LiveAtState: Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner on the 2011 Human Rights Reports

Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
June 28, 2012

MS. JENSEN: Hello. Welcome to LiveAtState, an online web chat platform designed to engage international journalists from around the world. I am delighted to welcome all of you for joining us today for our conversation with Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. He’ll be taking your questions on the Human Rights Report for 2011.

At this time you can feel free to start submitting your question in the lower left hand portion of your screen titled “Questions for Assistant Secretary Posner.” And we’ll take as many of those questions as we can in the 30 minutes we have. If at any time you encounter problems, you can email us directly at and we will add your questions to the queue. We will take as many of them as we can in the 30 minutes we have. And if you would like to continue this conversation, you can do so on Twitter using the handle @State_DRL, or @HumanRightsGov using the hashtag #HRR2011.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Assistant Secretary Posner. Thanks for joining us today.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: It’s my pleasure. It’s good to be here and I welcome the chance to meet and talk to journalists from around the world.

MS. JENSEN: Great. With that, we’ll take our first question. It comes from Badiul Alam from The News Today in Bangladesh: What actions has – the U.S. Government would consider if the Government of Bangladesh fails in improving the human rights situation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think in Bangladesh and elsewhere, we follow the principle, which President Obama has articulated, of principled engagement. We engage in the world. We engage with governments on a range of subjects – economic, political, diplomatic, security – but human rights is always part of the equation. So Secretary Clinton several months ago visited Bangladesh, she met with government officials, raised human rights issues. She also met with political opposition, civil society. Our policies are always going to be to engage, to press, to make sure governments understand that human rights are a priority to us, and to be involved in trying to advance an agenda that promotes sustainable democracy.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Aamir Ghauri from ARY, and he wants to know: How concerned is the U.S. about the human right violations of many of the hundreds of people killed so far in drone attacks in Pakistan who were neither terrorists nor related to al-Qaida or the Taliban?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I would take exception to the question, but just to say more broadly, we are engaged in military operations in parts of the world fighting terrorist organizations like al-Qaida. And the principle that guides us is that we are going to do everything in accordance with international law. There are no law-free zones. And so we follow, very strictly, humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and whatever ways in which we engage in combat, we’re very, very conscientious and serious about making sure that the law is obeyed.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Shameer Rasooldeen from News 1st: Mr. Posner, in terms of human rights, I want to know what is the exception of the U.S. Government on SL?


MS. JENSEN: Sri Lanka – yeah, it must be.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, our – again, let me just say broadly, one of the things that we believe and act on is that there is not a – there are no exceptions to what is really a universal standard of human rights. We start from the premise that every government in the world, including the United States, is bound by the principles articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in various treaties.

Secretary Clinton likes to say we want to lead by example. And so we’ve been very forthcoming at the UN Human Rights Council in presenting our own record under the Universal Periodic Review. There is no exception for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is one of 190-some countries that are part of the global community. And we apply the same standards of the Universal Declaration to Sri Lanka as well.

MS. JENSEN: I’d like to thank you for all of your questions. Right now, I just want to remind you to please ask your questions in the lower left-hand portion of your screen. And if you would like to continue this conversation, you can do so on Twitter by going to the official State Department website, @StateDept, or – the Twitter feed – or the @State_DRL, or @Humanrightsgov.

And with that, we’ll take the next question: Generally speaking, what are some of the ways in which countries can promote human rights and equality in their respective countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think one of the things that’s most apparent to us is that change occurs from within a society. And in building a rights-respecting society, governments have an affirmative obligation to build a rule of law, build legal institutions that work, to empower women, to create an environment where there’s a free press, people are able to use the Internet freely without constraints, to allow civil society to flourish and function, to have accountability, transparency, and to have free elections.

