Briefing on the Release of the 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you, Secretary Clinton, and welcome. I want to just, if I may, say a few introductory words about the report and something about the trends we see, and then open it up for questions. The report covers 194 countries. It’s the work of probably close to a thousand people in reporting, writing, and editing. It’s a massive document. It’s over 2 million words. We can’t figure out how many pages that is, but if you try to print it, it’ll take reams of paper. It’s the single-most exhaustive, comprehensive compilation of information about human rights produced anywhere in the world.
I want to thank everybody in the State Department who worked on it, especially Steve Eisenbraun, who’s, for the last four years, been leading the effort in the DRL team, but really people all over the world who work on this report in many – in very risky and stressful places.
The original purpose of this report was to inform Congress. In the 1970s, Congressman Fraser and then Congressman Harkin introduced legislation linking human rights to aid policy, and they needed information about how do you make those decisions. It’s now much more than that. It’s used throughout the Executive Branch, throughout this building, but also other agencies of government. It’s used by journalists like yourselves. And importantly, it’s now a great source of information for people living in countries around the world who are often learning about things in their own countries by reading the report.
We’re doing much more to translate the reports, to disseminate them throughout the world. There is a huge international readership of these reports.
The reports are predicated on three broad assumptions which Secretary Clinton and the President have repeated in assessing or in promoting our human rights policy. One, as she just said, we believe in a principled engagement. Part of that engagement requires us to be informed and have an understanding of the world. That’s what this report is seeking to do.
Secondly, we hold every government, including our own, to a single universal standard.
And third, we have a commitment of fidelity to the truth. And this report – the production of this report and publication – tests that assumption probably more than anything we do in government.
As the Secretary said, the report is not a policymaking document, it’s a predicate, it’s a foundation upon which policies are shaped and guided. It’s the starting point. It’s not the end.
In terms of trends, there are three things, and some of this is spelled out in the introduction. We live in a world of conflict. More than 30 wars and internal conflicts fueled by ethnic/racial/religious tensions and differences. These conflicts disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, often women, children, people with disabilities, refugees, in places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, the Congo, Sudan. It’s often these vulnerable groups that are on the receiving end.
We also see these vulnerable groups in other contexts. The LGBT community, for example, in Uganda, where government seeks to impose further criminal sanctions against their private conduct and even contemplates the death penalty; the Roma in a range of European countries, including Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic; discrimination against Muslims, including hate crimes, in Europe. We have the Swiss minarets, the vote of the Swiss population, 57 percent, banning further minarets being built. And anti-Semitism in a range of places in Europe and throughout the Middle East.
We need to pay, in our opinion, greater diplomatic attention to promoting tolerance and addressing these underlying conflicts. The President’s speech in Cairo is an example of that, as is the work we’re doing at the UN Security Council, which passed Resolution 1820 condemning sexual violence as a weapon of war.
The second broad context-setter for me is the greater access to connective technologies is both an opportunity to promote rights, but also has given governments greater energy in curtailing freedom of expression. The Secretary outlined this at a speech in January, and I met with many of you to discuss it after that.
We see that as part of a broader debate or a tension also where governments are trying to find ways to curtail local advocacy. No less than 25 governments in the last couple of years have imposed new restrictions on nongovernmental, human rights, and other organizations – the right to organize, the right to assemble, the right to gather and collect funds from abroad.
A third broad category we see is the use and misuse of national security legislation and emergency legislation to apply broad curtailments on basic civil liberties. We see that in Egypt, we see that in Russia, we see that in Sri Lanka. And I’m glad to say more about that.
I want to just mention a couple of other places specifically. One is China, where the government’s human rights record remain poor and worsening in some areas, including increased cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities. In Xinjiang, an increased attention, harassment of activists and public interest lawyers who are increasingly under surveillance and who are being repressed. There’s continuing repression in the Tibetan areas, limits on free expression, and control of the internet.
Iran, an already poor human rights situation, rapidly deteriorated after the June elections. At least 45 people were killed in clashes, thousands were arrested, another thousand were arrested in demonstrations in December. It is a place where we are continuing to see severe repression of dissent and are continuing to pay great attention.
I want to mention also the situation of prisoners in Cuba. Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February after 11 weeks on a hunger strike. Several others, we believe, are now on hunger strike in solidarity with him. Their plight reflects the broader problem of the range of problems and the deplorable prison conditions in Cuba.
And finally, we continue to monitor – and this is not in 2008 but recent weeks – the violence last weekend in Nigeria and call on all parties and all communities there to work together and to prevent an escalation of that violence.
