Press Briefing by Assistant Secretary Michael Posner

This is my first visit to Egypt as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. It is part of a visit to the region that includes also stops in Jordan and in Israel. My visit is really to follow up on the President’s visit here in June and his speech here where he talked about democracy, religious freedom, women’s rights and economic development. It also follows up on Secretary Clinton’s speech last month in Washington at Georgetown University where she elaborated, where she spoke more about the Obama-Clinton approach to democracy and human rights. In that speech, I think a copy of which you have or which is available here, she stressed the relationship between democracy and development and human rights. She said you can’t have democracy without development and you can’t have development without democracy.

Our approach to these issues is really based on three broad principles. First, we are going to engage in what the president has called principled engagement with countries all over the world. Our engagement is going to be – in a place like Egypt, where there are strong bilateral relations – from the basis of friendship. We are going to engage on military issues, security issues, economic issues, development issues, democracy issues and human rights. Our view of a strategic relationship is that all of these subjects are part of an ongoing conversation and so that is what I am doing here. The second aspect of what we are basing our policy on is a sense of universal standards for human rights — one standard for all countries, including our own. And that standard is the universal declaration of human rights. When I say including our own, on his second day in office, President Obama announced the closure of Guantanamo and the ending of abusive interrogations, official cruelty. The United States this year is also reviewing its own human rights record on a broad range of issues through the universal periodic review, just as Egypt has done in the last several months and will do in Geneva in February. So we view this as a subject that applies to all countries. And in my being here, my goal was basically to meet with a broad range of Egyptian society – government officials, civil society, NGO activists, a range of perspectives about human rights and democracy issues. These are universal standards that apply here in Egypt as they would in every other part of the world.

The last thing that I think is important about our approach and I want to say a word about it and then I am going to open up for discussion. We believe strongly that we can, as the United States, be clear about our values and our approach to these issues, our own commitment to these issues. But we know that in any society change occurs from within and so, in Egypt, we take our lead from what Egyptians are saying and doing and from the debates that are going in this country. We come here not to tell this government or any government here is how you have to do it. Our goal is to enrich and enliven and create more opportunity for a whole debate within Egypt among Egyptians who are concerned about their country.

When Secretary Clinton talks about democracy and when I talk about democracy, it is not just about an election. It is a broader concept of democracy. Democracy includes a society where women are empowered, where civil society is allowed to operate freely and openly, where the press has freedom and doesn’t need to self-censor, where there are independent courts that aren’t interfered with, where there is accountability, where there is transparency, where there is freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. This is a broad concept and it is a notion of democracy that needs to be applied every day and it is a process that takes constant attention.

So to close, our discussions here in Egypt have involved a discussion of a range of issues which are on the agenda here and which Egyptians are debating, issues like emergency law, prison conditions, torture and abuse, religious freedom, due process and the openness and fairness of the courts. We are here, again, in the spirit of working and talking directly with the government but being clear about the concerns we have. There are serious human rights problems in Egypt and we are here to address them. This is my first visit but it will not be my last. Let me stop with that and take your questions. Thank you.

Question: (In Arabic.)

Answer: We’ve had meetings with officials from various ministries – the Ministry of Justice, leaders of the parliament, state security, social motherhood and children’s affairs – a range of government ministries as well some members of the judiciary, and as I say government officials, as well as the National Council on Human Rights, a number of NGO’s, a number of human rights and other activists, bloggers, journalists, et cetera.

Question: Thank you, Mr. Posner, for the presentation. I’m Riham Mazen from Al Ahram newspaper. My question first is how often does this revision take? I mean, is it annually? Every six months? I would like to know, how do you make this revision regarding the human rights in all the countries? And my second question is regarding the national security in the United States now. I know that President Barack Obama said it clearly that he himself would be involved in the national security. What is your opinion? And what is your agenda? Especially as you were involved in advancing a rights-based approach to national security when you were executive director for the organization? Thank you so much.

Answer: The first question, we do annual reports for which my bureau is responsible. A general report on human rights conditions which comes out the end of February, so we’re just in the process of doing that now, and another report on international religious freedom, which comes out later in the year. We also work on other reports, working with trafficking, child labor, forced labor, with other parts of the government, and a report on democracy initiatives. My visit here is, as I said, the first in this position, I’ve only been in this position for four months, but I intend to come back periodically. There is not a schedule, but my hope and intention is that we will have ongoing discussions, both me and others in the government, on a regular basis, about these human rights and democracy issues. These are important issues for Egypt, they are important issues for the United States, and we need to make this a regular part of the conversation and are doing so.

