Remarks on the Release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012

Special Briefing
Uzra Zeya
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
April 19, 2013

The video below is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

MS. ZEYA: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. I’d like to say a few words about how we use the Annual Human Rights Reports to inform our diplomacy around the world and give you a quick overview of some of the major developments they describe over the past year, then I’d be happy to take your questions.

As the Secretary said, human rights are central to America’s global diplomatic engagement, and these reports are the factual foundation upon which we build and shape our policies. Human rights are on the agenda in all our bilateral relations, such as during the recent U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue where we urged the release of all political prisoners including Le Quoc Quan, Dr. Vu and others. We advocate on behalf of those imprisoned for their activism or beliefs, including Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and Pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran, among many others all over the world.

The individual reports stand alone and they speak for themselves, so I commend them to you for detailed information on specific countries or regions. At the same time, I’d like to highlight some key developments from 2012.

First, as the Secretary noted, we continue to see a shrinking space for civil society in a growing number of countries – China, Egypt, and Russia, to name just a few. 2012 saw new laws impeding or preventing the exercise of freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion; heightened restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad; and the harassment, arrest, and killing of political human rights and labor activists.

Regardless of the means, the result is the same: When government stifles civil society, their countries are deprived of ideas, energy, and the ingenuity of their people that are needed for long-term stability and success in the 21st century.

We also saw freedom of the media under increasing threat in 2012. Record numbers of journalists were killed in the line of duty or as a consequence of their reporting. A number of governments took steps to stifle the press through the use of overly broad counterterrorism laws, burdensome regulatory requirements, and harassment or imprisonment of journalists. In Ethiopia, Eskinder Nega remains behind bars, and Calixto Ramon Martinez Arias spent six months in a Cuban prison for writing about a cholera outbreak. Some governments specifically targeted freedom of expression on the internet through new restrictive legislation, denial of service attacks, and the harassment of online bloggers, journalists, and activists. In Egypt, for example, blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by the government.

Throughout the Middle East in 2012, men and women continue to organize and advocate for dignity, economic opportunity, and a stake in their political future. There were historic elections in Egypt and Libya but also troubling setbacks, including the erosion of protections for civil society, sexual violence against women, and violence and repression towards religious minorities across the region. Bashar al-Assad escalated unrelenting attacks against his own people in Syria; inter-communal tensions and political violence continued in Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen; and governments throughout the Gulf took steps to restrict freedom of expression both online and off.

These struggles are not confined to the Middle East, especially the issue of violence against the most marginalized groups in society. The 2012 reports document discrimination against and persecution of members of religious and ethnic minorities, including Jews, Roma, Coptic Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Uighurs, and Tibetans; as well as against other vulnerable populations such as persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in every region of the globe.

Women and girls continue to be at risk around the world, facing abuses ranging from sexual violence to harmful traditional practices. From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, women and girls were the targets of repression while trying to live their daily lives, change their societies for the better, and exercise the fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of all human beings.

Thankfully, not all news from 2012 was discouraging. As the Secretary said, we’re encouraging – we’re encouraged by what’s happening in Burma. The Burmese government has released more than 700 political prisoners since 2011, many of whom have been in prison for more than a decade. Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 members of the National League for Democracy were elected to parliament in largely transparent and inclusive bi-elections. The government is relaxing some press censorship and allowing trade unions to form and register. However, many elements of the country’s authoritarian structure remain intact. And as the Secretary noted, we’re also very concerned by the conflict in Kachin state and communal violence in Rhakine state in central Burma.

In addition to the elections that I mentioned in the Middle East and Burma, Georgia held parliamentary elections that resulted in the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in that country since independence in 1992. And throughout the world every day, courageous men and women took selfless risk to stand up for universal human rights and better the lives of others.

Finally, I’d like to echo the Secretary’s thanks to our colleagues overseas and throughout the Department, including our senior editor Steve Eisenbraun, who have all worked tirelessly to put these reports together. This is truly a massive undertaking, and every year we strive to do better. This year, as the Secretary mentioned, we’ve included more comprehensive information on prison conditions, corruption within governments, workers’ rights, and the rights of women and girls.

We hope that the reports will shed light on human rights conditions around the world, and we’re committed to working with governments and civil society to stop abuses and support universal rights for all.

So I’ll stop there on that note, and I’m happy to take your questions.

MS. PSAKI: I’m just going to call on folks. We have time for a few questions.


QUESTION: Yes. You and the Secretary both mentioned that you bring up human rights issues during all your visits, these hard truths, as you call them. Yet, recently when Secretary Kerry went to China we barely heard a word about human rights. So could you tell us the hard truths that would have been pushed during that visit?

MS. ZEYA: Sure. I’d just like to reiterate that promoting human rights is absolutely part of our bilateral agenda with China. We repeatedly raise specific human rights cases with the Chinese government in bilateral dialogues and in high-level discussions. And during the Secretary’s visit, as he made clear, he raised specific cases with the Chinese government to include the case of Chen Kegui, who is the nephew of Mr. Chen Guangcheng. He raised the allegations of abuse during his imprisonment and the harassment of his family.