Last point, there’s some positive trends. I want to end with that. We are working – continuing to work closely with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, and she and her government undertook and completed in 2009 a major Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, held hearings, 700 hearings, 18,000 statements. They released a report that really is – ought to be a model. And also, the prosecution of Charles Taylor.
In Georgia, there was new criminal procedure legislation that provides greater protections in trials. The Ukraine established a commission on anticorruption and, again, recently had a successful election. Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional system, a parliamentary monarchy, following the king’s voluntary relinquishment of his authority. And the Maldives, where there was also the first multiparty parliamentary election.
The last bit on the positive side, and it, to me, is the most important: We continue to live in a world where the change in human rights is occurring within societies. It’s very hard to change societies from outside, and the resilience of people within countries around the world, their willingness to take risks, and their determination to form organizations fighting for women’s rights, for children’s rights, for human rights, for the environment – these are the future. And we see an increase in activity, an increase in creativity, and it really, to me, signals the great hope on human rights going forward.
Let me stop there and take questions. Yeah.
QUESTION: Elise Labott from CNN. Thank you. I’d like to ask about your area of conflict, and I have to read the specific section on Israel a little more carefully. But you talk about – I mean, obviously, the human rights of Israelis in the conflict being killed by rockets and things is disturbing. But I’m wondering how you see the situation in Gaza and the lack of humanitarian aid or shortage of humanitarian aid. I mean, isn’t access to clean water, shelter, food, electricity, those type of things also a human right that people, regardless of whether they’re in the middle of a conflict, deserve?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Let me answer that in two respects. The broader discussion of Gaza in the last year, and it’s very much in the report, focused on Operation Cast Lead at the beginning of the year and the Goldstone Report that followed at the UN.
And our assessment of that from the beginning has been that there was an inadequate attention in that report to the nature of the conflict. It’s an urban conflict, an asymmetrical conflict where there needs to be an evaluation by the Israelis, by us, by everybody who is involved in those sorts of conflicts, in the way in which you can preserve and protect noncombatant civilians, including the humanitarian issue you describe. This is a subject that I think has not gotten the attention it deserves, and it ought to be the way we look forward.
We’ve also said to the Israelis and all the parties they need to review everything that happened in Cast Lead, conduct serious review and investigation, and have accountability mechanisms.
QUESTION: If I could just quickly follow up?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.
QUESTION: I mean, I’m not – I guess I’m not even asking – I mean, does it really matter what the nature of the conflict is? And I’m not even talking about Operation Cast Lead and how it was conducted, and obviously, rights on both sides were violated. I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day, you know, quality-of-life issues. Regardless of who was at fault or, you know, things like that, I mean, you know, you talk in other areas of the report and – about, you know, places where people are suffering in Sri Lanka because of the conflict.
I mean, does it really matter, you know, that Hamas is ruling Gaza and, you know, they’re committing human rights – I mean, the fact that there are so many roadblocks and the inability to get aid in, I mean, is that a violation of human rights by Israel?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, let me come back to your initial question and try to answer it both ways. The issues – humanitarian access, humanitarian concerns are definitely part of what we are paying attention to. And Senator Mitchell, others in the U.S. Government are constantly in these discussions. I had some when I was in Israel in January. And the kinds of things you’re describing there is some movement on, but hospital conditions, access to food and medicine, all of that is clearly something that’s – that we favor and that we are trying to be supportive of. We’re supportive financially to UNRWA, which is feeding probably 70 percent of the population of Gaza.
It is more complicated, to be sure, to deal with humanitarian questions in a place where the – where Hamas is largely in control. It makes the effort more difficult. It does not mean that there isn’t a responsibility. It does not mean that we’re not going to continue to do what we can to promote humanitarian assistance and support.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes.
QUESTION: Yes, Ali al-Ahmed from the Gulf Institute. I have two questions – a question about Hadi al-Mutif, the longest-held religious prisoner in Saudi Arabia. Has that received the State Department attention? Are they doing something substantial on it beside just including him in the report? He’s been there for 17, almost running on 18 years. And it hasn’t taken the attention of a lot of people around the world.
The second question is about Saudi schoolbooks. We have received it in our organization, this year’s, and it’s the same textbooks that has been since September 11th. Why hasn’t the United States been able to effect change to have these things – are you – have – do you have a plan or a dead timeline for effecting change? Because the textbooks still promote child marriage, promote the murder of Jews and Christians and other religions.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On your first question, we do continue to raise his case. We’re deeply concerned about it. It’s an ongoing subject of discussion between our Embassy and the Government of Saudi Arabia. The report, if you read it, is extremely frank about both prison conditions as well as a range of other issues.