As you say, issues of national security and human rights are something I worked on previously when I was outside of the government. I feel very strongly that there were a number of mistakes made by the previous administration and we’re still finding a way to dig out of some those issues. The President has said the same. We are determined to close the Guantanamo detention facility. It is not easy. It is taking longer than we expected, but there is a renewed effort now to continue that, to make sure that happens. We are determined, and the President has been crystal clear about this, that the United States government does not torture people, should not torture people, anywhere in the world. We shouldn’t engage in cruel treatment. We shouldn’t engage in abusive treatment, inhumane treatment or punishment. We need to follow the Geneva Conventions. We need to follow UN treaty obligations. These are principle items of great importance, and we still have a lot of work to do, to undo some of the policies. There are a number of people in the administration, including me, that are very determined that if we say we live by one universal standard, we have to mean it, and we need also to lead by example.

Question: As of the 2009 budget, the funding for unregistered pro-democracy organizations here in Egypt has been cut substantially, by about 75%. And your bureau, along with the Middle East Partnership Initiative, is one of the only organizations now that is distributing funds to unregistered groups, and by that I mean groups that have not been registered by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. Will the criteria that you use to evaluate these unregistered groups be the same as USAID’s in past years? Or will that be restricted as well as the funding?

Answer: I must say I’m not yet completely conversant on all of the different ways that the United States provides support. That’s also part of what I’ve been doing here this week. But I can say absolutely that DRL, the Democracy Rights Labor Bureau, MEPI and others are looking very closely as ways in which we can be supportive of civil society here. We believe in a diversity of views. We believe in pluralism. We believe in an active NGO sector. And we are determined to keep supporting those within this society for raising these sorts of issues in their work.

Question: (In Arabic.)

Answer: We regard issues relating to empowerment of women as a critical part of the broadly defined commitment to democracy and human rights. We’ve had discussions here, with both government officials and those outside of government, about a range of issues involving women and young girls. Issues like trafficking. Issues like the use of children and young girls in labor, issues relating to discrimination against women. Those are issues that are part of the fundamental approach that we take to human rights. Secretary Clinton, in her speech in December, emphasized the importance of empowering women, and viewing that as a priority, and it’s a priority for me as well. This is part of the larger conversation and it’s a very important part. I think it’s often underestimated how when you begin to create more opportunities for women, you create opportunities for the whole society to take greater responsibility in their commitment to human rights.

Question: (In Arabic.) What do you think of human rights organizations and the legal restrictions here in Egypt at this time?

Answer: It is critically important that organizations here in Egypt and in the Middle East be allowed to function openly, have the opportunity to conduct their own inquiries, to write reports, to speak freely. It is often difficult in this region and others for some to do that. We are concerned always when there are constraints against groups engaged in this activity. Openness and aggressiveness by Human Rights groups is a sign of a vital democracy. And so there are many people in this country and elsewhere in the region, who are taking chances, raising issues, that are often uncomfortable, but again it is not our job to create those organizations, or to tell them how to operate. But when they exist, as they do here, our hope is to amplify their voices and provide support for them.

Question: The State Department and the US Administration’s philosophy regards democracy as being tied to development in Egypt, but as not to express a very genuine concern that although theoretically that makes some sense, the fact of the ground in Egypt is that there is devastating degree and magnitude of corruption, and because of this corruption, the development efforts that are currently being exerted are not bearing fruit, but to the contrary. This corruption is not just talk; it is numbers and rankings by Transparency International that produces annual reports that have ranked Egypt worse and worse over the past few years. Although there has been economic liberalization and development efforts by the current cabinet, but poverty is going down. My point is that corruption is leading to poverty, to 42% of Egyptian population to be living under $2 a year currently. I would like to say that being an Egyptian woman and you mentioned the importance you are giving to women in your general policy regarding Human Rights in Egypt. Being an Egyptian woman I think my rights are infringed upon and I think now the situation is, the problem is greater, is bolder and far-fetched because of the severe poverty. It’s very unlikely for a woman to gain her rights now. We’re talking about Egyptian families who are selling their daughters to rich Arab-Gulf husbands and there are more and more examples. I think I’ve made my point now.

Answer: Let me answer that in that in two parts. There are really two parts to your question that are related.

