Remarks at Townhall on Human Rights Day

Michael H. Posner
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Harold Hongju Koh
   Legal Advisor U.S. Department of State 
Philip J. Crowley
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
December 10, 2010

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon. Thank you. Good afternoon. Welcome to the Department of State. My name is P.J. Crowley. I’m the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, or as Stephen Colbert described me last night, an unnamed government functionary. (Laughter.)

I have several purposes here. One is to welcome you all, which I’ve done. The other is to introduce my two very good friends and colleagues, Assistant Secretary Mike Posner, who has an even more challenging job than I do as the State Department spokesman and -- as our Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and Harold Koh, our distinguished legal advisor and my lawyer. (Laughter.)

Now, Mike Posner has some experience with Stephen Colbert as well. He made an appearance earlier this year, did us all proud here at the State Department. But we were trying to prep him a little bit before getting started, and we said, “So, suppose Colbert asks you a question like what got you interested in human rights?” And Michael paused and said, “I’m a Chicago Cubs fan.” (Laughter.)

Now, Harold and I are both Red Sox fans. I’m not sure whether we have anybody here from New England and Red Sox Nation, but we’re doing okay. There have been a couple of key acquisitions here. So – but we can sympathize. I mean, everybody in the world is a Cubs fan, and we can sympathize with that.

But again, we welcome you here. And this is – we welcome you on a particular day, December 10th, which commemorates Human Rights Day and the UN adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But this is something that our diplomats do every single day. And I would pause here and say you don’t need to have a release of a treasure trove of secret documents to hopefully understand that this is the subject of conversations day in and day out by our diplomats all around the world as we – both as we both promote human rights and as we try to meet the challenge every single day of practicing what we preach.

We, the United States, do not by any stretch say – suggest that we are perfect. We are – we have challenging – challenges within our practice of human rights in this country. Now, has anybody here heard of something called the Universal Periodic Review? Anybody here from Arizona? Well, we did, through Michael and Harold and others we did present something called the Universal Periodic Review to the Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, which was our best assessment of the human rights challenge in this country.

Why did we do it, even though some conservatives in the country said, “Why are you doing this?” Well, again, our practice here at the State Department and within the U.S. Government is to lead by example. And we do recognize that even though we have shortcomings, by the same token, we do respect human rights in this country. In fact, we do see ourselves as a model for others to emulate, and in fact we recognize that many people look to us to lead the way in terms of the promotion and practice of human rights, promoting freedom of association, the freedom to participate in an open political process, the freedom of the press.

I deal with the press every day, and whether you like the press or not -- many Americans respect the press but don’t necessarily like what they print. On some days I agree with them. But by the same token, our press are here every day. They challenge the government every day. They hold us to account, and by holding us to account they make us more effective. We do recognize that in other parts of the world journalists are intimidated, they are jailed, and in some cases, tragically, they are killed. So we have built institutions of civil society here in the United States over more than 240 years, and we do see ourselves as an indispensible country in promoting human rights around the world.

We don’t – and we hold ourselves up to that standard. We respect anyone who wants to point a finger at us, and there is this debate going on in the world today about this thing called WikiLeaks, and we welcome that debate. I think that is what distinguishes us from other countries, a country like China, for example, where it is trying to stifle debate, even on a day where we recognize Liu Xiaobo as the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And we respect and salute his courage in demonstrating for a different kind of political system in China.

But with that, we welcome you here. It’s an important subject. I’m going to introduce Mike Posner, who will say a few remarks, and then Harold Koh, and then we will start a question and answer period. I think the Secretary of State’s going to come down for a quick hello to you, and then we’ll continue the Q&A after the Secretary’s remarks. But with that, happy to introduce and bring to the podium Assistant Secretary Michael Posner. (Applause.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you. Thanks so much, P.J. It’s, first of all, a great pleasure to have you here on Human Rights Day. And we view this, more than anything, as an opportunity to have an open discussion and hear your questions.

Just by way of introduction, to follow on what P.J. said, today we celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now 62 years old, which for the first time provided the world a universal set of standards that apply to everyone, regardless of their nationality, their race, their religion. Everybody, by virtue of their humanity, is entitled to core rights. That document, a single set of standards that we apply to everyone, including ourselves -- and as P.J. said, and as Secretary Clinton has said, our aim is lead by example. That document very much the product of Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership in the UN Human Rights Commission, and 62 years later we are still trying to honor her legacy by continuing our engagement on human rights.

