PAO Dehab Ghebreab: I like to thank you all for joining us this afternoon. It gives me great pleasure to introduce assistant Secretary Michael Posner for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Assistant Secretary has been in Nigeria for a few days now. He was in Abuja for a few days and he’s been with us in Lagos since Wednesday. He is going to start with a statement and we have shared his bio already with all of you. So he is going to make a statement and then will respond to a few questions before he heads to the airport. He will be leaving this evening. Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Posner: Good afternoon everybody. I am very pleased to be back in Nigeria, a country I first visited in the 1990s. As always, I have been struck by the energy, vitality and openness of the Nigerian people. I have had a very productive trip, and I want to thank the Government and members of this country’s vibrant civil society for sharing their views with me over the past four days. I have had the opportunity to meet with the Foreign Minister, the Attorney General, senior police and national security officials, and members of the National Assembly. I have met with religious leaders, lawyers, labor leaders, journalists, human rights advocates, and other members of civil society. I also met with representatives of companies, civil society, and the National Assembly working on the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. These meetings have given me a good view of both the progress that has been made and the challenges still facing this great country.
Nigeria is a very important partner to the United States. We are committed to working with the Nigerian Government and people to help you build a stable, prosperous democracy. We strongly support efforts to consolidate democracy and the rule of law, and to build professional security forces capable of protecting citizens and respecting basic human rights.
Nigeria’s vast potential and the talent of its people was evident everywhere we traveled. The 2011 elections provided a solid foundation upon which democracy can grow and people we met inside and outside of government are exploring additional electoral reforms to support free, fair elections in 2015. Nigeria continues to have a very lively and vigorous civil society, a free media, and new media – essential elements of any sustainable democracy. Increasingly, Nigerians are demanding increased openness and accountability from their Government, and working to take meaningful measures to combat corruption.
At the same time, we are very concerned about the worsening security situation in the North. We strongly condemn the brutal actions of Boko Haram, and its targeted attacks against Nigerian people. Boko Haram has attacked churches, schools, mosques, and communities, as well as those who speak out against this violence. This violence has resulted in thousands of deaths of innocent people. Boko Haram’s targeted attacks have also killed hundreds of police and other security forces.
Those responsible for these acts, and those who support and protect them, need to be brought to justice for their criminal acts.
We are also seriously concerned about abuses by members of the Nigerian security forces in combating Boko Haram’s extremist violence. We have received numerous reports of mass arrests, extra-judicial killings, torture, and prolonged detention without due process of law. While officials have initiated investigations in some of these cases, all too often those responsible have not been held accountable. Many Nigerians believe that the excessive use of force by security forces, often operating through Joint Task Force patrols, has alienated local populations and fueled support for Boko Haram.
In recent years we have seen that governments that adopt a multi-faceted response to terrorism and violent extremism are most successful in combating it. Such strategies include the disciplined use of force, in which security forces abide by clear rules of engagement and distinguish criminal insurgents from sympathizers and innocent bystanders. These strategies also include sustained and inclusive efforts to reach out to local communities and address their basic needs. Many of those most affected by Boko Haram violence in Northern States seek increased economic opportunity, enhanced social programs and more meaningful political engagement in shaping their own destiny. The Nigerian Government’s commitment and ability to meet these legitimate aspirations will be critical to the country’s future stability and security.
If Nigeria successfully pursues this approach and commits itself to enhance good governance and the rule of law, the country will be well positioned to leverage its abundant human and natural resources to become a model for other democracies in Africa and a source of great pride for its citizens. As you chart this course the United States stands ready to help you in this journey. Thank you.
PAO: We have copies of his statement which you can pick as you walk out later. When you ask your questions please identify yourself tell us who you are and your organization as well. Thank you.
Q: My name is Adeola Akinremi, I write for This Day newspapers… inaudible you just expressed your worries about Boko Haram. I would like to know whether it is something your government will support for the Nigerian government to go out and dialogue with Boko Haram
A/S Posner: I am sorry I didn’t quite catch the beginning of your question. Say it again.
Q Repeat: In your statement, you expressed worries about the Boko Haram attacks. In recent times we have heard about the issue of dialogue with Boko Haram. I would like to know whether it is something that your government will endorse.
A/S Posner: I don’t think the issue of how to deal with Boko Haram attack is for the U.S. government to make a judgment. What we are clear about is one that the members of Boko Haram have committed and are committing violent acts that are unacceptable and inexcusable and need to be condemned and need to be combated. Secondly, as I said in my statement that the government also bears the responsibility for ensuring that its forces operate within the rule of law and respect for human rights. A strategy for dealing with Boko Haram that I also referenced in my statement is one that doesn’t just have a military security police in place but also looks to reach out to the communities and try to encourage people not to become part of the violence movement. And both political and economic inclusion should be part of the effort.
Q: Violence is spreading in the North. Is this the sense that you get from your visit?
A/S Posner: Again, various reports suggest that the violence is not abating. It’s spreading to more parts of the country, more parts of the North. I can’t put an exact number on how many incidents but it’s fair to say that there is recently, expressed reasons for concern that rather than diminishing there is a sense that the violence at least geographically spreading in the number of incidents since it began. Again I don’t want to make comparism or reflect on whether … What we said and will continue to say is that there are a range of things that any good security system does in having clear rules of engagement, strong training, accountability if violations occur if those violations are addressed in a way that sends a signal….(inaudible). And that the strategy is not just a security military police strategy but needs to be multi-faceted and that means reaching out to communities where there is economic deprivation with people who feel politically isolated and try to encourage greater support for the government within those communities. So there is not one answer to that question it is really a range of things that I think good government …inaudible.
