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Michael Posner: Briefing on the Release of the 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you, Secretary Clinton, and welcome. I want to just, if I may, say a few introductory words about the report and something about the trends we see, and then open it up for questions. The report covers 194 countries. It’s the work of probably close to a thousand people in reporting, writing, and editing. It’s a massive document. It’s over 2 million words. We can’t figure out how many pages that is, but if you try to print it, it’ll take reams of paper. It’s the single-most exhaustive, comprehensive compilation of information about human rights produced anywhere in the world.

I want to thank everybody in the State Department who worked on it, especially Steve Eisenbraun, who’s, for the last four years, been leading the effort in the DRL team, but really people all over the world who work on this report in many – in very risky and stressful places.

The original purpose of this report was to inform Congress. In the 1970s, Congressman Fraser and then Congressman Harkin introduced legislation linking human rights to aid policy, and they needed information about how do you make those decisions. It’s now much more than that. It’s used throughout the Executive Branch, throughout this building, but also other agencies of government. It’s used by journalists like yourselves. And importantly, it’s now a great source of information for people living in countries around the world who are often learning about things in their own countries by reading the report.

We’re doing much more to translate the reports, to disseminate them throughout the world. There is a huge international readership of these reports.

The reports are predicated on three broad assumptions which Secretary Clinton and the President have repeated in assessing or in promoting our human rights policy. One, as she just said, we believe in a principled engagement. Part of that engagement requires us to be informed and have an understanding of the world. That’s what this report is seeking to do.

Secondly, we hold every government, including our own, to a single universal standard.

And third, we have a commitment of fidelity to the truth. And this report – the production of this report and publication – tests that assumption probably more than anything we do in government.

As the Secretary said, the report is not a policymaking document, it’s a predicate, it’s a foundation upon which policies are shaped and guided. It’s the starting point. It’s not the end.

In terms of trends, there are three things, and some of this is spelled out in the introduction. We live in a world of conflict. More than 30 wars and internal conflicts fueled by ethnic/racial/religious tensions and differences. These conflicts disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, often women, children, people with disabilities, refugees, in places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, the Congo, Sudan. It’s often these vulnerable groups that are on the receiving end.

We also see these vulnerable groups in other contexts. The LGBT community, for example, in Uganda, where government seeks to impose further criminal sanctions against their private conduct and even contemplates the death penalty; the Roma in a range of European countries, including Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic; discrimination against Muslims, including hate crimes, in Europe. We have the Swiss minarets, the vote of the Swiss population, 57 percent, banning further minarets being built. And anti-Semitism in a range of places in Europe and throughout the Middle East.

We need to pay, in our opinion, greater diplomatic attention to promoting tolerance and addressing these underlying conflicts. The President’s speech in Cairo is an example of that, as is the work we’re doing at the UN Security Council, which passed Resolution 1820 condemning sexual violence as a weapon of war.

The second broad context-setter for me is the greater access to connective technologies is both an opportunity to promote rights, but also has given governments greater energy in curtailing freedom of expression. The Secretary outlined this at a speech in January, and I met with many of you to discuss it after that.

We see that as part of a broader debate or a tension also where governments are trying to find ways to curtail local advocacy. No less than 25 governments in the last couple of years have imposed new restrictions on nongovernmental, human rights, and other organizations – the right to organize, the right to assemble, the right to gather and collect funds from abroad.

A third broad category we see is the use and misuse of national security legislation and emergency legislation to apply broad curtailments on basic civil liberties. We see that in Egypt, we see that in Russia, we see that in Sri Lanka. And I’m glad to say more about that.

I want to just mention a couple of other places specifically. One is China, where the government’s human rights record remain poor and worsening in some areas, including increased cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities. In Xinjiang, an increased attention, harassment of activists and public interest lawyers who are increasingly under surveillance and who are being repressed. There’s continuing repression in the Tibetan areas, limits on free expression, and control of the internet.

Iran, an already poor human rights situation, rapidly deteriorated after the June elections. At least 45 people were killed in clashes, thousands were arrested, another thousand were arrested in demonstrations in December. It is a place where we are continuing to see severe repression of dissent and are continuing to pay great attention.

I want to mention also the situation of prisoners in Cuba. Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February after 11 weeks on a hunger strike. Several others, we believe, are now on hunger strike in solidarity with him. Their plight reflects the broader problem of the range of problems and the deplorable prison conditions in Cuba.