The President has talked about principled engagement. We’re engaged in the world on a range of issues, political, business issues, strategic, but human rights is at the center. In every place we operate, human rights issues are raised, and that’s my job, and it’s the job of many people in this Department and in this government. And then finally, we believe very strongly that things in the world change not because you force them outside but because within a society agents of changes -- whether they’re women’s groups or the press or an independent judiciary -- human rights groups have the ability to create a democratic environment where change is possible.

So the Secretary in Krakow, Poland in July gave a speech which we regard as a kind of watershed for this Administration and this government, where she focused on the role of the nongovernmental sector, civil society, in promoting human rights and spelled out some of the challenges that human rights and other activist groups face in their own societies. That commitment to civil society extends to you. Part of the reason for our having you here and having events like this throughout the year, is our belief that if we’re going to have a democratic country, a truly democratic country, we need to do what we can to engage our own people, our own country.

So we’re delighted you’re here. With those opening comments, Harold and I are really eager to hear your thoughts and questions, and the floor is open. Please.

MODERATOR: And if you would identify yourself that would be great.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Dr. Janet Paker (ph). I am here from Lawrence, Kansas. I’m the executive director of Medical Whistleblower in Lawrence, Kansas, and we did submit a report to the Universal Periodic Review. I wanted to ask you in regards to the Whistleblower Protection Act, currently now in legislative session with the Senate, already has passed the House, and is being debated, I think right now, on the floor of the Senate. It’s S-372.

We are, as a nation, required by the Declaration of – for Human Rights Defenders, the mandate for human rights defenders, to protect those who are obligated to report violations of human rights under treaties that we have signed and ratified, such as CAT, the Convention against Torture. And our federal whistleblowers, those in federal service, many of whom have classified clearances, some of whom are working in the federal prison system, some of whom are working in the BA (ph), some of whom are working in military positions, some who are working in the intelligence community, are especially concerned that they do not have adequate protections right now with the Merit Systems Protection Board and also protections under the Office of Inspector General. And I was wondering if you will be looking at that legislation to make sure that it is in compliance with the Declaration for Human Rights Defenders, mandate 53/144. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m going to turn to my lawyer for this one.

MR. KOH: You have a right to remain silent. (Laughter.) Well, let me say I won’t comment on the specific bill. That’s not something that we do in this forum. We will do it with regard to hearings and other things that are presented on the bill. On the basic notion, do governments have – I mean, do individuals have a right to call their governments to account, it’s a core principle of how the U.S. system has operated, notably absent in other countries.

I think if I could just say a word to follow what Mike said, it’s important to realize two things: how radical the notion of international human rights is, that simply by virtue of being born as a human being you acquire certain rights that you cannot sell, that cannot be taken from you, that you don’t have to own property or have a certain amount of money or be a certain skin color or a certain gender to possess. You have those rights simply by virtue of being born as a human being. And that’s a notion that the Universal Declaration recognized 62 years ago.

Now, there are some people in this country and elsewhere who find that concept threatening, to which I would say we hold these truths to be self-evident that all persons are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that that concept is the very concept on which this nation was founded, that this is a nation that is based on human rights, and that therefore has a critical role to play in advancing the cause of international human rights.

Finally, Eleanor Roosevelt did a remarkable thing in her time. And those of you who haven’t looked at her speeches on the world wide web, we’d encourage you to do that. One of the most touching things is that every night during the negotiations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights she would say a prayer, which was reported in a book about her by Mary Ann Glendon, who is a professor at Harvard Law School. It says, “Show me a vision of a world made new.” That’s the title of the book, A World Made New.

The notion was that after World War II, having experienced unspeakable violence and genocide, we needed to have a different vision to animate us going forward in the 20th century. And what she was saying was the concept of recognizing and protecting fundamental human rights for all persons is what the war was about; it was what we were fighting for, and that it’s so important that we have that concept and that the advance of human rights is a measure of whether civilization is advancing or standing still. So I think that on this day, why do we celebrate it, because of an extraordinary idea, radical idea, that was recognized because it is so fundamental to who we are as a nation and because it’s a measure of the advance of civilization both in this country and elsewhere in the world.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name is Josh Ruebner. I’m the national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and I want to thank you for hosting this event this afternoon.

I’m just a little bit confused about the universality of human rights, given that the Obama Administration has now on two occasions – the Goldstone Report and Israel’s attack on the flotilla -- worked to prevent the international community from holding Israel accountable for its human rights violations.

So I have two fairly simple questions. Number one, does the State Department believe that there really truly is one human rights standard for all countries to abide by, or is Israel held to a lower standard of account? And number two: Are Palestinians, in the State Department’s vision, considered equal human beings with equal human rights to Israelis? And if so, when is the State Department going to end our diplomatic and military support for Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Harold and I were there in Geneva when the Goldstone Report was first taken up last September. Since then, I’ve been back to Israel twice, most recently last month, to follow up on our work in this area. So let me offer a couple of observations about what you say.