Q: How can the Nigerian Government control the security forces without holding them accountable?
A/S Posner: There are a couple of different questions there let me just try to break them apart. The first thing to say is to repeat something again in the statement. The United States is a partner to the government and people of Nigeria. This is an important relationship, this is an important country and we are committed to seeing success here and there are many reasons to hope for success here. This is a country that moved from military government to democracy. There was a successful election in 2011. We will eagerly work both with the government and with aspiring political parties to ensure that there is an open free and fair election in 2015. As we do in many, many parts of the world, we are not going to pick winners and losers but we want to see an open political process where people debate their views, debate their differences and people have an opportunity to participate. I think that is the first piece. The second piece is we stand ready to be as a partner as a friend of Nigeria and the security issues that I have discussed, we also want to make ourselves available to be supportive of a right approach to national security that both protects citizens and allows the government the capacity to do that and at the same time includes commitment to respecting human rights and ensuring that people are not mistreated.
Q: The National Assembly is considering a bill to criminalize LGBT. Could you comment on this?
A/S Posner: We had good meetings with people in the National Assembly and the House. We talked about a range of issues, we did not talk about that. One of the things that I feel strongly here and elsewhere is the issues of human rights and evolution of democracy occur from within the societies. It is very difficult if not impossible for governments from the outside to force that change. And it is encouraging to me here that both in our meetings at the National Assembly and then with a wide range of civil society groups and with the press, with media and others we saw the vibrancy and the vitality of these societies. People have a range of view and are not shy about expressing them and they represent different positions on almost every issue. So that is a positive sign. Now about the bill that you talked about – I think the thing will be of greatest concern to us is the extent and again the bill is in the parliament, in the National Assembly still being debated. The thing that will be for us of greatest concern is this or any legislation that criminalizes expression or advocacy. And so again I am not here to comment on any legislation that is pending. But as a general rule we want to see that openness and vitality express itself. We want to see an open space for people to debate their differences and we will encourage everybody who is looking for another legislation to find ways to express their views.
Q: How do you sustain democracy in Liberia? Politicians are not willing to accept defeat? Could you comment on this?
A/S Posner: With respect to the first question, our discussion with members of the Assembly was very much to get their perspectives on a range of issues – issues related to human rights in this country. One of the themes of our meeting at the Assembly was the important and very healthy role that the parliament or Congress or Assembly can play, not just in passing legislation but as a watchdog of government action. And I said to them that I spend a fair amount of my time appearing before the US Congress. It sometimes gives us a hard time but that is a healthy thing. They represent different constituencies in the United States and they have strong views about things and they encourage the government to keep on our toes. So a lot of it was a discussion on what the role of the National Assembly is and the relationships between the Assembly and the executive branch and the courts. And that is really what we talked about we did not talk about Nigerians in the United States, we didn’t talk about a whole range of things. It was more of a broad discussion on some of the specific issues they deal with internally and what is the right course for the National Assembly. And I was encouraged. It was a lot of energy among the people we talked to. They were a versatile group and I think increasingly in playing not only their roles in legislating but also in being an oversight watchdog for the government.
I think that is a bit of what I talked about in my statement and what I have said here. There is not, we don’t have a magic formula to solve this problem. But there are elements of what other governments have done and what we’ve done that are worth reflecting on. One is that a well disciplined, well trained military security service and police that have clear rules of engagement, clear coordination and a restraint to avoid commiting human rights violation is a positive step. You can have strong security and human rights actually reinforce one another. And that includes accountability when things go wrong as they sometime do. The second piece is not to view this entirely or solely as security military police problem. People in affected communities, and we met some, and we met some of their leaders, and we met religious leaders, people are economically disadvantaged. Many people are not working, young people on the street and they need to have open prospect of engaging in the political and economic future of their country. I think there is a broader set of things that can happen and this is an important time, I think for the government to explore that sort of multifaceted approach.
Q: Security has worsened since 2009 when Boko Haram emerged. What do government officials have to say about this?
A/S Posner: You know I’m not in the business of doing report cards. We do an annual human rights report which will come out in a few months time and it will have quite a lot of details and specifics. But I think it is fair to say we had very open good discussion with the government and various agencies, including the police and security services and we discussed both the areas where there’s been forward movement and area where progress needs to be made. I am not going to get into every detail of what we said but my comment, I think, makes clear that there is an unfinished agenda here and we stand ready to work with the government of Nigeria which is an important partner in trying to encourage the best practices or dealing with this very serious threat. Boko Haram is a violent extremist group and their actions have resulted in a lot of misery. A lot of people have lost their lives; both police and security forces and lots of innocent people have been killed in the wake of their actions. So it is in everybody’s interest in Nigeria who believes in democracy and human rights that Boko Haram be challenged. And it is important that it be done in a way that brings people into the fold in those communities to believe that the government is the best way for them.
Q: How is the United States going to help Nigeria deal with its challenges?
A/S Posner: We’ve had and are having a series of discussion about a range of ways in which we might be helpful. I don’t want to get into the particulars but historically in a range of places here and elsewhere, we have been and are engaged in training of various police and security forces. I think there is also a piece of this that relates to development agenda. What are the ways to provide economic development and opportunities and there are exchange programs and ways allow people to kind of explore what other societies, what other countries have done who are faced with similar kinds of challenges. So we are wide open to thinking about creative ways we can be helpful. Again this is an important relationship. Nigeria is a critical country in Africa and in the world. We want to see Nigeria succeed, we want to be helpful in ways that we can.
PAO: Thank you so much. This concludes the press conference. Please remember to take copies of the statement. Thank you very much.