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Transcript: Assistant Secretary Posner Answers Questions on the 2011 Human Rights Report

Foreign Press Center, Washington, D.C.



ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Welcome, everybody. I just am going to make a few brief introductory comments, and then open up to your questions. We are releasing this morning – have released the 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. And as Secretary Clinton said when she introduced the reports, this has been an especially tumultuous and momentous year for everyone involved in the cause of human rights. These reports that we’re releasing today document human rights conditions in 199 countries and territories, including a number of situations where human rights continue to be violated on a systematic basis – places like Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Sudan, and Syria.

We also have said that there continue to be a range of human rights challenges in places like Russia, China, and Pakistan, where the United States has important policy interests. The important thing about these reports is that we have a fidelity to the truth. We use the same standard in evaluating every country and the countries – and every country is covered.

These reports found a number of disturbing trends. I’ll just mention a couple. One is that in a number of places, as a result of flawed elections or restrictions of physical and internet freedom, media censorship, and efforts to restrict civil society, governments have stymied the efforts of citizens to change their own society peacefully. We also have identified in a number of the reports persecution against many religious groups, including the Ahmadis, Baha’i, Tibetan Buddhists, Jews, and Christians. And we’ve documented discrimination against a number of other groups, including racial and religious – racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, women, and the LGBT community.

But there are also some positive trends, and we talk about the changes that have occurred in Burma where there have been a number of political prisoners released, the election of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party several weeks ago, and we’re going to – there’s still an unfinished agenda there, and we will continue to press the government to continue making progress.

I want to just say a few words about the report themselves. We’ve been doing this 35 or so years since the 1970s, and this year we’ve made some changes to the structure. One, the reports are more concise. We’ve added an executive summary to each of the reports – executive summary for each. And then we’ve also reorganized them so that they’re easier to search electronically, and it’s possible to search topics across countries. The public can also share the reports on social media, so I invite you to come and visit humanrights.gov, our website which has been up for about a year where you will see all of those things at play.

Delighted to take any of your questions, please. Sorry.

MODERATOR: We’ll start here. Just as a reminder, if you could please state your name and news organization.

QUESTION: Sure. Jesus Esquivel from Proceso Magazine in Mexico. Just following my previous question at the State Department that I didn’t get – you didn’t get the chance to respond correctly. Taking the fact that the Mexican military forces are, in your report, marked as one of the entities of the government who commit more violations of human rights in Mexico, my question is: Are you guys are going to have Mexico accountable for these issues in terms of the money that is conditionate (ph) for the Merida initiative, the 15 percent of the funds of this year? Otherwise you will seem to the Mexican citizen as a country with a policy that is – is not correct – you say one thing and you do other thing.

And second point is, in the issue of corruption, one of the samples that you have in your report is the former governor of Coahuila who was the president of the party which candidate is the leading candidate of the Mexican elections. Why this case? Especially when Mexico is – have a presidential election?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Okay. On the issue of – let me – I want to take the issue of the Merida funding and put it in a broader context. And as I said to you previously, we are very mindful of the overall – the enormous violence that’s taken place in Mexico over the last several years, much of it related to the drug trade, the need for the Mexican Government to provide for safety and security of its citizens, that challenges the government faces because of the relative weakness of local police and the criminal justice system, and the decision and in the interim period to have the military come in to play essentially a law enforcement role.

I think President Calderon is very well aware, and I’m sure the next government will be aware, that in – over the long term, there is a need to strengthen a national or provincial police and the legal system to provide a long-term way to address this ongoing violence. In the interim, we’ve been very clear with the Government of Mexico – and I’ve been involved in some of these discussions – in trying to assure accountability for excesses by the Mexican military – greater accountability in part by having the cases transferred to civilian courts, greater accountability by more transparency about what cases are being investigated. As you know, some of these cases have gone to the OAS.

So there is a back-and-forth, a serious discussion about how best to deal with these issues in the short and medium term. As part of that, as you know, we have made a part of the Merida funding conditional on where we stand, and we’re in the process of reviewing that. But I think the more important thing is the bilateral discussion, and the most important thing is how these issues are debated among Mexican people themselves. You have in Mexico a very lively civil society which raises these issues with lots of vigor, and you have people – and even the government’s sponsored human rights commission that monitors these cases. We will continue to do our part, but there has to be a recognition that some combination of what we say and do, what other governments say and do, and primarily what happens inside Mexico, will address these issues.

On the issue of corruption, I’m not going to get into the particulars of that case. The issue of corruption is something that we see and deal with in a range of countries in the world. And part of my – of the mandate of these reports is where there are cases that we have information that we regard as reliable, we include it in the report.

MODERATOR: It’s on.