All of that is part of the framework of what we would call sustainable democracy. We encourage that from the outside. We try to amplify the voices of local activists. But essentially, change is going to occur within every society, and government needs to be a player in them.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Marthoz: Reacting to the conviction of journalist Eskinder Nega and others, Senator Leahy, while recognizing shared interest in combating terrorist threats said, “It is time to put the values and principles that distinguish us from terrorists above aid to a government that misuses its institutions to silence its critics.” What can the U.S. do towards an ally that violates human rights?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: In general, we are always engaged in the defense of journalists, the defense of bloggers. We’ve played a leading role, for example, at World Press Freedom Day in Tunisia last month, in raising the cases of more than a dozen journalists. So our view is whether the country is a strategic ally or a country where we have more tense relations, we’re going to raise these issues of press freedom and freedom of people to work and operate on the blogosphere as a part of a broader human rights policy.

MS. JENSEN: Just to clarify, that last question came from Jean-Paul Marthoz, a columnist for Le Soir in Brussels.

The next question is: Why isn’t the United States included in the Human Rights Report?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We have this debate internally. And we have really, at this stage, included ourselves in several broader UN reports which cover the same territory. I mentioned a moment ago that in 2010, we submitted a comprehensive report to the UN under the Universal Periodic Review. Not only did we do that report, but we went out to U.S. civil society. More than a thousand members of civil society participated in 14 town hall meetings we had on racial discrimination, prisons, immigration, national security. We took their feedback, we produced the report, we presented ourselves to the UN, and then we took the recommendations of other governments and internally debated them and came back to the UN in 2011.

This past year, we submitted a report, 400 pages, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And this year, we’ll be doing reports on the Torture Convention and the Convention on Racial Discrimination. So we are doing a lot of reporting on the United States. I should also say the trafficking report, Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out last week, does include a chapter on the United States as well.

MS. JENSEN: This year’s report is shorter. Can you explain why that is?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. We made a judgment that in the Internet age, in the online age, it’s really important for people to get access to information in shorter bites. We’re not quite tweeting the report yet, but we’re doing – we’re trying to make the report more accessible, more readable. We’ve included less examples, but it has the same categories. We’ve also included an executive summary, which for every country lists the three or four key human rights issues right up front. So we’ve got very good feedback. People feel the report’s more accessible, more readable, easier to digest. And I think we’re on the right track on this.

MS. JENSEN: The next question comes from Shameer Rasooldeen from News 1st again: Are you all satisfied with the manner in which Sri Lanka has undertaken its responsibilities in terms of reconciliation and accountability?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: No. In fact, we’ve had very direct, frank talks with the Sri Lankan Government. I should say a couple of things. The Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris was here about six, seven weeks ago. I met with him, both with Secretary Clinton. We had a very direct meeting about a range of issues that continue to be of concern, and we’ll continue to push. We also played a role – a leading role, as you know – at the UN Human Rights Council in urging a resolution that dealt with Sri Lanka’s record.

We’re happy that there is a Lessons Learnt Commission, but the government needs to have an action plan that really undertakes to deal with the reconciliation issues, deals with the issues of discrimination still going on in the north, and a range of other things to incorporate the Tamil population more centrally into the lifeblood of Sri Lanka. There’s a big unfinished agenda. We’re going to continue to raise those issues with the government.

MS. JENSEN: How do you respond to those who claim that the United States has designated itself arbiter of human rights around the world?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, again, I don’t accept that characterization. The United States is one of 194 countries that are members of the United Nations. We want to be a leader in this field. But again, we want to lead by example. We hold ourselves to a tough standard, and we don’t view ourselves as having the answers. We are part of a global community that has universal standards. And our intention is to be an active participant in a global debate where every government is held to the same standard of the Universal Declaration.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Tasnim Moshin: Can you explain some problems you find in Bangladesh human right issues, and is there any specific case that you can explain?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think the report, if you look at the Human Rights Report – and you can find it on, easily accessible – it lists a range of things. I think we’re particularly concerned with some of the detention practices – torture, mistreatment in the prisons. Those are things that we’ve highlighted – some of the marginalized groups, discrimination against women. We’ve been particularly focused – and my colleague, Barbara Shailor, who’s our labor expert for the Secretary, has been out to Bangladesh to look at some of the labor issues and the issues relating particularly to the garment and other industries there – young women working long hours in difficult circumstances. Those are some of the things we’ve been focused on in Bangladesh. We have good, open discussion with the government. We’ll continue to raise these things.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Easwaran Rutnam. Can you – can or will the report be used as a tool to take action against any government, be it Sri Lanka or any other country.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: It’s a good question, and people ask all the time what’s the purpose of the report. The purpose of the report is to give us a baseline of information of what’s going on in every country in the world. We don’t distinguish – every government, every country, is evaluated by the same set of standards and criteria. It gives us a basis for making policy. It’s not a policymaking document.