On the issue of the textbooks, we – I did testify about this in the fall after we released the religious freedom report. I share the concern that the textbooks continue to have details and passages that I consider and I think we consider unacceptable. We are now – we’ve accelerated our efforts in our Bureau to review those books from a young age on. We want to – we are looking, I think, at several of them as representative and we’re now trying to look at the – across the board from fourth, fifth grade on.
It’s – these are – this is an important subject and it’s important to me because they’re not only used in Saudi Arabia, but they’re disseminated throughout the Arab-speaking – Arabic-speaking world. So this is a subject of interest. We’re going to continue to pursue it. And I can’t tell you we’ve made great progress, but we’re definitely committed to trying to keep this on the agenda.
QUESTION: May I follow up?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: And I did talk to Ambassador Smith about it as well.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up, sir, please?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you. Like you said, many kingdoms are changing to democracies. Why not Saudi Arabia and others are still no change there? And second, as far as this report is concerned, when you go or Secretary go to New York at the United Nations Human Rights Council, do you think because of this report the mood of those on the council who do not believe in human rights will change?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, the first answer to your first question: We can do what we can do to be clear about our commitment to democracy and human rights, to delineate what we mean by that. I think the Secretary did an excellent job in December in her speech at Georgetown. Democracy is a broad concept that – you practice it 365 days a year. It involves empowering civil society and rule of law and transparency and empowering women, free press, all of those things.
And we’re trying in various places to take countries where they are, to work with them, to begin to build those building blocks of democracy. Countries in the report – 194 countries – are all along a spectrum in terms of how far they are, but our commitment is, one, to be helpful where we can – a place like Liberia where you have a strong leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who deeply believes in this stuff – and at the same time, other countries that are more resistant. And so we have to – we have 194 different approaches to this, depending on where we are and what our relations are.
On how countries react to the report at the UN or how the Human Rights Council is going to change, we are determined to be at the Human Rights Council as a leader. We’re determined to change the way the Human Rights Council does business. It’s unacceptable. We’re determined to get our allies to be – work with us. We’re also determined to try to break the logjam where there are blocks of voters that are frozen in irreconcilable differences. But part of the process is just to get information out, and that’s what this report does. Everybody may not love this report, but they read it and they pay attention to it, including other governments, and that’s part of the value of it.
QUESTION: I guess I wanted to ask – the State Department keeps track of U.S. citizens who die abroad from non-natural causes. And according to the State Department reports, Mexico has the highest number of U.S. citizens who die from homicide. And I was just briefly – I didn’t have a lot of time to look through this report, but in the Mexico report, it speaks about kidnappings and murders, but it doesn’t address the U.S. citizens who have died there. Why is that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think the report is – we deal with those issues a range of ways, including through our Consular Affairs Bureau and people working in embassies on the ground. This report is intended to give a broad view. There is a lot of violence in Mexico, as you rightly point out. American citizens – because we’re neighbors, because it’s – there is so much violence related to drugs, crime, et cetera, American citizens are among those who are the victims. And we obviously pay greater attention – we have an obligation to pay attention to protecting American citizens. But it’s not – those cases are not necessarily highlighted first and foremost in the report.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up to that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Basically, Senator Pat Leahy has been very strong in, you know, for State to put more attention on the Mexican military abuses during the drug war. And I see the report contains lots of pages dealing with detailed information about abuses by the Mexican military. Can we interpret this report as attending some of the – sorry, replying to some concerns in Congress?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, again, I think you ought to review the report as our exercise in trying to get a clear, accurate picture of what’s going on. It is not a report that prescribes policy. But I can tell you, in the case of Mexico, Ambassador Pascual is very attentive to these things. He’s very eager, and we’re working with him closely to try to figure out the next steps we can take to advance the human rights agenda. And a lot of it has to do with this level of violence and also the institutional response, the sense of impunity and the sense that the courts and the judicial system isn’t as strong as it needs to be. He’s committed to that. He’s approached us to say he wants to work with us, which is a great sign. And we are, in fact, in the coming weeks going to expand those conversations.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes.
QUESTION: Howard LaFranchi with the Christian Science Monitor. The Secretary in her comments spoke of practical strategies for advancing human rights. And from some human rights organizations, there’s been criticism that the Administration’s human rights policies have been too realist or acknowledging of governments actions and not challenging them enough. And so I’m wondering what did she mean by “practical strategies”?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: This is a kind of narrative or a discussion that’s gone on over the last year, and I want to be clear in reaffirming what she said. That when we talk about practical or pragmatic engagement, it’s also a principle engagement based on a commitment to human rights. What we want to do is get results. It is not sufficient, although it’s often a piece, to be publicly critical and condemnatory. But words alone don’t change behavior.