And finally, we continue to monitor – and this is not in 2008 but recent weeks – the violence last weekend in Nigeria and call on all parties and all communities there to work together and to prevent an escalation of that violence.

Last point, there’s some positive trends. I want to end with that. We are working – continuing to work closely with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, and she and her government undertook and completed in 2009 a major Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, held hearings, 700 hearings, 18,000 statements. They released a report that really is – ought to be a model. And also, the prosecution of Charles Taylor.

In Georgia, there was new criminal procedure legislation that provides greater protections in trials. The Ukraine established a commission on anticorruption and, again, recently had a successful election. Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional system, a parliamentary monarchy, following the king’s voluntary relinquishment of his authority. And the Maldives, where there was also the first multiparty parliamentary election.

The last bit on the positive side, and it, to me, is the most important: We continue to live in a world where the change in human rights is occurring within societies. It’s very hard to change societies from outside, and the resilience of people within countries around the world, their willingness to take risks, and their determination to form organizations fighting for women’s rights, for children’s rights, for human rights, for the environment – these are the future. And we see an increase in activity, an increase in creativity, and it really, to me, signals the great hope on human rights going forward.

Let me stop there and take questions. Yeah.

QUESTION: Elise Labott from CNN. Thank you. I’d like to ask about your area of conflict, and I have to read the specific section on Israel a little more carefully. But you talk about – I mean, obviously, the human rights of Israelis in the conflict being killed by rockets and things is disturbing. But I’m wondering how you see the situation in Gaza and the lack of humanitarian aid or shortage of humanitarian aid. I mean, isn’t access to clean water, shelter, food, electricity, those type of things also a human right that people, regardless of whether they’re in the middle of a conflict, deserve?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Let me answer that in two respects. The broader discussion of Gaza in the last year, and it’s very much in the report, focused on Operation Cast Lead at the beginning of the year and the Goldstone Report that followed at the UN.

And our assessment of that from the beginning has been that there was an inadequate attention in that report to the nature of the conflict. It’s an urban conflict, an asymmetrical conflict where there needs to be an evaluation by the Israelis, by us, by everybody who is involved in those sorts of conflicts, in the way in which you can preserve and protect noncombatant civilians, including the humanitarian issue you describe. This is a subject that I think has not gotten the attention it deserves, and it ought to be the way we look forward.

We’ve also said to the Israelis and all the parties they need to review everything that happened in Cast Lead, conduct serious review and investigation, and have accountability mechanisms.

QUESTION: If I could just quickly follow up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.

QUESTION: I mean, I’m not – I guess I’m not even asking – I mean, does it really matter what the nature of the conflict is? And I’m not even talking about Operation Cast Lead and how it was conducted, and obviously, rights on both sides were violated. I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day, you know, quality-of-life issues. Regardless of who was at fault or, you know, things like that, I mean, you know, you talk in other areas of the report and – about, you know, places where people are suffering in Sri Lanka because of the conflict.

I mean, does it really matter, you know, that Hamas is ruling Gaza and, you know, they’re committing human rights – I mean, the fact that there are so many roadblocks and the inability to get aid in, I mean, is that a violation of human rights by Israel?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, let me come back to your initial question and try to answer it both ways. The issues – humanitarian access, humanitarian concerns are definitely part of what we are paying attention to. And Senator Mitchell, others in the U.S. Government are constantly in these discussions. I had some when I was in Israel in January. And the kinds of things you’re describing there is some movement on, but hospital conditions, access to food and medicine, all of that is clearly something that’s – that we favor and that we are trying to be supportive of. We’re supportive financially to UNRWA, which is feeding probably 70 percent of the population of Gaza.

It is more complicated, to be sure, to deal with humanitarian questions in a place where the – where Hamas is largely in control. It makes the effort more difficult. It does not mean that there isn’t a responsibility. It does not mean that we’re not going to continue to do what we can to promote humanitarian assistance and support.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes.

QUESTION: Yes, Ali al-Ahmed from the Gulf Institute. I have two questions – a question about Hadi al-Mutif, the longest-held religious prisoner in Saudi Arabia. Has that received the State Department attention? Are they doing something substantial on it beside just including him in the report? He’s been there for 17, almost running on 18 years. And it hasn’t taken the attention of a lot of people around the world.