Some of the other cases that we raise regularly I mentioned in my remarks, but that would include Mr. Gao Zhisheng, Liu Xiaobo, and, as I mentioned, Chen Kegui. But that is just a few of the many political prisoners in China. I’d refer you to our reports, which have much more detail on this issue.

QUESTION: And did you make any progress regarding their conditions?

MS. ZEYA: I think it’s part of our ongoing dialogue.

MS. PSAKI: Said.

QUESTION: Thank you, ma’am. My name’s Said Arikat from Al Quds Daily newspaper. I wanted to ask you about the Palestinian prisoners.

MS. ZEYA: Sure.

QUESTION: There are 4,500 of them in prison. There are about 280 between the ages of 12 and 15, and I wonder, in your current, sort of, increased activities trying to kick-off the new talks, that if you bring that issue to bear with the Israeli government.

MS. ZEYA: Right. I’d just like to reiterate that the United States raises human rights issues at the highest levels with the Israeli government. I’d commend to you our report this year on the occupied territories. Some of the major human rights problems that we identify are arbitrary arrest and associated torture and abuse, often with impunity, by multiple actors; restrictions on civil liberties; and the inability of residents to hold their government accountable. And this is taking place in areas under Hamas, PA, and Israeli control.

MS. PSAKI: In the back. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, this year’s report on Turkey seems to be a bit harsher than last year. Has the Secretary raised any of these issues with the Turkish officials? He’s been in regular contact with them. He’ll see them this weekend. Which issues has he been underlining?

MS. ZEYA: Sure. Sure. With respect to Turkey, Turkey is a vital NATO ally and an American strategic partner, and human rights are a part of our broader engagement on a range of areas. Some of the issues of concern noted in the report are freedom of expression, the status of minorities and vulnerable populations, and legal reform. And what we think is Turkey’s constitutional reform process presents an opportunity to improve the protection of minorities, women and children, as well as expand freedom of expression.

QUESTION: But has the Secretary raised any of these issues with the Turkish officials so far? This will be his third time in Turkey this year.

MS. ZEYA: I mean, it’s part of our regular bilateral engagement, but for further detail I’d have to refer back to the spokesman.

MS. PSAKI: In front.

QUESTION: Hi. I wondered if you could tell us how concerned you are about the situation in Russia. Don’t you think the civil society bit has shrunk space, as you call it – has shrunk even more since you – I mean, this report covers last year.

MS. ZEYA: Right. Right.

QUESTION: And if you would just talk generally about how you see it.

MS. ZEYA: Sure. Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah, because they’re implementing the law that you complained was passed last year. Now they’re actually implementing it, yeah.

MS. ZEYA: Right. Right. No, you’re correct. The reports only cover through December 31st, 2012, but certainly the pattern that we’ve seen emerge in Russia is deeply troubling with respect to the emergence of an increasingly restrictive environment for the exercise of civil liberties. This includes the measures with respect to registration of NGOs as foreign agents, but also restrictions on press and internet freedom. So we’ve made clear our commitment to dialogue on human rights with the Russian government, but we also remain absolutely committed to open dialogue with civil society and supporting their efforts.

QUESTION: Could I do a follow-up on that?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: I just wondered. I mean, in the past, I think the U.S. government has talked a lot about concern about human rights abuses in Chechnya, and I just wondered if you think the events in Boston are going to change in any way the government would see human rights in Chechnya?

MS. ZEYA: Right. With respect to the ongoing investigation in Boston, I just have to reiterate the Secretary’s comment that it would be highly inappropriate to make further comment on this time.

With respect to the situation in the Northern Caucasus, I can tell you this has been part of our human rights reporting on Russia in our country report since 1995. You’ll find quite a bit of information in this year’s report. And they note serious human rights abuses taking place and acts of human rights violations reportedly committed by both authorities and militants.

MS. PSAKI: This is going to be the last question.

QUESTION: Yes. You mentioned prisons. The State Department, I wonder if it’s concerned about Guantanamo prisoners; 56 out of 86 Guantanamo prisoners cleared for release are Yemeni nationals. Would you agree that the U.S. is engaged in collective punishment based on nationality?

MS. ZEYA: I would say on this we hold ourselves to the same standards by which we assess others. On the issue of Guantanamo, the President has made clear his commitment to closing Guantanamo, but this has to be done in accordance with U.S. law and in consultation with the Congress. So I’d have to refer you back to further statements by the White House and the spokesman on that.

MS. PSAKI: Just to reiterate for folks, Uzra will be at the – the Acting Assistant Secretary will be at the Foreign Press Center later this afternoon. What time will that be?

PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible.)

MS. ZEYA: 4:00 p.m. Yeah.

MS. PSAKI: So for people who didn’t have their questions answered, we encourage you to go over there. Thank you.

MS. ZEYA: Thanks.

PRN: 2013/0449