Yes, there is a single universal standard that applies to every country, including our own. We apply it to the Israelis, and we also view – in an answer to your second question – Palestinians as being human beings under the Universal Declaration and entitled to those rights.

We said three things in Geneva and have continued to say them about the Goldstone Report. One is that the report had a number of flaws, which we’ve identified and which, by the way, we’ve discussed directly with Justice Goldstone, who I know and respect. But the report was a document that had a number of flaws. We could discuss that.

Secondly, we’ve said that the UN forum in which that report was taken up, the Human Rights Council, devotes disproportionate attention to Israel and Palestine. It doesn’t mean that the issues aren’t legitimate. It means that, for example, next March the Council will have not one but six different resolutions on that subject. Lots of other things get no attention. Again, it doesn’t say there isn’t a serious issue. It does say that the institution needs to be reformed.

But the third we said, and we continue to say, is that the report included a number of serious allegations, and we called on the parties, including the Israelis, to take those reports seriously and to establish credible accountability mechanisms. We said that a year ago in September, and those have been my marching orders since then. We are discussing with the Israeli Government, including the IDF, the follow-up measures that we believe they ought to be taking, some of which they’ve taken and some not. We regard it as a serious issue.

And frankly, there’s a broader issue, which I’m increasingly focused on, which is the way in which the international community and governments and international institutions deal with the very real phenomenon in the 21st century of what are called asymmetrical urban wars. We face that. I faced it in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many other countries are fighting a new kind of war. And I think one of the things we’re urging the Israelis, we’re trying to do ourselves, is to take a fresh look at what are the maximum civilian protections, what are the maximum ways that humanitarian law can be enforced in these urban settings.

This is not an easy subject, but I can assure you that more than few minutes have gone into trying to address that. I’m committed to continuing to do it, and I have the support of this Department and this government to do it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon. I’m Tommy Grandon (ph). I’m in Consular Affairs now, but you’re quite right. It’s been a long haul. I was a staff assistant back in 1968 for President Johnson’s commission on the celebration of the anniversary of the human rights treaties, and I just would like to historically pay tribute to not only Alice Holsted (ph), who was a co-chair with Avril Hariman (ph), but also our executive director James Green (ph), his assistant Steve Shot (ph). And you can’t talk about human rights or women’s rights without mentioning in the same breath Gladys Tulet (ph). Human rights is hard, and you said today is 62 years. I was there on its 20th anniversary, and we’re still chugging along. Please keep it up. Thank you.


QUESTION: I’m Mark Hangman (ph). I’m with U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Thank you for having us here today, and I just want to recognize how amazing it is to have people with your credentials in and commitment to human rights working in this Administration. Unfortunately, the United States has not ratified the most widely recognized human rights treaty in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and I’m just wondering what the prospects are of the Obama Administration getting that treaty package together and shipping it to the Senate so the Senate can take it up in the not too distant future. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m going back to my lawyer.

MR. KOH: Well, I think it’s an important point. We very much want to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have ratified two protocols connected to it, which was an important step. I think that one of the things that we have to explain to those who are not in our political system is that to ratify a treaty takes not just the support of the executive branch and the support of civil society but the support of 67 senators, which is a super majority, which means that a relatively small number of senators can prevent a treaty from being ratified.

That does not prevent us from trying to move into full compliance with the treaty before we get to the point when the actual ratification occurs. And so I think as we said at the Universal Periodic Review, the difficulty of our political mechanism often leads to the opposite pattern in our country from some other countries. Some other countries ratify first then comply either later or never. Our country tends to try to move into compliance, and then when we have achieved that, at that point it becomes possible to get the political support to get the ratification.

That’s not a reason why we will not push for those ratifications. We do not believe the objections to the Convention that have been made by others are well founded. We think the Convention is something that should, indeed, be ratified by the United States.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I would just say just one other point on that. Senator Durbin’s Human Rights subcommittee in the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, I guess, last week or the week before on CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Melanne Verveer, who is the Ambassador for Women’s Issues here, testified on that. Secretary Clinton has made it very clear we’re going to continue to push on that.

