leave their land, their homes in the city. And this goes against the Geneva Convention. Now, how forthcoming are you going to be when it comes to human rights of these Palestinians beside the children of Gaza and the civilians in there that have been bombed?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Well, I think you should look, as I say, in our reports to see exact – see our take on what happened in 2008, and to be assured that we continue to press the government and the authorities and to respect on all sides – on both – on – throughout the region to respect the human rights, to protect civilians, and to fulfill their international commitments.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY STEWART: Thank you.
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