The second question is about Saudi schoolbooks. We have received it in our organization, this year’s, and it’s the same textbooks that has been since September 11th. Why hasn’t the United States been able to effect change to have these things – are you – have – do you have a plan or a dead timeline for effecting change? Because the textbooks still promote child marriage, promote the murder of Jews and Christians and other religions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: On your first question, we do continue to raise his case. We’re deeply concerned about it. It’s an ongoing subject of discussion between our Embassy and the Government of Saudi Arabia. The report, if you read it, is extremely frank about both prison conditions as well as a range of other issues.

On the issue of the textbooks, we – I did testify about this in the fall after we released the religious freedom report. I share the concern that the textbooks continue to have details and passages that I consider and I think we consider unacceptable. We are now – we’ve accelerated our efforts in our Bureau to review those books from a young age on. We want to – we are looking, I think, at several of them as representative and we’re now trying to look at the – across the board from fourth, fifth grade on.

It’s – these are – this is an important subject and it’s important to me because they’re not only used in Saudi Arabia, but they’re disseminated throughout the Arab-speaking – Arabic-speaking world. So this is a subject of interest. We’re going to continue to pursue it. And I can’t tell you we’ve made great progress, but we’re definitely committed to trying to keep this on the agenda.

QUESTION: May I follow up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: And I did talk to Ambassador Smith about it as well.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up, sir, please?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure.

QUESTION: Thank you. Like you said, many kingdoms are changing to democracies. Why not Saudi Arabia and others are still no change there? And second, as far as this report is concerned, when you go or Secretary go to New York at the United Nations Human Rights Council, do you think because of this report the mood of those on the council who do not believe in human rights will change?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, the first answer to your first question: We can do what we can do to be clear about our commitment to democracy and human rights, to delineate what we mean by that. I think the Secretary did an excellent job in December in her speech at Georgetown. Democracy is a broad concept that – you practice it 365 days a year. It involves empowering civil society and rule of law and transparency and empowering women, free press, all of those things.

And we’re trying in various places to take countries where they are, to work with them, to begin to build those building blocks of democracy. Countries in the report – 194 countries – are all along a spectrum in terms of how far they are, but our commitment is, one, to be helpful where we can – a place like Liberia where you have a strong leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who deeply believes in this stuff – and at the same time, other countries that are more resistant. And so we have to – we have 194 different approaches to this, depending on where we are and what our relations are.

On how countries react to the report at the UN or how the Human Rights Council is going to change, we are determined to be at the Human Rights Council as a leader. We’re determined to change the way the Human Rights Council does business. It’s unacceptable. We’re determined to get our allies to be – work with us. We’re also determined to try to break the logjam where there are blocks of voters that are frozen in irreconcilable differences. But part of the process is just to get information out, and that’s what this report does. Everybody may not love this report, but they read it and they pay attention to it, including other governments, and that’s part of the value of it.

Yeah.

QUESTION: I guess I wanted to ask – the State Department keeps track of U.S. citizens who die abroad from non-natural causes. And according to the State Department reports, Mexico has the highest number of U.S. citizens who die from homicide. And I was just briefly – I didn’t have a lot of time to look through this report, but in the Mexico report, it speaks about kidnappings and murders, but it doesn’t address the U.S. citizens who have died there. Why is that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think the report is – we deal with those issues a range of ways, including through our Consular Affairs Bureau and people working in embassies on the ground. This report is intended to give a broad view. There is a lot of violence in Mexico, as you rightly point out. American citizens – because we’re neighbors, because it’s – there is so much violence related to drugs, crime, et cetera, American citizens are among those who are the victims. And we obviously pay greater attention – we have an obligation to pay attention to protecting American citizens. But it’s not – those cases are not necessarily highlighted first and foremost in the report.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up to that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Basically, Senator Pat Leahy has been very strong in, you know, for State to put more attention on the Mexican military abuses during the drug war. And I see the report contains lots of pages dealing with detailed information about abuses by the Mexican military. Can we interpret this report as attending some of the – sorry, replying to some concerns in Congress?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, again, I think you ought to review the report as our exercise in trying to get a clear, accurate picture of what’s going on. It is not a report that prescribes policy. But I can tell you, in the case of Mexico, Ambassador Pascual is very attentive to these things. He’s very eager, and we’re working with him closely to try to figure out the next steps we can take to advance the human rights agenda. And a lot of it has to do with this level of violence and also the institutional response, the sense of impunity and the sense that the courts and the judicial system isn’t as strong as it needs to be. He’s committed to that. He’s approached us to say he wants to work with us, which is a great sign. And we are, in fact, in the coming weeks going to expand those conversations.

