MODERATOR: Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we’re hosting a briefing on the 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Our speaker today is Uzra Zeya, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. And without further ado – Assistant Secretary.
MS. ZEYA: Thanks very much, Doris. I’d like to start by saying a few words about how we use the annual Human Rights Reports to inform our diplomacy around the world, and also give you a quick overview of some of the major developments they describe. Then I’d be happy to take your questions.
As Secretary Kerry said earlier today, human rights are central to America’s global diplomatic engagement. And these reports are the factual foundation upon which we build and shape our policies. Human rights are on the agenda for all our bilateral relations, such as during the recent U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue where we urged the release of all political prisoners, including Le Quoc Quan, Dr. Vu, and others. We advocate on behalf of those imprisoned for their activism or beliefs, including Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and human rights lawyers Gao Zhisheng and Pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran, among many others all over the world.
The individual reports stand alone and speak for themselves, and I commend them to you for specific details on countries or regions. At the same time, I’d like to highlight some key developments from the past year. First, as Secretary mentioned earlier today, we continue to see a shrinking space for civil society in a growing number of countries – China, Egypt, and Russia, just to name a few. 2012 saw new laws impeding or preventing the exercise of freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion, heighted restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad, and the harassment, arrest, and killing of political, human rights, and labor activists. Regardless of the means, the result is the same: When governments stifle society, their countries are deprived of the ideas, the energy, and the ingenuity of their people that are needed for long-term stability and success in the 21st century.
We also saw freedom of the media increasingly under threat in 2012. Record numbers of journalists were killed in the line of duty or as a consequence of their reporting. A number of governments took steps to stifle the press through the use of overly broad counterterrorism laws, burdensome regulatory requirements, and harassment or imprisonment of journalists. In Ethiopia, Eskinder Nega remains behind bars, and Calixto Ramon Martinez Arias spent six months in a Cuban prison for writing about a cholera outbreak. Some governments specifically targeted freedom of expression on the internet through new restrictive legislation, denial-of-service attacks, and the harassment of online bloggers, journalists, and activists. In Egypt, for example, blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by the government.
Throughout the Middle East in 2012, men and women continue to organize and advocate for dignity, economic opportunity, and a stake in their political future. There were historic elections in Egypt and Libya, but also troubling setbacks, including the erosion of protections for civil society, sexual violence against women, and violence and repression towards religious and ethnic minorities across the region. Bashar al-Assad escalated unrelenting attacks against his own people in Syria. Inter-communal tensions and political violence continued in Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. And governments throughout the Gulf took steps to restrict freedom of expression both online and off.
These struggles are not confined to the Middle East, especially the issue of violence against the most marginalized groups in society. The 2012 Reports document discrimination against and persecution of members of religious and ethnic minorities, including Jews, Roma, Coptic Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Uighurs, and Tibetans, as well as against other vulnerable populations such as persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in every region of the world.
Women and girls continue to be at risk, facing abuses raging from sexual violence to harmful traditional practices. From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, women and girls were the targets of repression while trying to live their daily lives, change their societies for the better, and exercise the fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of all human beings.
Thankfully, not all the news from 2012 was discouraging. As Secretary Kerry noted earlier today, we’re encouraged by what’s happening in Burma. The Burmese Government has released more than 700 political prisoners since 2011, many of whom were imprisoned for more than a decade. Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 other members of the National League for Democracy were elected to parliament in largely transparent and inclusive bi-elections. The government is relaxing some press censorship and allowing trade unions to form and register. At the same time, though, many elements of the country’s authoritarian structure remain intact. We’re also very concerned by the conflict in Kachin state and communal violence in Rakhine state in central Burma.
In addition to the elections I mentioned in the Middle East and Burma, Georgia held parliamentary elections that resulted in the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in that country since independence in 1992. And throughout the world every day, courageous men and women took selfless risks to stand up for the universal human rights and better the lives of others.
This is truly a massive undertaking, and every year we strive to do better. This year we’ve included more comprehensive information on prison conditions, corruption within governments, worker’s rights and the rights of women and girls in our reports. We hope that the reports will help to shed light on human rights conditions around the world, and we’re committed to working with governments and civil society to stop abuses and support universal rights for all.