The issue of accountability and addressing corruption is something that President Obama addressed in some detail in a speech he gave several months ago, in Accra, Ghana. There is within the Executive Branch in the White House now a group looking at what we are calling democratic accountability. So when the Secretary of State gave a speech in December on human rights and democracy and development, one of the things she said is that we need to have the rights-respecting approach to development, and she reiterated this in a speech she gave last week, actually, also in Washington. What do we mean by that? We mean three things. That development initiative ought to be focused on and in consultation with local stakeholders. The programs ought to be developed with local partners and local institutions that guide what we do so that the money we provide actually goes to places where there is there greatest need, whether it’s youth programs or education, or health or to build the capacity of civil society. The second thing, which is very much built into that notion of a right- respecting development strategy, is the notion of accountability. We’ve got to be tough, on ourselves, and on our partners in making sure that money goes to the places where it’s directed, and that is a commitment of the new administrator of the development agency USAID, Raj Shah, who stated work two weeks ago. And the third piece is that at least a part of these strategies of development is to strengthen our programs that are explicitly directed to fostering broader democratic institutions in human rights. So there is, I can’t tell you all this is in place–it’s not, there is a lot of discussion internally, but I think the approach is very much to try to figure out how to strengthen and redouble our efforts to make sure that our USAID programs, our development programs, really do go to those most in need, and also having right strategies for how we are doing it.

Part of that flows into your second question about the situation of women. I don’t know the details of what you have described, but I have no doubt that, again there are people in the Egyptian government, including some we’ve met who are very focused on women, and children and trying to figure how to strengthen a social agenda, education, health, et cetera, but I think that has to be combined with advocacy for the empowerment of women, politically and otherwise, so that there is a greater integration of women in to the decision-making structure.

Question: (In Arabic.)

Answer: The first question I think refers to a practice that the previous administration called rendition, where people are sent back for interrogation here and elsewhere by the US. This is part of what I said earlier is a review of a whole range of practices, and there is certainly determination on my part to make sure that if people are extradited back to a country or deported back, that they not be sent to places where they are going to be abused or subjected to torture. That is probably easier said than done, but it is something that we are very closely following and looking at. It’s critical again that we follow the same international standards and that we follow our own constitutional standards in addressing these security issues. I believe quite strongly that one of the problems that the last administration had is that it made a judgment that somehow you could increase security by diminishing rights. I think in some respects that was exactly the opposite. So for example, I don’t believe that you torture people to enhance security. I think it makes you less secure. It makes you less secure because it damaged our reputation in the world. I think we actually lost good information from who might otherwise have cooperated, and it had a devastating effect on the discipline of the people in the security services in the military. So I think we are trying to revisit the whole range of things; this is just part of it.

Nagaa Hammadi – we are very concerned and we’ve expressed concern publicly about the tragic events there last week. This is something to which we are watching very closely, both the initial prosecution and the broader efforts to investigate the entire incident and who was involved, and who may have ordered the killings. These were people that were murdered on church steps on Christmas Eve. It’s part of what we see as an atmosphere of intolerance and in some respect s I think there is a need, and this certainly something again, that we’ve discussed here by many people, including in the government. We see a need for a dual approach. In the past these cases have been dealt with by a process of reconciliation. That’s a valuable component, but it’s not enough. There need to be prosecutions, there needs to be a break in a sense of impunity, and there needs to be justice. And there need to be a sense conveyed at the highest levels of this government, and repeatedly, that these types of crimes will not be tolerated, and there will be consequences. People will prosecuted and put to jail if they commit these sorts of crimes. This is a very worrying trend, and we are certainly, again with the government of Egypt and with people here, very mindful of the potential of this to become worse and we don’t want that to happen. This is a critical moment for there to be a clearer sense of policy, again with a focus immediately on justice and accountability. And the third question was on labor. I will just say there again, we’ve had some discussions about that. There are a range of issues relating both to child labor. There are some issues relating both in the agricultural sector, kids working on farms, but also as you say in the industrial zones and in particular in the export zones where young people, often women, are working in factories, and they are not state owned, they are privately owned. It’s part of my bureau’s function to look at labor rights. And one of the things we are very keen on is this is ILO standards that deal with the freedom of association, child labor, forced labor, harassment , discrimination, health and safety, that those things are observed as a matter of course in these industrial zones and in other private industries. This is something again we had constructive discussions with the government. These are big issues for any country and they are something that we are eager to be helpful to those in Egypt who are working on it.