And there’s also the relatively new Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, and we are moving forward also to try to tee that up in a place. So these are priorities for us. As Harold said, the political reality makes it challenging, but it’s not stopping us from doing what we can to be – and get those things in place so when the moment is right we’re going to able to really push forward.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name Sumej Sudani (ph) and I’m a student at Georgetown University. And my question is, recognizing the fact that we are in a war in terror and the fact that America is perceived, if not believed to be allied with nations that do not promote human rights, I wanted to ask if there are moments – or if the United States should put its national security interest before human rights, and if so when?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: When I said earlier that the policy of this Administration, articulated by the President and the Secretary of State, is that of principled engagement, it precisely is aimed at addressing that question.

I was with the Secretary last week in Central Asia, in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Those are all countries where we have important security interests at stake relating to the war in Afghanistan, but there are also human rights issues. And those issues were raised. We’ll continue to raise them.

I think the challenge for this or any administration is to be clear that we have a range of issues with all sorts of governments, and we’ve got to be able to be multifunctional. We’ve got to be able to say, yes, we have security interests, but that’s not going to prevent us from raising the human rights concerns. And we did, and we did it very forcefully.

MR. CROWLEY: Just to add to that, this should – this is never an either-or situation. We have a range of interests with countries. We don’t have one approach to a country and – we look at what can be the most effective means of helping to transform the practice inside other countries. Well, how do we best influence them?

In a case of North Korea, a country with which we have profound human rights concerns, we do not have diplomatic relations with that country and we try to work those both in our public statements and in the dialogue we have with other countries, such as China, which has a relationship with North Korea.

In other countries, we may well have and do have well-founded human rights concerns, but we’ve made a judgment that we can best effect change in those countries from working with that country. You look at an Indonesia, for example, where we have a growing relationship, and through our cooperation and engagement we have, in fact, been able to help transform how Indonesia looks at and holds to account those within government who may be a suspect of human rights abuses.

At times we have pulled back from cooperation and made it clear that our future relationship, our future engagement, our future support, will depend on change and that we hold that country to account.

And through this involvement and having people on the ground helping to demonstrate to them this is how you have a military that relates to broader society; this is how you can create a civil society that can hold government to account but not necessarily be a threat to government. And we believe that we have had influence in various countries around the world.

Michael is going to Vietnam, which is a country where we have transformed our relationship, and while we have come a long way over 35 years, human rights is fundamental aspect of our dialogue expressly because we still have concerns about how the government – the actions the government takes with respect to its own population.

MR. KOH: And since I’m the lawyer on the panel, I hope you don’t mind if I try to narrow the terminology. You said we’re in a war on terror. We would say we’re in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces, which Congress approved in a statute that it passed in September 2001.

The President made clear a year ago today that – in his Nobel Prize lecture, that he does not like to be fighting an armed conflict, but that’s not a choice that he made. It was a choice that was presented to him, and that he’s deeply committed to fighting that armed conflict consistent with our values, because he believes that fighting that conflict consistent with our values makes us both safer and stronger. And among other things, he rejected the use of torture as a tool in that armed conflict and committed himself to pursuing that armed conflict consistent with the rule of domestic and international law.


QUESTION: Hello. My name’s Victoria (ph), and I’m a law student at Northeastern University School of Law, and I’m currently here in Washington as a legal fellow with the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. And my question is with respect to the conversation in Geneva about the reduction of homelessness and poverty.

And as usual, we reaffirmed our commitment to that – to reducing shelter and food and security. However, we seem to continue to conceptualize that problem as one that is best solved through aspirational policy goals. However, that doesn’t generally seem to be having the effect of precluding states from passing laws that criminalize various activities that are performed by homeless people, life sustaining activities such as sleeping or collecting cans for money for food. Isn’t it time that we maybe re-conceptualize our understanding of food, and shelter, security as human rights as opposed to simply aspiring to solve the problems through various encouraging policies, if you understand what I mean?

MR. KOH: Well, I think – I certainly believe that we have human rights to freedom from want. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt said in 1941. I think that was incorporated in the Universal Declaration, the first part of which had to do with civil and political rights, and the second part which had to economic, social, and cultural rights. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question in 1972 under our domestic law and did not find a constitutional right to be free from poverty, and that has led to a different trend in our domestic constitutional law.

But there are some countries in the world, and ours is one of them, in which polices and pursuing particular policies can then lead to legal change. for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act that has actually led to the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – I think the Secretary is here, so I think it probably might be a bad idea for me to keep talking. (Applause)

MR. POSNER: Earlier today we presented the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award to three, four great Americans, and we were delighted that Secretary Clinton led that ceremony. When introducing her, I said that very much as we’ve been talking today about the American -- U.S. role, leadership role, in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Eleanor Roosevelt’s role, we feel very proud to be led here at the State Department by someone who very much follows in Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership tradition, a woman who needs no introduction, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.