QUESTION: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes.

QUESTION: Howard LaFranchi with the Christian Science Monitor. The Secretary in her comments spoke of practical strategies for advancing human rights. And from some human rights organizations, there’s been criticism that the Administration’s human rights policies have been too realist or acknowledging of governments actions and not challenging them enough. And so I’m wondering what did she mean by “practical strategies”?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: This is a kind of narrative or a discussion that’s gone on over the last year, and I want to be clear in reaffirming what she said. That when we talk about practical or pragmatic engagement, it’s also a principle engagement based on a commitment to human rights. What we want to do is get results. It is not sufficient, although it’s often a piece, to be publicly critical and condemnatory. But words alone don’t change behavior.

And so when we talk about internet freedom – to give you one example – it is – it’s great that we have a clearly articulated speech, and I think her speech really hit the mark in terms of identifying the range of problems – but it’s also critical that we figure out how are we going to address the restrictions on the internet that many governments who are now imposing with greater energy and resources. And so we have an internet task force that Maria Otero and Bob Hormats chair. We brought in businesses last week, about 25 of them, to talk to them about what their responsibility is. We’re spending money to work on both the technical side of that, the circumvention technology, but also trying to figure out how do you help local activists figure out how to use that technology, how do you protect them when they get in trouble. Practical, result-oriented diplomacy is the name of the game for us.

And the public commentary may be a piece of that – it’s often an important piece – but it’s not – it doesn’t get you there alone.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Rosslyn Jordan with Al-Jazeera English. It seems every year when the report is released, those who are perhaps most significantly criticized for the treatment of their citizens will respond, “Well, the United States isn’t perfect.” I know that the Secretary alluded to the idea of a universal standard to which the U.S. should be held. How do you address the criticisms from countries which, I expect, are coming over the transom right now from China, from Iran, from Cuba that the U.S. does not have clean hands, particularly when it comes to the criminal justice system here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We – our approach is that this is an open society. We say our piece. We are open to the notion that others are going to be critical of what we say. I doubt that other governments are going to say things that people in this society don’t say every day. And we are also committed, as the Secretary said, in this year, to doing the first-ever universal periodic review report to the UN Human Rights Council. We’re not doing that in a formulaic way; we’re doing these sessions – public sessions where we’re inviting in advocacy groups around the country. We had one in New Orleans. We had one in New York. We had one here in Washington. We’re going to spread out on the border areas. We’re going to go to Detroit. We’re going to talk to people in this society who are on the front line of criticizing, whether it’s the criminal justice system or immigration policies or national security policies – no holds barred. We’re going to hear them. We’re going to incorporate their thoughts and suggestions into a report to the UN. And then we’re going to show up at the end of year and present that report and get comments from other countries.

So our view is: Let’s have an open discussion. We’re leading in some ways with this report but, by all means, others should feel free to say what they want about us.

Yeah, in the back.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could say a few words about the human rights situation in Germany, especially in light of the recent case where a German family was granted political asylum in the States because they wanted to homeschool their children and they couldn’t in Germany. And I think it struck a lot of German people as quite strange that people had to flee Germany and have political asylum in the States.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m going to take that question. I’m not familiar with that case. I will say we are – obviously have a strong relationship with Germany and there are lots of things in the German legal and constitutional system that are strong, but there are issues like the one you describe, like the issues of discrimination that I describe. But I’d want to come back to you on that particular case because I don’t know.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Any concern about Sudan in light of the upcoming of election?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Will everybody just identify yourselves, just so I know –

QUESTION: (Inaudible) with BBC Arabic.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Okay.

QUESTION: In light of the upcoming election in Sudan, so many countries they have complained that their (inaudible) to launch their campaign. And do you have any concern about that and how that might affect the upcoming election to be free and opened?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: In Sudan?

QUESTION: Sudan, yes.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, as the report outlines, we have a range of very serious concerns about Sudan not only in Darfur, but also the South. And it’s a very restrictive political environment, very restrictive environment in a range of ways in terms of openness of media, ability of people to organize. So those are the things we’re going to watch closely. But it’s a place – it’s a country that’s been in crisis for a long time, and we continue to pay a great deal of attention. General Gration is there now, I think. But there’s a great deal of attention to that election and making sure, to the extent possible, people are able to speak freely and organize and participate in a way that will make it meaningful.

