The United States remains deeply concerned by the ongoing attacks against peaceful protestors at the hands of the Syrian government. The government of Syria claims it is interested in a dialogue with the opposition. Yet, its actions in cities like Hama and along the Turkish border directly undermine the credibility of its words and its initiative. Syrian security forces have once again stepped up their repression and harassment of peaceful demonstrators and opposition members. There is no justification, no excuse for the Syrian security forces to begin yet another crackdown, killing protesters and arresting people suspected of political opposition.
We urge the government of Syria to immediately halt its intimidation and arrest campaign, pull its security forces back from Hama and other cities, and allow the Syrian people to express their opinions freely so that a genuine transition to democracy can take place. The international community will continue to stand with the people of Syria as they seek their universal human rights.
We reject the Syrian government’s justification of its tactics as necessary to maintain “stability.” The Asad regime remains the source of instability as it foments violence by meeting peaceful protests with deadly force and mass arrests. Despite the Syrian government’s violent repression and blatant disregard for the human rights of its citizens, the Syrian people continue to call for their legitimate demands to be met. The Syrian people have made clear that the status quo is unacceptable and that the Syrian government must meet their legitimate aspirations and end the killing, torture, and arbitrary detentions of protestors and activists.
Executive Orders and Sanctions
Syria has been designated a State Sponsor of Terror since December 1979. An additional layer of sanctions were added in December of 2003 with the passage of the Syria Accountability Act, implemented by Executive Order 13338 on May 11, 2004. Additional sanctions have recently been added to target the human rights abuses being committed by the Syrian Government against peaceful demonstrators and their own citizens.
President Obama signed a new Executive Order targeting the Syrian government’s continuing escalation of violence against the people of Syria on May 18. President Asad was designated pursuant to this authority, among other Syrian regime officials.
President Obama also signed an Executive Order imposing sanctions on individuals and entities committing human rights violations in Syria on April 29, including President Asad’s brother and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).
We have closely coordinated with our allies in the European Union, who imposed an arms embargo and their own targeted sanctions on May 9.
We are actively considering a range of additional bilateral options for increasing pressure on the Syrian regime as the situation may require.
The United States will use the Executive Order to designate additional senior regime officials for targeted sanctions and will be imposing travel bans on all those who commit or contribute to human rights violations. We will hold to account those responsible for human rights abuses; no one is immune.
Actions at the United Nations
The United States led the call for a Special Session on Syria at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on April 29, which passed a strong resolution condemning the Syrian government and calling for an investigation by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As of May 18, Syria has not allowed access to the High Commissioner’s investigative team.
We actively lobbied at the United Nations to prevent Syria from being elected to the UN Human Rights Council later this month. Our lobbying efforts against the wholly inappropriate Syrian candidacy successfully resulted in Syria withdrawing its candidacy on May 11. Kuwait will stand for the seat instead.
The U.S. will call for further action in the Human Rights Council condemning the on-going violence, torture and arrests of prisoners of conscience, calling for accountability and lifts of the restrictions on the press.
“Civil Society,” as we know it in many countries in the region, is almost non-existent in Syria. The Syrian government has traditionally viewed intellectuals, political activists, NGOs and civic groups with suspicion – and through arrests and other forms of intimidation has deterred much of Syrian society from participating in “Civil Society.” Those who have chosen to participate in defiance of the security services have often paid a terrible price.
We support the universal human rights of citizens across the region, and have noted quite regularly our concerns when governments, including the Syrian government, fail to respect those rights. We stand up for the work of human rights defenders in all countries around the world.
The President and the Secretary have both emphasized promoting partnerships with the Muslim World. Providing Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) support directly to the people of the Middle East and North Africa is one way the United States can help provide tools to citizens who aspire to deliver positive change in their countries.
Through MEPI, we support efforts to expand political participation, strengthen civil society and the rule of law, empower women and youth, create educational opportunities, and foster economic reform throughout the region.
At her first strategic dialogue with civil society, Secretary Clinton emphasized that “the United States supports democratic change,” and that change is more likely to be peaceful and permanent when it involves both the government and a broad cross-section of the population. Civil society holds governments accountable, keeps them honest, and helps them be more effective. But it plays an even more fundamental role than that as it helps to strengthen the basic bonds of trust that are essential to democracy.
OPERATOR: Welcome, and thank you all for standing by. At this time, all participants are on a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session of the call. At that time, you may press *1 to ask a question. And I’d now like to turn the call over to Ms. Susan D. Page, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
Thank you, ma’am, you may begin.
MS. PAGE: Thank you very much. I wanted to let everyone know that the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Ambassador Johnnie Carson met today with members of the coalition government in a very pleasant discussion on the way forward in Zimbabwe.
He recognized and applauded the economic advances that have occurred in Zimbabwe since the Global Political Agreement was signed two years ago and said that there is no doubt that the country is better off now than it was two years ago when shops were closed and inflation was rampant. He also said that Zimbabwe must now work towards making the same progress in the political sphere that it has seen in its economy. He also acknowledged that while the United States is not perfect, our strength lies in our institutions. And he encouraged the Zimbabwean coalition government to build strong institutions and to continue with political progress, because it’s political progress that will sustain economic growth.
So I’ll stop there and take questions.
OPERATOR: And at this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. You’ll also be prompted to record your name. Please unmute your phone and record your name at the prompt. Once again, it is *1 for questions. One moment, please.
And we do show a question from Celia Dugger of The New York Times. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, Ms. Page. How are you?
MS. PAGE: Very well. How are you?