QUESTION: Okay. Takashi Oshima from the Asahi Shimbun, Japanese paper. Since this is a foreign press – briefing for foreign press, so let me ask you the very basic question. Why do you evaluate the human rights issue of foreign country, and why does it matter to the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: That’s a good question. These reports started in the mid-1970s, mandated by Congress as it was being asked under two federal laws to withhold military and then economic assistance to countries that were engaged in gross human rights violations. So Congressman, now Senator Harkin, Congressman Fraser basically said we don’t have the ability to evaluate human rights conditions to make those judgments, and they came to the State Department and they said do the report.

The report now serves a much broader set of interests, both for our government and others. It is the standard by which many governments now evaluate human rights conditions. It’s the most comprehensive, it’s the most detailed, and I would say it’s the strongest evaluation done by anybody of human rights conditions across the globe. It’s used by UN agencies, it’s used by people like you journalists, and it’s used by a wide range of human rights activists and civil society members just to get basic information. We had over a million separate individual visitors to the site last year. My prediction is that that number will go up as we’ve made it more user-friendly. So it’s a useful resource to the world.

The second question that you didn’t ask, but I’ll answer anyway, is: Why do we have the United States in here? We have, in the last several years, dealt with the United States comprehensively in 2010 in the Universal Periodic Review Report we gave to the UN Human Rights Council. Last December, we responded to one of the UN expert bodies on civil and political rights, gave them a 450-page report on human rights in the United States. And this year, we’ll be doing two reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee Against Torture. So we have ample opportunities where we’re doing exactly this kind of exercise with regard to ourselves.

MODERATOR: Now we will go to New York. New York, go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon, sir. In terms of this report, what sort of changes we are going to see in the U.S. foreign policy, especially in regards of Iran and India and economic relation? And number two, how do you see the democratic process in Bangladesh, please?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: What was the second question?

QUESTION: How do you see the democratic process in Bangladesh?

MODERATOR: Would you please state your name and news organization for the record?

QUESTION: Yeah. This is Shehabuddin Kisslu, Bangla News 24 and Probe News Magazine.

MODERATOR: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the first question, the report is not a policymaking document. It is a – it gives us a factual predicate, a basis for making policy. We, as I said earlier, make lots of decisions throughout the course of the year about human rights. This report gives us a standard or a factual basis to evaluate what’s happening in countries like India and Iran. Our policies are constantly being reviewed and evaluated and constantly changing to reflect facts that occur throughout the year. So this report is not intended to say to policymakers now we have to do X or Y as a basis.

With respect to Bangladesh, Secretary Clinton was there several weeks ago, had good discussions both with government representatives and the political opposition. And I think we are mindful of some of the challenges, but also encouraged by what is still a quite open democratic process there.

MODERATOR: Okay. Nancy.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Nancy – sorry. Nancy Ku from Fuji TV, Japanese TV network. I have two questions relating to China. One is on Chen Guangcheng.

You mentioned in the earlier briefing that concerning his nephew and his brother, the lawyers who are trying to represent his nephew and the friends who helped him to escape, that the U.S. Government is always raising these concerns with the Chinese Government. Can you help me understand concretely what raising the concerns means? Because, for example, in Syria, raising the concern means imposing sanctions or helping build up the opposition; in Burma, raising the concern means promising the action for action. So in this case, I haven’t quite wrapped my head around what raising the concern actually means.

And the second question on China is the report states that human rights in China have been actually deteriorating. What do you see as the factors driving this deterioration, and what can be done to counter these factors?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On the first question with Chen Guangcheng, we have been closely monitoring the situation of his nephew, who, as you know, has been charged criminally, his brother, who, according to press reports, is now in Beijing. A group of about 16 lawyers who have offered up legal defense, a number of other people who have – who assisted his movement several weeks ago. We are monitoring those on a regular basis very closely. And as I said earlier, we will have and will continue to, as I’m doing today, express our concern that these individuals be treated fairly in accordance with human rights principles, in accordance with Chinese law. And we will raise these cases, as we do many other cases. They’re – I’m not going to get into every interaction or every detail.

Leading into your second question, we have seen in the last several years a worsening situation in a number of respects. One is that the space for human rights advocacy has narrowed, and so we’ve seen a number of cases – I mention Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who’s been in prison, was incommunicado for a while, is now in prison in Shenzhen. We’ve also seen other activists like Liu Xiaobo who is now serving an 11-year sentence for the Charter 08 public document calling for human rights. It’s tough for journalists. It’s tough for bloggers. And we’ve also seen and are concerned about the restrictions on religious freedom for the Tibetans – for example, Buddhists – and are very concerned by the self-immolations.