The Human Rights Report was set up by Congress 30-some years ago because Congress wanted to make decisions about U.S. aid and trade policy. It still does that, but the report now has many other purposes. Internally it’s a very good tool for diplomats to evaluate how do we deal with Country X or Country Y in terms of human rights. It gives us a basis for making those decisions.

MS. JENSEN: I just want to remind all of our participants you can start asking your questions now in the lower left-hand portion of your screen titled Questions for Assistant Secretary Posner. And if you would like to continue this conversation, you can do so on Twitter by using the hashtag HRR2011 or following us on Twitter by using the handles @StateDept, @State_DRL, or

And with that, generally speaking, will you discuss the methods that can be used to bring about democracy, help change attitudes, and empower youth during elections?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think, again, in every society the political process has a different evolution, a different history, different cultural components that affect the way people get engaged. But it’s critical for the youth, the young people, begin to become politically active as soon as they’re able to vote and participate. It’s critical that political parties have the ability to register people, to do polling, to evaluate how to campaign in a way taking advantage of what others have learned. It’s critical that there be a free press and people be out there on the streets demonstrating peacefully.

So there are a range of things that work generally, but in every society these things play themselves out differently. We’re not in the position of picking winners or losing or figuring out how other governments ought to be formed and who ought to vote for whom. We are very eager, though, that these tools of democracy be available to people who are determined to have a say in their own destiny.

MS. JENSEN: Can you highlight some of the ways in which the U.S. and domestic civil society can help ensure that elections are clean, fair, and necessary electoral reforms – and electoral reforms are able to occur?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, again, I think there is a role, a modest role, for the U.S., both our government and our civil society, in providing some comparative experience. We have – we’ve been having elections for a long time here, but we’re not the only country. There are many, many countries around the world – north, south, east, and west now – with very engaged democracies.

What makes those democracies work is that people are open – are living in societies that are open and where they have the ability to organize and to form parties, to run for office, to express their views, to dissent, and to be part of a process that is open and fair. It doesn’t happen always on the first try. And so one of the things that I think is very important is that there be an openness on the part of emerging democracies or countries in transition to allowing observers to come in, both domestic and international, and allowing groups to come in that help with the technical tools to make democracy function.

MS. JENSEN: Is it part of U.S. foreign policy to support LGBT rights? And what are some of the concrete measures being taken to do this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m glad you asked that question. And one of the proud accomplishments of this Administration and Secretary Clinton has been a very full-throated support for LGBT rights. I was with Secretary Clinton in Geneva last December, where she spoke to about a thousand people at the United Nations and gave a speech that had wide circulation, several million online hits within a matter of hours. And what we’ve said is that LGBT rights are human rights and that there are a range of things that we and other governments should be doing, both on a bilateral basis and in multilateral fora. We have raised these issues at the United Nations Human Rights Council. We’ve been very involved in opening up the space there to talk about violence against LGBT people. We’ve been involved in some fund – providing some funds to groups that are advocates for these rights in a range of countries. We provide protection when people get in trouble, and they often do because they’re active advocates for the LGBT community.

So we have a diplomatic strategy. We have a public diplomacy. The Secretary’s speech is a prime example. And we’re also now providing support, including a new fund that we’ve set up here at the State Department in our bureau that actually provides direct support to LGBT activists when they get in trouble.