Yeah, in the back.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. (Inaudible) Spanish Public Radio station. How would you characterize the situation over there? Have you detected any change in the last year in the Spanish government using different ways of dealing with the separatist people up in the Basque country or any other problem that you can mention?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I would just refer you to the report. I don’t really have anything to add on that.

QUESTION: None – everything – anything on the situation in Spain in general?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Nothing to add to what’s in the report, really.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Warren Strobel with McClatchy newspapers. The Afghan has apparently just enacted a law that would provide retroactive immunity for all members of parliament for human rights abuses that took place before December of 2001. Of course, some of these members of parliaments are warlords. Human Rights Watch is calling for the repeal of this law. Do you see this as a setback for human rights in Afghanistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: There are a number of developments in Afghanistan that are of concern, some of which are reflected in the report that occurred in 2009 and other things that are ongoing. We’re certainly watching – we’re certainly studying that law that you describe, but also the fact that the new electoral law raises questions about the September election, the fact that the Electoral Commissioner – Complaints Commission has now been skewed in favor of people that are close to President Karzai. There are real subjects here for ongoing concern.

Look, Afghanistan’s in the middle of a violent conflict. It creates all sorts of tensions, but it is this report and our ongoing advocacy and diplomacy in Afghanistan is very much focused on making sure that the country begins to move in the direction of more democratic rights, respecting policies and actions.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Yes. (Inaudible) from (inaudible) Egyptian newspaper. You mention Egypt as – criticizes Egypt in the record of human rights. I actually want to ask you what the Obama’s Administration have has done towards addressing this issue with Egypt as Bush Administration have a lot of pressure on Mubarak’s regime to address democracy and human rights? And as a result of this pressure, Egypt done so many positive steps like the election – the presidential election, the human rights constitution. And there is nothing done between Obama’s Administration and Egypt till now.

And one other issue is eliminating the budget to the human rights organization in Egypt. Why is that? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I – a couple of things. On the situation in Egypt, as the report outlines in quite a bit of detail, we’re concerned about a range of problems: treatment of prisoners, restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, organizations aren’t allowed to register – as you described, the government has put constraints on foreign funding, including from our own AID programs – grave restrictions on the political process.

I was in Egypt in January and met Ayman Nour. I talked to opposition political leaders and they have a range of constraints. We’re also very concerned about the Nag Hammadi killings on Christmas Eve. Seven people, as you know, Coptic Christians were killed in front of a church. The government has arrested three people, but they’re being tried in an emergency – using the emergency law. We have real concerns about the emergency law and the continued use of that. There’s – a government representative said to me, “We’re thinking of repealing it.” If they’re now using it in new cases, I worry that they’re not going to repeal it, it’s going to continue.

When I was there, I met with a number of government officials as well as NGOs, a range of people on the outside, I held a press conference. We are pushing. I think it’s fair to say that it is a country of – where there is a great concern about a range of human rights issues, and we’re going to continue to raise those issues publicly and privately. So I think there’s maybe more going on than you’re seeing.

Yeah.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Turkish service. The report talks about they are going to continue investigation and the arrests of military and journalists in Turkey. Recently, I think, 250 people were arrested. Are you – let me ask you this way, is it a concern with regards to human rights in Turkey, according to you? And what are you going to say about the government officials and state bureaucrats affecting the independent judiciary system in Turkey, because the report talks about that as well?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we are, obviously, concerned that judicial institutions remain independent and strong, and that’s the starting point for us. There are internal issues in Turkey of how to deal with what are perceived to be threats to the government. But we’re – our main concern and our main diplomatic efforts are making sure that there’s a proper process used in dealing with those cases.

Yeah.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from VOA. And could you elaborate the U.S. Government’s concern on the human rights in North Korea and also on the North Korean refugees in China and other countries. And secondly I also want to ask you, last year North Korea conducted nuclear test and missile test and they also discouraged reform but failed. So I also want to ask you, all these political situations brought many setback in the human rights situation, too? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. One of the important things in this report is that we focus on the human rights situation. There are a range of concerns the U.S. Government has respecting North Korea and the nuclear capability and all that. But we are, in this report, focused on North Korea as a country that has a very poor human rights record, has for a long time. It’s an incredibly closed society, total intolerance of dissent, lots of prisoners in very poor conditions, very little room for people to even get information. It’s probably one of the most closed societies in the world. So across the board, I would say it’s – the conditions are poor, they’re not getting better, and we continue to be very mindful of the plight of the North Korean people in – living in that circumstance.