So there’s a pattern of actions that we’re very concerned about. We continued – as I said earlier, in the earlier session, we raised these issues in the context of a human rights dialogue which we’ll have this summer. We raised it also in a legal experts dialogue which we had several weeks ago. And we raised them in the context of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The human rights issues are part of our broader policy, and our view is that these are strategic issues, they’re economic issues, they’re human rights issues. It’s part of – a central part of what we do.

QUESTION: So raising it means, like, verbal –

MODERATOR: Wait for the microphone.

QUESTION: So raising the issues, does that mean verbal and written statements? Is that about where it stops right now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, our relationship with China is one where we’re not – we have a whole range of discussions about a series of issues. We’re not in the same places we are with – we don’t have a – we’re not providing military assistance to China, for example. We’re – we are engaged in a whole range of commercial activities. We have a set of issues relating to joint security concerns or differences. We have a slew of international concerns. We talk about North Korea. We talk about Sudan. We talk about Iran. There’s a lot of diplomatic back and forth. The important thing is these issues are on the agenda; they’re being discussed. It’s part of our bilateral relationship.

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian with Al-Tahrir, Egypt. Sir, regarding the nations in transition, which is mainly in the part of the Middle East which – Egypt, Libya and – in particular in Egypt, there is now women, minorities, liberals, civil society in general in danger. What kind of procedures or steps you are taking to, first, record these issues; second, to raise it with the rulers or the governing bodies?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: This is something that Secretary Clinton spoke to this morning, and in fact, it’s been a priority for her and for all of us. We had, several weeks ago, the second strategic dialogue with civil society in Washington. When Secretary Clinton travels abroad – I was with her last April in Egypt – she met with about 20 civil society activists. She does that everywhere she goes. We are very mindful of the fact that, whether it’s in the Middle East or elsewhere, change occurs from within society, and the change agents are often women’s activists and human rights activists and children’s rights activists and lawyers who are vulnerable because they are raising these issues.

We stand behind them. We help to amplify their voices. We try to provide a lifeline when they get in trouble. And we provide a range of technical and financial assistance in a variety of ways as appropriate. So we’re very clear that we’re not going to force change from outside, but in dynamic societies like Egypt, like Tunisia, where things are changing, what’s really happening on the ground is that people are demanding dignity, they’re demanding a voice in their own political future, and they’re demanding economic opportunity. And we support those who share our democratic aspirations for their countries.

QUESTION: Shar Adams from Epoch Times. Thanks very much for appearing here today. Just referring to Nancy’s question, human rights in China have deteriorated, but you’ve also been engaging with China a lot. What positive signs do you have that things will improve there, and what encouragement for prisoners of conscience and dissidents can you offer for them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m actually very encouraged by the progress that the Chinese Government, Chinese society have made in the last 30, 40 years in removing people out of poverty, creating job opportunities, creating a very dynamic society. It’s also a society that’s computer-literate, and there are 400 million people with computers, there are 800 million people with cell phones. People are – Chinese people want to live in a modern 21st century world where they can communicate with each other, where they can use the internet to understand what’s happening in innovation and education. They want to engage in commerce, and they want a greater stake in their own society.

So all of those things to me point to a society both in transition and one where Chinese people are eager to have – live in a society where the environment’s clean, where they can drink milk that’s pure, where they can participate economically, where they can get every latest development in technology and education. And those are things that we certainly aspire – hope that they are able to do.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still restrictions on dissent, and I’ve spoken to that. We’ll continue to raise concerns about that. But I think the overall picture is one of great progress and greater demand – greater demand by Chinese people to their government to continue making progress economically, and on a parallel track opening up for greater political liberty.

QUESTION: Thank you. I am Silvia Pisani from La Nacion in Argentina. I would like to ask you about two things concerning the chapter about Argentina. The first of – is that for the first time, you mentioned a very well-known organization dealing with the human rights in Argentina, which is Madres de Plaza de Mayo. And you mentioned the case because of some corruption cases involving money from the government.

I would like to ask you if you are concerned about the possibility that these corruption cases, that are investigation – are under investigation can damage – could damage the idea of fighting for the human rights in Argentina. And if that is so, what do you expect for the – from the investigation? That’s the first question.

And the other one is that you’re still mentioning the problems with the freedom of expression. Particularly you mentioned the campaign saying that one of the newspapers in Argentina is lying. And so I would like to ask you about how do you see the situation about the freedom of expression in Argentina? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m not going to – I don’t have anything to add on the case involving the Comadres (ph). That’s in the courts and that’s – I’m not going to add more than what’s in the report. I will say that I know historically – and the important role that the Comadres (ph) played during the years of the Dirty War – I’ve been in contact with them over the years, and the role that they played in other human rights groups was invaluable to the transition that occurred in Argentina.