MS. JENSEN: Easwaran wants to know: Does the report include actions taken by terrorist groups?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The report is a documentation of human rights violations, principally by governments, but we also comment on, in the context of what’s happening in the world, violent actions by nongovernmental actors. And clearly, we have a great concern that in the 21st century so much of the violence and so many of the human rights problems we face are undertaken by terrorist groups like al-Qaida, who have no allegiance to any government, which makes it very difficult for us or other governments to control. These are people bent on destruction and with very – with a nihilistic sense of doing harm as a way of creating change. It’s not going to work, but it does create havoc in many societies, and part of the reports document on that – document that.

MS. JENSEN: Can you address the fact that women’s rights are often easily attacked and overlooked? And what is the U.S. doing to address that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, this is another area where Secretary Clinton, Melanne Verveer, who is the ambassador for women’s rights, have been extremely active. Secretary Clinton never misses an opportunity to talk about the essential ingredient of empowering women in building a democracy. And we are active across a wide range of countries in making sure not just that there’s lip service given to the fact that women need to be included and protected, but there really are active efforts by governments to give women a seat at the table politically and economically. That’s part of the lifeblood of a healthy, democratic society.

One example I would give is Afghanistan, where we’ve done a lot of work and where traditional society has not been at all receptive to the rights of women. There is now a very active push on our part in conjunction with women’s activist groups in Afghanistan to bring women into the political process, bring them into the integration of the society and the transition that will occur in 2014 when there’s a new election.

MS. JENSEN: How can people from neighboring countries foster and support freedom of speech, including on the Internet?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The Internet has created a whole new range of both opportunities and challenges for human rights activists. And again, this is an area where Secretary Clinton has given three major speeches. We’ve set up a fund to support Internet freedom. Our view is that the Internet is a critically important force in our society – the new social media – and we want to maintain it as a neutral plane, a neutral site that doesn’t have political controls. It’s important not only for human rights and other activists to voice their opinions; it’s important for commerce, for innovation, for education, for people to have fun. And so a neutral platform based on principles of human rights, free expression, free assembly, free association is critical. I think for individuals, for citizens living anywhere in the world, we need to band together to make sure that governments don’t impose burdensome restrictions on the Internet that take away the power and the value of it as a tool.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Tasnim Moshin: In Rohingya issue we have seen international community give pressure to Bangladesh to take them. But including the USA and the international community doesn’t say a word to Myanmar to stop the recent unrest.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we’re very concerned and have expressed concern about the plight of the Rohingya. We have urged the Government of Bangladesh to open its borders to follow its international obligations under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

But we are at the same time very much engaged with the Government of Burma to urge them to undertake their side of responsibility. I’ve been in Burma twice in the last year, once with Secretary Clinton. We have a long human rights agenda. I have raised the issue of the Rohingya on each of my visits with senior officials of the Burmese Government. So this is very much on our radar. We’re very concerned about the displacement of probably 15,000 people or more in the Rakhine area. And there is an obligation, I think both for the Government of Burma and for the Government of Bangladesh, to ameliorate this very challenging situation.

MS. JENSEN: We have time for one more question. The question is: The United States supported President Mubarak for 30 years. Why did it take 29 years to call for him to step down?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, at this stage, we are very mindful of, very much focused on, the future of Egypt. We can have – we could probably take another half hour, maybe half a day, to talk about what happened in the last 30 years. The important thing is the Egyptian people have issued really a demand for dignity. Young people in Egypt want a job, they want economic opportunity, and they want a say in their own political future. And we are very much now engaged in trying to help a newly elected government along with civil society and the range of people living in Egypt to find a pathway forward to a sustainable democracy that will benefit all Egyptian people.

MS. JENSEN: Great. That’s all the time we have today. I’d like to thank you for joining us and all of your great questions. A special thank you to you for joining us. There will be a full audio and video copy of today’s program available for your use and download shortly after the conclusion of today’s program. If you would like more information on the Human Rights Report, you can go to and take a look at the report. And if you would like to follow the State Department and get all of the latest information from us, you can do so on Twitter by using the Twitter handle @StateDept.

Thank you, and we look forward to doing this with you again soon.