And so when we talk about internet freedom – to give you one example – it is – it’s great that we have a clearly articulated speech, and I think her speech really hit the mark in terms of identifying the range of problems – but it’s also critical that we figure out how are we going to address the restrictions on the internet that many governments who are now imposing with greater energy and resources. And so we have an internet task force that Maria Otero and Bob Hormats chair. We brought in businesses last week, about 25 of them, to talk to them about what their responsibility is. We’re spending money to work on both the technical side of that, the circumvention technology, but also trying to figure out how do you help local activists figure out how to use that technology, how do you protect them when they get in trouble. Practical, result-oriented diplomacy is the name of the game for us.
And the public commentary may be a piece of that – it’s often an important piece – but it’s not – it doesn’t get you there alone.
QUESTION: Rosslyn Jordan with Al-Jazeera English. It seems every year when the report is released, those who are perhaps most significantly criticized for the treatment of their citizens will respond, “Well, the United States isn’t perfect.” I know that the Secretary alluded to the idea of a universal standard to which the U.S. should be held. How do you address the criticisms from countries which, I expect, are coming over the transom right now from China, from Iran, from Cuba that the U.S. does not have clean hands, particularly when it comes to the criminal justice system here?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We – our approach is that this is an open society. We say our piece. We are open to the notion that others are going to be critical of what we say. I doubt that other governments are going to say things that people in this society don’t say every day. And we are also committed, as the Secretary said, in this year, to doing the first-ever universal periodic review report to the UN Human Rights Council. We’re not doing that in a formulaic way; we’re doing these sessions – public sessions where we’re inviting in advocacy groups around the country. We had one in New Orleans. We had one in New York. We had one here in Washington. We’re going to spread out on the border areas. We’re going to go to Detroit. We’re going to talk to people in this society who are on the front line of criticizing, whether it’s the criminal justice system or immigration policies or national security policies – no holds barred. We’re going to hear them. We’re going to incorporate their thoughts and suggestions into a report to the UN. And then we’re going to show up at the end of year and present that report and get comments from other countries.
So our view is: Let’s have an open discussion. We’re leading in some ways with this report but, by all means, others should feel free to say what they want about us.
Yeah, in the back.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could say a few words about the human rights situation in Germany, especially in light of the recent case where a German family was granted political asylum in the States because they wanted to homeschool their children and they couldn’t in Germany. And I think it struck a lot of German people as quite strange that people had to flee Germany and have political asylum in the States.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m going to take that question. I’m not familiar with that case. I will say we are – obviously have a strong relationship with Germany and there are lots of things in the German legal and constitutional system that are strong, but there are issues like the one you describe, like the issues of discrimination that I describe. But I’d want to come back to you on that particular case because I don’t know.
QUESTION: Any concern about Sudan in light of the upcoming of election?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Will everybody just identify yourselves, just so I know --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) with BBC Arabic.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Okay.
QUESTION: In light of the upcoming election in Sudan, so many countries they have complained that their (inaudible) to launch their campaign. And do you have any concern about that and how that might affect the upcoming election to be free and opened?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: In Sudan?
QUESTION: Sudan, yes.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, as the report outlines, we have a range of very serious concerns about Sudan not only in Darfur, but also the South. And it’s a very restrictive political environment, very restrictive environment in a range of ways in terms of openness of media, ability of people to organize. So those are the things we’re going to watch closely. But it’s a place – it’s a country that’s been in crisis for a long time, and we continue to pay a great deal of attention. General Gration is there now, I think. But there’s a great deal of attention to that election and making sure, to the extent possible, people are able to speak freely and organize and participate in a way that will make it meaningful.
Yeah, in the back.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. (Inaudible) Spanish Public Radio station. How would you characterize the situation over there? Have you detected any change in the last year in the Spanish government using different ways of dealing with the separatist people up in the Basque country or any other problem that you can mention?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I would just refer you to the report. I don’t really have anything to add on that.
QUESTION: None – everything – anything on the situation in Spain in general?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Nothing to add to what’s in the report, really.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Warren Strobel with McClatchy newspapers. The Afghan has apparently just enacted a law that would provide retroactive immunity for all members of parliament for human rights abuses that took place before December of 2001. Of course, some of these members of parliaments are warlords. Human Rights Watch is calling for the repeal of this law. Do you see this as a setback for human rights in Afghanistan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: There are a number of developments in Afghanistan that are of concern, some of which are reflected in the report that occurred in 2009 and other things that are ongoing. We’re certainly watching – we’re certainly studying that law that you describe, but also the fact that the new electoral law raises questions about the September election, the fact that the Electoral Commissioner – Complaints Commission has now been skewed in favor of people that are close to President Karzai. There are real subjects here for ongoing concern.