Question: I was wondering if I could know more details about the American plan to protect the human rights in Egypt and in the Middle East. Also, I want to know the most important achievement in this visit?

Answer: The idea that there is a plan I think is probably not the way I view it. I view this as a beginning of a process. This is, as I said, this is my first visit here. Ambassador Scobey and others are working on these issues 365 days a year, but my hope and intention is to establish a relationship with the officials of the government of Egypt, to have regular conversations about these issues, to try to figure out both how we can be constructive and helpful and work with the government, and how we can point out, as friend do, when we see deficiencies and problems. This is an ongoing process, here and elsewhere, that doesn’t have a beginning or an end. I know there is a desire on Secretary Clinton’s part, and it’s one I share, that we make this more of a main part of the discussion with Egypt, along with strategic and economic and other issues, that these issues are raised and discussed again, constructively, both diplomatically and privately and publically, by different officials of the government, and that, we over time, hopefully working again with the government, but also with civil society, create more opportunity and more space for these issues to be a more regular part of the process, the internal process in Egypt. This is an Egyptian issue that needs to be addressed by people in Egypt. We can support and reinforce that, but we want to do it in a way that really resonates within this society.

Question: (In Arabic.)

Answer: On the labor issues, the work you are referring to, I was involved in the mid 1990’s when the Clinton Administration was in power, in creating something called the Fair Labor Association, which was a government-initiated effort, but a private initiative, with companies in the apparel and footwear industry, non-governmental activists, consumer, labor, human rights groups, and a number of universities. The premise of it, I think, was the premise that applies here and everywhere, which is that there are global standards, international labor organization standards that need to be applied not just in theory, but practically, in factories in particular, in the textile or garment industry. We undertook to get inspectors to visit factories to write reports which were made public, and then to review big American and European brands to see how their factories were complying, and I think the experience over 10 years or more, is that it has made a difference and there are number of companies operating in a number of countries that have really changed the way they look and think about these issues. There are big problems that still remain, but I think that as long as we start from the notion of international standards, and we start with the notion of openness and honesty about what’s really going on, and we try to figure out what are the ways to create some measure of accountability, that probably applies in these private initiatives like the FLA and it’s also what governments need to do. Private initiatives aren’t enough; governments need to be involved here and elsewhere.

And then on the question on standards for human rights activists, NGO’s and the like, I think the standard are pretty clear. The Universal Declaration and other human right treaties say you have a right to free speech, you have a right to free association, you have a right to freedom of assembly, what that means is that you are not engaged in violent activity, if you are following the law, in that regard there ought to be a broader opportunity for people to organize and speak out about whatever issues they care about–environment, women’s rights, children’s right, broader human rights, electoral reform, freedom of journalists. So I think it’s really, at this point, a question of taking those international standards here and elsewhere and figuring out how to maximize the protection of people who operate outside of government and give them the ability to speak and to be heard.

Question: (In Arabic.)

Answer: Again, the subjects here this week that we discussed both with government officials and with non-governmental organizations, and the National Council, the subjects relate to emergency law, and the government has expressed a commitment; President Mubarak has expressed a commitment to replace that law with a counterterrorism law. We discussed that, but that’s clearly an issue of ongoing concern to us. Related to that are issues of arbitrary or long- term detention, without judicial oversight. There are a range of issues relating to prisons and police practices. There are issues relating to this law of associations and the registration process. There are issues relating to kinds of violence in Nagaa Hammadi and other places, other issues of religious discrimination. There are issues relating to women and discrimination against women and impediments to their empowerment. There are issues relating to press, press freedom again, avoiding and preventing self censorship. There is very clearly as I can see here a very vigorous press, there are a lot of reporters in this room, but we’re also concerned that there not be constraints or actions brought against journalists for saying things that are unpopular. So there’s a big agenda. This is not our agenda, it’s an agenda that the government is certainly fully aware of and talking about, and plenty of people outside of government are raising. This is an Egyptian discussion.

Question: When you brought up the issue about democracy you said, it’s not only about elections but it’s also about freedom of speech, women’s empowerment, transparency. How do you seem them here in Egypt and how do you evaluate those two issues?