So on that note, I’ll stop there, and I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Just a reminder to please wait for the microphone, which could be on either side of you. And when you get the microphone, please state your name and your media organization.
We’ll start up front, right here with the lady here.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Heba el Koudsy from Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper. You pointed that Burma is very positive or had achieved positively in human rights. Does it have something to do with American efforts to push Burma to achieve that progress? And if so – or is it only from the Burman Government? And if you have something to do with pushing the government, why don’t you do the same with other governments in the region or in the world? Thank you.
MS. ZEYA: Thank you. With respect to Burma, I think I would state an approach that applies to that country and throughout the world. I mean, ultimately change comes from within, and I think in the case of Burma you had decades of courageous activism and democracy efforts by people like Aung San Suu Kyi and others that brought about the result that we see.
But I would say, as I said in my earlier remarks, we are far from a complete democratic transition in Burma. We have a number of concerns that remain. And we think the United States and our partners in the international community can continue to help support a successful transition that is directed and driven by the Burmese people.
With respect to the approach we take with other governments, I think these reports are one part of our human rights advocacy and strategy where you will see all 194 members of the United Nations, close American allies and partners, countries with which we have more complicated relations or no diplomatic relations at all. We apply a common standard in assessing the human rights situation in each of these countries and using a pool of information from our diplomatic engagement, our embassies and consulates in the field, from contacts with NGO and academic experts, and also from directly dealing with governments themselves. This is an issue which Secretary Kerry – I would commend his remarks to you from earlier today – he made clear that he raises human rights everywhere he goes and he views this as an essential priority of American policy.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go to the gentleman right there.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for your remarks. My name is Andrey Surzhanskiy. I am with ITAR-TASS News Agency of Russia, and my question is obviously on Russia.
MS. ZEYA: Right.
QUESTION: As you may know, the U.S. Government withdrew from the giant working group on civil society, I think in January, and don’t you think that it would be useful to resume dialogue under this working group, and under which circumstances you might reconsider your decision? And secondly, if I may, your report covers 200 countries around the globe, right?
MS. ZEYA: Yeah, it’s 199 reports total, but nearly 200.
QUESTION: Yeah. Can you name countries with the worst human rights records? Thank you.
MS. ZEYA: Okay. Well, maybe to answer the last part of your question first, I would say that we don’t rank countries in the Annual Human Rights Report process. This is actually the 36th year that we’ve been doing these annual reports. What we try to do is we have a common standard, and you’ll notice that the format for the reports is identical for every country, and we assess based on these questions the situation in 2012 or the trajectory or evolution. So we don’t have a ranking or a grouping of the worst cases.
With respect to Russia, to answer your question, I would say that the 2012 reports identify a troubling pattern in Russia with respect to the emergence of an increasingly restrictive environment for the exercise of civil liberties as well as continuing concerns about the administration of justice. Some of the other concerns we note in the report are on the respect of due process and rule of law, laws restricting NGOs and press and internet freedom, as well as concerns on restrictions on religious freedom and the right of individuals to assemble peacefully.
With respect to your question on dialogue, we are absolutely committed to dialogue on human rights with the Government of Russia as well as maintaining cooperation with Russian civil society. With the decision on the particular dialogue that you mentioned, we made that decision in light of some of the steps that had been taken by the Russian Government and an assessment on the effectiveness of the dialogue, but we remain absolutely committed to continuing to discuss these issues with our Russian counterparts.
QUESTION: But no plans to resume —
MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone.
QUESTION: But no plans to resume work of this working group, right?
MS. ZEYA: I think as I said, we’ll continue to express our views in our ongoing dialogue with the Russian Government.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to New York for our next question. New York, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon, Honorable Secretary. Thank you for giving the opportunity to ask you the question. I would like to take the opportunity to ask you three questions as quick as possible. How effective role are being played by the civil society in Bangladesh in terms of a peaceful democratic process? The second one is how you compare the 2011 report and 2012. Number three: How do you see the Shahbag movement, though it is not included in the report because it’s not in 2012, but basically it started in 2013? I’ll be glad if you kindly have time to answer those questions, please.