Look, Afghanistan’s in the middle of a violent conflict. It creates all sorts of tensions, but it is this report and our ongoing advocacy and diplomacy in Afghanistan is very much focused on making sure that the country begins to move in the direction of more democratic rights, respecting policies and actions.
QUESTION: Yes. (Inaudible) from (inaudible) Egyptian newspaper. You mention Egypt as – criticizes Egypt in the record of human rights. I actually want to ask you what the Obama’s Administration have has done towards addressing this issue with Egypt as Bush Administration have a lot of pressure on Mubarak’s regime to address democracy and human rights? And as a result of this pressure, Egypt done so many positive steps like the election – the presidential election, the human rights constitution. And there is nothing done between Obama’s Administration and Egypt till now.
And one other issue is eliminating the budget to the human rights organization in Egypt. Why is that? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I – a couple of things. On the situation in Egypt, as the report outlines in quite a bit of detail, we’re concerned about a range of problems: treatment of prisoners, restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, organizations aren’t allowed to register – as you described, the government has put constraints on foreign funding, including from our own AID programs – grave restrictions on the political process.
I was in Egypt in January and met Ayman Nour. I talked to opposition political leaders and they have a range of constraints. We’re also very concerned about the Nag Hammadi killings on Christmas Eve. Seven people, as you know, Coptic Christians were killed in front of a church. The government has arrested three people, but they’re being tried in an emergency – using the emergency law. We have real concerns about the emergency law and the continued use of that. There’s – a government representative said to me, “We’re thinking of repealing it.” If they’re now using it in new cases, I worry that they’re not going to repeal it, it’s going to continue.
When I was there, I met with a number of government officials as well as NGOs, a range of people on the outside, I held a press conference. We are pushing. I think it’s fair to say that it is a country of – where there is a great concern about a range of human rights issues, and we’re going to continue to raise those issues publicly and privately. So I think there’s maybe more going on than you’re seeing.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Turkish service. The report talks about they are going to continue investigation and the arrests of military and journalists in Turkey. Recently, I think, 250 people were arrested. Are you – let me ask you this way, is it a concern with regards to human rights in Turkey, according to you? And what are you going to say about the government officials and state bureaucrats affecting the independent judiciary system in Turkey, because the report talks about that as well?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we are, obviously, concerned that judicial institutions remain independent and strong, and that’s the starting point for us. There are internal issues in Turkey of how to deal with what are perceived to be threats to the government. But we’re – our main concern and our main diplomatic efforts are making sure that there’s a proper process used in dealing with those cases.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) from VOA. And could you elaborate the U.S. Government’s concern on the human rights in North Korea and also on the North Korean refugees in China and other countries. And secondly I also want to ask you, last year North Korea conducted nuclear test and missile test and they also discouraged reform but failed. So I also want to ask you, all these political situations brought many setback in the human rights situation, too? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. One of the important things in this report is that we focus on the human rights situation. There are a range of concerns the U.S. Government has respecting North Korea and the nuclear capability and all that. But we are, in this report, focused on North Korea as a country that has a very poor human rights record, has for a long time. It’s an incredibly closed society, total intolerance of dissent, lots of prisoners in very poor conditions, very little room for people to even get information. It’s probably one of the most closed societies in the world. So across the board, I would say it’s – the conditions are poor, they’re not getting better, and we continue to be very mindful of the plight of the North Korean people in – living in that circumstance.
MR. DUGUID: Let’s take one or two more and we’ll wrap up.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: If I can just add – if nobody has something, I just – I mentioned China, but I want to make a point of mentioning two cases that are important to us. They’re in the report but I want to highlight them.
One is the case of Liu Xiaobo, who was found guilty in December of subverting state power, sentenced to 11 years. His crime is that he helped write a petition, called Charter 08, which is basically a petition calling for an expansion of human rights and democracy. This is a case of particular concern to us.
The second is a case of a human rights lawyer called Gao Zhisheng, who was picked up by the police. He is thought to be in detention, though his family doesn’t know where he is. And again, I mentioned it earlier, but it is for us one of the trends that we see in China that we’re paying a lot of attention to. In the last several years, more public interest, human rights, environmental lawyers have been taking cases. Law clinics and elsewhere are springing up. There seems to be a real crackdown. And there are also greater restrictions on NGOs. And we learned today that there’s also a new press certification system in place which is going to give Chinese journalists training in Marxist news theories. So there is a sense that the space is actually closing for those, whether they’re journalists, lawyers, or NGO activists.
MR. DUGUID: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you all.
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