QUESTION: I’m fine.
MS. PAGE: Good, thank you.
QUESTION: I guess I’m just curious – I mean, nothing you said is anything new. Did anything – was there anything new in the exchange? Was there a particular concern (inaudible) anything with Zimbabwe about violence that’s occurring lately, or any conversation with President Mugabe?
MS. PAGE: There was no conversation with Zimbabwe during this meeting, but obviously –
QUESTION: Mugabe, with Mugabe?
MS. PAGE: Sorry. There was no conversation directly with Mugabe, but of course, they talked about the situation in Zimbabwe, and specifically about – from our side, the American delegation talked a lot about the human rights violations, the land seizures, and particularly the recent arrest of the WOZA women from – the women who had been peacefully protesting about the constitutional process and called on senior officials, especially given that this is a coalition government, that they also need to speak out against these types of abuses and not be silent.
QUESTION: Is there (inaudible) to Zimbabweans who are outside the government critical of the – of ZANU-PF? I mean, (inaudible) hearing people say that they think that the sanctions have made – that they play into the hands of ZANU and have – in some ways, could have made the United States irrelevant to the process. I mean, what (inaudible) do you see the sanctions as still playing?
MS. PAGE: Well, first of all, we – I must say that we reject the claim that our sanctions have a broad effect on the economy of Zimbabwe or even on the ordinary – on the lives of the ordinary Zimbabwean.
The sanctions are targeted. They’re targeted towards individuals and towards a few institutions that we believe have been responsible for the policies and the actions that have led to Zimbabwe’s both economic and political decline. We do regularly review our sanctions. We remove people and institutions when we believe that they are no longer posing the same kind of threat. But frankly, as long as these violations of human rights, the lack of respect for civil and political rights of the people of Zimbabwe, as long as they continue, we really can’t lift the sanctions at this time, because people are looking to us as if we are the problem. And we are encouraging the Zimbabweans to look at themselves and address the problems that they’ve brought upon themselves.
QUESTION: So nothing really new in the exchange? Nothing –
MS. PAGE: I mean, look. The reality is they are calling for – unlike when the MDC was in the opposition, they are now also calling for the sanctions to either be removed or suspended and – largely because ZANU-PF seems to have made that a centerpiece of what they are pushing on MDC to deliver.
MS. PAGE: But the reality is this is a political agreement between three parties – between ZANU-PF, between the MDC-Tsvangirai formation, and the MDC-Mutambara formation. And we are not a party to that agreement. They can’t force us to do something that we have decided to do, either via executive order of the president or through legislation.
So – but again, we stress the fact that as long as these violations of human rights, these arbitrary arrests, continued violence and brutality continue, we’re not in a position to lift our sanctions despite how they want to characterize them. And the sanctions that we have, as I mentioned, are very specific. They’re travel bans and asset freezes. And they affect 244 individuals and institutions, companies. That’s it.
QUESTION: Do you know how many individuals – how many of the 244 are people and how many are companies?
MS. PAGE: I don’t have the details in front of me, but if you want, I can get the numbers for you.
QUESTION: All right, great.
MS. PAGE: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Once again, as a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. We’re currently showing no further questions.
MS. PAGE: Maybe I could just add, one surprise visitor in the meeting – although as I mentioned, the justice minister, Minister Chinamasa was there, Minister Misihairabwi-Mushonga from the MDC-Mutambara formation was there, Minister Mangoma and others – but the Zimbabwean ambassador to Washington also came, Ambassador Mapuranga. So that was a bit unexpected. And I think if you all will recall, he – Ambassador Mapuranga had called out Ambassador Carson during the Africa Day celebration a few months ago and disrupted a large diplomatic event for the African diplomatic corps by calling the ambassador names – by calling Ambassador Carson names. So that was an interesting show.
But the meeting was very cordial, very pleasant. Unlike I think what seems to be the view that we have suddenly reengaged with Zimbabwe, I’d like to dispel that myth. We have never stopped engaging with Zimbabwe. We have full diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe. They have an ambassador here, we have an ambassador there. We have a very robust program of assistance that we give to Zimbabwe to assist the Zimbabwean people. So we have always been available to speak, to meet, to try to advance our relations. And we were pleased to see this meeting take place, but again, it was hardly a reengagement. It’s continuing engagement. So I think that that was positive.
I just wanted to mention also that this year, U.S. assistance to Zimbabwe was $300 million. This was for health services, safe drinking water, education, agriculture, social protection, and a range of other essential services in line with the priorities of the new Zimbabwean transitional government. And then – that was last year – and then in – following Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s visit to the U.S. in June of 2009, President Obama pledged an additional $73 million. This is for combating HIV and AIDS and for furthering democracy and good governance. So – and then at the same time, in recognition of progress towards macroeconomic stability, the U.S. did not oppose the restoration of Zimbabwe’s voting rights at the IMF.
So these are positive things that we’ve been doing all along, and this was a meeting that was just to further consolidate our good relations.
OPERATOR: And currently, we’re showing no questions on the phone line.
MS. PAGE: Okay.
STAFF: Well, I think that’s – I think we’ll be good to go here, then.
MS. PAGE: Okay. Well, thank you all very much. As I mentioned, it was a good meeting, very cordial, and Michelle Gavin from the National Security Council staff was also present during the meeting, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dan Baer. So I think it was a good meeting and a good delegation from the Zimbabwe side as well, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue and helping the people of Zimbabwe.
OPERATOR: This concludes today’s conference. Thank you all for participating. You may disconnect at this time.
MS. PAGE: Thank you.