Answer: Probably everybody in this room knows more about the process here and the electoral situation. I would say this: I think we all recognize that in the coming period in the next 18 months or 2 years there are both parliamentary and presidential elections going on, and our job as a government is certainly not to take sides or to weigh in on one end or the other. What we want is a fair, open, transparent process. We want to make sure that Egyptians have the ability to express their preferences, and there are a range of things that go into that, and a number of Egyptian groups are trying to organize and trying to ensure that there is proper monitoring of the elections, that there is voter education. I think we would all like to see greater levels of participation. And the United States government is aware of all these things and in some respects trying to help advance that process with Egyptian groups, but I think this is a critical time for Egypt to have the kind of election that I described, one that’s full, and fair, and open, and transparent.

Question: Regarding the security measures in the United States airports, do you think it violates human rights, especially for a few countries, religious rights? And my second question, about the Christians in Egypt, you think they face discrimination on a regular basis or is this just an individual incident?

Answer: On the airport screening, somebody asked that the other day, I always distinguish between security measures that are rights-neutral, and those that have a detrimental effect to human rights. So to me, if here or elsewhere, governments make a decision that they want to add extra levels of screening for people at airports, I think that’s a kind of an action that governments have a right, it’s an obligation of governments to make sure that you can get on and off an airplane safely. There are a range of things like that, protecting critical infrastructure, making sure water is safe, other electric facilities, supporting firefighters and first line defenders, there’s a range of things that government can and should do that don’t infringe on rights. To me the challenge is when you get to issues of interrogating people, detention practices, and breaches on privacy. Now let me say one thing on privacy. I think the challenge for our government and every government is to figure out how to do these inspections at the airport that don’t infringe on privacy, and that‘s where we are now working to come up with the right kinds of technology and procedures that both accomplish the security need without being an infringement on privacy and I think we can do that.

On the religious question I would say this: I think there is again, based on some conversations here, there are certainly some in this society, some in this community who are anxious about what they perceive to be an atmosphere of intolerance. That doesn’t mean it’s happening with everybody, but it means there is some anxiety about relationships, and then there is an incident like Nagaa Hammadi, it heightens those anxieties and tensions, which is why I said earlier that there is a value to not only having a process of reconciliation ongoing, but also being clear that hate crimes, when somebody is attacked or killed, there has to be an accountability and a breaking of that cycle of impunity. I want to say one other thing about religion, if you just let me. I am very mindful and one of the things I’m doing, not in this region, but in Europe, is to take a much more serious look at the discrimination against Muslims, in European and North American societies. We had meetings several weeks ago with the government of Switzerland. You have probably followed this. There was a referendum late last year where 56% of the Swiss population voted to ban further building of minarets. That sends a very negative signal to those in Switzerland, Muslims living in Switzerland. It says that they are not welcome, and so I think it’s really incumbent on governments like the United States to be working with our European friends, as we are working here in Egypt, but working with our European counterparts to say that the problems related to discrimination and attacks on Muslims is a real problem. We have to take it on directly and so part of my efforts are going be to try to raise those issues through European institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Question: Some human rights activists locally in Egypt have given some concern about the friendship you described between the United States and Egypt. It’s particularly with Egypt’s important role in the Mideast talks with Israel and Palestine, that perhaps the United States won’t be as strict with Egypt and that will give it some leeway with things, particularly with human rights because of this friendship. What’s your reaction to that, and also will there be consequences if Egypt doesn’t have a very fair election upcoming?

Answer: I have traveled to three countries as I’ve said. All three are different but all are in different ways allies to the United States – Israel, Jordan and Egypt. One way or another that question comes up everywhere and my answer is really, we are friends. There are many ways in which the relationships are very important and will continue to be important, but one of the advantages of friendship is that you can be direct and honest, and open. And friends expect honest dialogue and discussion. And that can lead to change, and that‘s what we are trying to do here. I don’t want to speculate on hypotheticals. It seems to me we should not wait for an election that is 18 months or two years away. We ought to be figuring out today what can be done to address what is really a very serious set of issues here. And so direct conversation with the government, direct efforts, diplomatically and through some of the USAID programs, our determination is to take these issues seriously and try to ensure again along with the Egyptian government, but also civil society, how these can issues be addressed most effectively. This is an ongoing process, but it’s a serious process, and I am going to keep coming back and I’m going to keep raising these issues as a matter of course, as friends do.

Question: After you joined the State Department, you think you can serve more flexible and freely as before you were the director of the Human Rights First. Which one do you think is more flexible and serving your case?

Answer: I would say that in the old job I was able to be more flexible, but in this one I might be more effective. So let’s hope. That’s my goal anyway. Thanks very much.

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