MS. ZEYA: All right. With respect to your first question on civil society, we view civil society engagement and active participation in their home countries as an absolutely essential ingredient to a successful democracy. So as part of our engagement in Bangladesh, we regularly engage the government, the private sector, and civil society groups to address some of our overarching human rights concerns.
I think in the 2012 reports for Bangladesh you’ll find these concerns – the most serious ones were on issues including enforced disappearances, discrimination against marginalized groups, and poor working conditions and labor rights. We’ve observed that the government has taken steps to address worker rights and safety, but we think more work needs to be done, and particularly on promoting freedom of association and working to improve factory conditions where we saw the November 24th factory fire at Tazreen Fashions having an absolutely devastating outcome of 110 workers killed.
In terms of our own engagement, again, we view Bangladeshi civil society as a vital participant in the continued progress and evolution in the country. In terms of your question on 2013, I would have to take that question and see if we can get back to you through our Public Affairs Department. Again, the reports that we’re rolling out today cover calendar year 2012 and end with December 31st, 2012.
MODERATOR: Okay, we will go right here in the front.
QUESTION: Shar Adams from the Epoch Times. Thank you, Secretary, for taking the time to brief us. The list of human rights in China is extensive and remains that way, but I want to focus on two questions. One is on labor camps. There have been recent reports from Chinese domestic media about horrific abuses occurring in the Masanjia labor camp and these match reports by Falun Gong practitioners who have been reporting on this for a decade at least. I’m wondering what the United States is doing about this, what they think they can do about that, stopping forced labor camps. And my second question is, in reference to Gao Zhisheng, is there – are there any efforts to try and secure his release in China?
MS. ZEYA: Right. With respect to labor camps and extra-legal detention and punishments, this is absolutely an issue of concern for the United States with respect to China. I think you’ll find extensive discussion of that in this year’s report. And this forms part of our overall human rights dialogue and discussion with China. Secretary Kerry just returned from his first visit as Secretary to China, and he made clear that human rights was part of the agenda, and he did raise specific cases with the Chinese Government.
I think for further detail, I’d have to refer you back to the report, but I can assure you, with the case of Gao Zhisheng, this is also a longstanding U.S. concern. It’s been raised in our own U.S.-led human rights dialogue with China, which took place last summer. It’s also an issue raised in other bilateral dialogues. And our Ambassador in Beijing, Ambassador Locke, referred to Gao Zhisheng in his December statement on Human Rights Day.
So he is one of a number of political prisoners in China, and again, this year’s report, I think, identifies a number of the leading cases, which is not the full extent of the situation, just illustrative of the depth of the problem.
MODERATOR: And we will go in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Cvetin Chilimanov. I’m a journalist from Macedonian Information Agency. And I was just going quickly through the reports. My question is regarding the issue of war crimes. And particularly Macedonia, there was an amnesty of war crimes which were committed by a guerilla group, the Albania National Army, in 2001 conflict. I don’t see it mentioned in the report even though this amnesty is a relatively fresh event, especially regarding that there was recently a statement by Ambassador Stephen Rapp, the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, that while at the international level not all cases can be tried, but the nation countries should deal with these issues. And this is region-wide in the Balkans. It’s a region-wide issue.
MS. ZEYA: Right. Thank you for your question. It’s quite a challenge trying to encapsulate the human rights developments in every country in the world on an annual basis. So one of the things we’ve done in recent years is to streamline the reports and to focus very much on the developments of the calendar year, kind of using the body of the reports. I mentioned this is the 36th year that we are publishing these annual reports as kind of the historical background.
So in that case, I don’t have further information to give you, but I would say that for 2012, for Macedonia, the focus of the report was on the government’s failure to fully respect the rule of law, some irregularities with respect to following parliamentary procedures, issues of political influence on the judiciary and media, and the question of selective prosecution of political opponents of the country’s leadership.
In terms of the U.S. Government’s engagement, I think we’re seeking very much to help build the rule of law capacity in Macedonia through strengthening judicial and law enforcement institutions and building citizen awareness of rule of law issues. And we have about $4 million in annual rule-of-law assistance from the United States that focuses on that objective.
MODERATOR: Okay. We will go to the back.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. The countries of Arab Springs, do you have any evaluation of their practice after the changes that occur compared to the previous regimes? And who would have the jurisdiction for Syrian refugees, especially that the stories we heard about girls being abused in many camps? Who would – whose jurisdiction would deal with such abuse of human rights there in those places?