What I would say about the second question is that we’re very aware, not only in Argentina but more broadly, about a range of methods of indirect censorship that a range of governments have taken, that have the effect of chilling expression. In some cases, they’re direct threats or harassment. In other places, they’re restrictions on newsprint or criminal libel or blasphemy laws. Some countries use licensing restrictions against television stations. So we’re – we believe very strongly in a free press. We believe very strongly that the blogosphere needs to be open and free, the internet needs to be open and free, and we would call on all governments to be particularly respectful to the important role that the media plays in a free society.

MODERATOR: In the middle here.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary. My name is Chi-Dong Lee from South Korea’s Yonghap News Agency. Regarding North Korea, you said North Korea’s human rights situation remains extremely poor. You said – as you may remember, you said – last year, you said that the situations are grim and deplorable. And a year earlier, you said just the situations are poor. So what are the implications of the change of the wordings? I mean, can I – do I need to attach special meaning to the change of the wordings you used? Thanks. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you. You have a good memory. I may be running out of words. (Laughter.) We – just to reiterate: We’re deeply concerned the situation remains poor and we don’t see progress in that. There was a report last month about prison conditions done by a group based here. They estimate 200,000 people are being held in detention. The people who come out and report on the way they’re treated suggests that there’s widespread abuse in the prisons.

It’s a closed society. The media is not free. People aren’t free to express their political views. The list goes on and on. It is a country that’s so closed and so resistant to any kind of an open discussion of human rights, of good governance, of a whole range of subjects that it remains a country that we are deeply concerned about and we will continue to raise these issues.

QUESTION: Thank you Secretary. Jun Kaminishikawara with Kyodo News. Questions on political prisoners in China. This report is pointing out that there are tens of thousands of political prisoners imprisoned in China although Chinese Government has been denying it. So why is it so obvious for the United States Government to determine that there are so many political prisoners in China? Do you think the definitions of political prisoners are different on each side? (Laughter.) And finally, do you regard Mr. Chen Guangcheng as a former political prisoner? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We are constantly debating internally and with other governments who – what constitutes a political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience. Our view is that if somebody operates peacefully, expresses dissenting views, and is put in prison for that reason, that’s a political prisoner. It’s not that complicated.

There are different ways that people are held in detention. Some are criminally charged; sometimes the charges are fabricated. Somebody may be charged with a tax evasion or some other technical thing, but we have a sense that underlying that is their political expression. Some people are held in detention facilities, or re-education through labor some countries call it. So we are often debating both who’s in prison, for what charge, and in what condition. But we stand by what’s in the report. There are a substantial number of people in China who are being held because of expressing their views about politics, religion, or whatever.

QUESTION: (Off mike.)

MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t answer the second piece. We were outspoken about his detention. We were outspoken about the restrictions he found himself under once he was released. And those comments stand.

MODERATOR: Up front here.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Posner, I’m Emile Baroody with Al Mayadeen. You said this reports get to be a basis to make policy. Obviously, it won’t be the same in every case and in every country. How exactly does it weigh in the policymaking?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: My experience, I’m relatively new to government, and I’ve been in it about three years, and it’s striking to me how important the facts are. People make judgments all the time about, “Should we do this? Should we do that?” There are a range of interests at stake – a range of policy interests – but it’s really critical to start by being correct and honest about what the facts are.

And so it’s a very useful exercise for us to go through the process of collecting the facts, agreeing on what the facts are, and then introducing those facts into discussions about what we do. There is not one size that fits all in terms of how we’re going to respond. But it is – in our government at least, people spend a lot of time trying to analyze what’s happening. Here we have a product based on tens of thousands of hours where we’ve come to an agreement as a government. This is – these are the facts for 2011, this is what’s going on in the world, and it gives us then a basis to figure out how do we apply those facts to a particular situation and make policy?

QUESTION: Anatoly Bochinin, the Russian news service ITAR-TASS. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. The question – two questions about Latvia and Georgia. First one: In report, it has said much about known citizens in Latvia but there is no assessment of this (inaudible). Doesn’t this status break rights of big number of people who live in Latvia? And the second one about Georgia: Didn’t you find any problems with human rights of Russian citizens in Georgia? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t have anything to add to what’s in the report on those two subjects. We’re obviously very mindful of the situation of Russians in a range of the former Soviet countries like Latvia and Georgia. We have – we’re constantly urging that they be given full rights to participate and engage and not be discriminated against. And the report, I think, reflects that in a range of places.

MODERATOR: Other questions? If we don’t have any additional questions, we will break there. Thank you all very much for joining us.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you all.

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