MS. ZEYA: Right. Maybe to give you a quick summary of some of the observations in the report with respect to some of the more noteworthy countries of the Arab Spring, with respect to Egypt, for example, I would say that, as Secretary Kerry has noted, we have a number of concerns about the direction of human rights in Egypt in some key areas. We believe very strongly that Egypt’s transition to democracy must include full guarantees for freedom of expression, association, accountability, and equal rights for all. We’re calling also for religious freedom for all Egyptians regardless of their beliefs, and we’ve called upon the Egyptian Government to help ensure the safety and the full rights of Copts and other religious minorities.
We also have strongly encouraged the government to hold itself and others accountable for violence committed by security forces under the previous regime but also for acts of violence against civilians under the current government. We’ve also seen a troubling trend of increased gender-based violence in Egypt, again, with relative impunity for the perpetrators.
So in these – the final area I would identify for Egypt is in terms of freedom of association. We and many others in the international community have been concerned by a draft law on nongovernmental organizations which would severely restrict the independence and the ability of NGOs to operate. So these are all some of the core concerns in the case of Egypt.
Looking at some of the other countries of the Arab Spring, I think in Tunisia we see a continued evolution, and the constitutional process will be quite important in terms of moving forward and guaranteeing freedom of expression and rights for women and minorities, but also in – again, in moving ahead with accountability for security force actions.
In Libya, one of the greatest human rights challenges for the new government is on the issue of – issues surrounding rule of law and detainees. We have over 8,000 detainees in Libya under government control, where there are issues of capacity but also we are strongly urging and seeking what we can do to support the fair treatment and application of rule of law to detainees in government detention.
MODERATOR: And we’ll go back to New York. New York.
QUESTION: Hello, good afternoon. Actually, this is Mhamud Menon from BanglaNews24.com. My question is: It’s a long time. You said that there are some pressure on the media in Bangladesh. Especially you mentioned in your report that there is some self-censors. We are bound to do some self-censorship. And actually, sometime the pressure is coming from the opposite side also, not the government. So how – and the media are feeling – they’re facing so many problems. They’re facing (inaudible) from the other forces, and government is – in many cases have failed to protect them. So how could you analyze that? Actually, that is my question. Thank you.
MS. ZEYA: No, thank you for raising the issue of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. I would say that in our own approach, it’s very important for us to try to apply common principles. And we believe very strongly that a democratic system cannot be maintained without a free press, and that a free and independent media is important to any country’s democratic development. For that reason, I mean, not only in Bangladesh, we support freedom of expression and freedom of media, and we call upon governments in our engagement to protect the ability of journalists, bloggers, and dissidents to write and speak freely without retribution. In the end, our view is when there is speech to which one takes offense, one should respond with more free speech, not with repression.
MODERATOR: We’ll let the Assistant Secretary finish her comment on Syria for the gentleman.
MS. ZEYA: Just to address —
QUESTION: Can I just identify myself? I forgot to do –
MS. ZEYA: Oh, certainly.
QUESTION: Mounzer Sleiman with Al Mayadeen channel.
MS. ZEYA: I’m sorry, I didn’t get to the question of Syria. And absolutely, we are very much focused on trying to provide relief and support to the Syrian people in the face of a unrelenting brutality, an escalating brutality by the regime. This includes indiscriminate attacks on populated areas, on funeral processions, breadlines, schools, hospitals, and a very disturbing trend of gender-based violence using rape as a weapon directed against women and young girls.
So part of our overall Syria efforts is to support the documentation of human rights violations by all sides. And last year, we and a number of international partners came together to support the founding of the independent Syria Justice and Accountability Center, which is one of a number of independent organizations building up a body of documentation on violations on all sides.
In the end, accountability for these violations will be critical to Syria turning the page on the incredible brutality and suffering of the ongoing struggle, but it’s very important to us to be supportive of accountability, to support application of rule of law, and to try to head off retribution and a wider, more violent conflict taking place.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, we’re out of time, so we will have to end there. The Assistant Secretary will be available afterwards if you’d like to ask some questions. Thank you.