MR. DUGUID: Let’s take one or two more and we’ll wrap up.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: If I can just add – if nobody has something, I just – I mentioned China, but I want to make a point of mentioning two cases that are important to us. They’re in the report but I want to highlight them.

One is the case of Liu Xiaobo, who was found guilty in December of subverting state power, sentenced to 11 years. His crime is that he helped write a petition, called Charter 08, which is basically a petition calling for an expansion of human rights and democracy. This is a case of particular concern to us.

The second is a case of a human rights lawyer called Gao Zhisheng, who was picked up by the police. He is thought to be in detention, though his family doesn’t know where he is. And again, I mentioned it earlier, but it is for us one of the trends that we see in China that we’re paying a lot of attention to. In the last several years, more public interest, human rights, environmental lawyers have been taking cases. Law clinics and elsewhere are springing up. There seems to be a real crackdown. And there are also greater restrictions on NGOs. And we learned today that there’s also a new press certification system in place which is going to give Chinese journalists training in Marxist news theories. So there is a sense that the space is actually closing for those, whether they’re journalists, lawyers, or NGO activists.

MR. DUGUID: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you all.

 


Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Press Roundtable, U.S. Embassy, Cairo, Egypt

Posner: Good morning and thank you all for being here. I want to start, if I may, with a few introductory comments. This is my second visit here this year. It won’t be the last and it is a pleasure to be back. This is part of a broader strategic dialogue between the United States and Egypt. Our countries have a strong partnership, and we talk about and work on a range of issues together; strategic issues. The government of Egypt has been an important partner in the ME peace process, and we have a range of interests and shared objectives in terms of development and economics.

The issues that are part of my portfolio in Human Rights and Democracy are part of that dialogue and discussion, and a routine part of what we discuss. The engagement here is part of a broader principal of engagement of the Obama Administration, and a commitment to be involved and discuss with a range of countries strategic, economic, political, and human rights issues, all simultaneously. That principle of engagement, which the President just re-articulated in his speech to the UN General Assembly, includes a greater commitment to working not only on a bilateral basis, but also through the UN. Our decision last year to join the UN Human Rights Council is part of that. We worked last fall with Egypt on a resolution at the HR Council on Freedom of Expression, and we continue to be very involved there as part of our engagement in the world.

The second broad principle for this administration is that there is a universal set of human rights standards to which every government is held accountable, including our own. President Obama on his second day in office, outlined part of our commitment to doing that, like making a commitment to close Guantanamo, to end abusive interrogation practices, and to review security detention policies. All of those things are still underway, and some of them are quite challenging.

We’ve also agreed that this November, we will appear with the UN human rights council with our universal periodic review on the US. I take note of the fact and we are greatly encouraged by the Egyptian government’s participation last year in the universal periodic review. It’s part of the frame work in which we and other governments discuss these issues.

A third broad principle– and it’s the last and I’ll stop– is that we believe here and elsewhere that change occurs from within a society. It’s impossible to impose it from outside. We believe Secretary Clinton articulated this last December in a speech at Georgetown University and more recently in a speech in Poland in Krakow on Civil Society. We believe that democracy– sustainable democracy– is a process that lasts 365 days a year. It includes freedom of the press. It includes a vital vibrant civil society that’s allowed to operate freely. It includes the right of workers to organize themselves. It includes the empowerment of women. It includes the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. So, in our discussions with the government of Egypt and every government, these are the points we stress. It’s up to every society to create and strengthen and live its own democracy, but these are the elements we try to work with governments and civil society to promote.

I’ll just say finally that we have been here for several days, and we met with representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the national council on human rights, as well as a range of non-governmental actors, civil society groups, human rights groups, journalists, religious leaders, etc. Our discussions dealt with five broad areas, and I’m glad to take questions on those or anything else. One is the state of emergency, and our continued desire that the state of emergency be lifted or allowed to expire, and replaced by a narrower law on counter terrorism that respects civil liberties and due process.

Secondly, that there be accountability. There are in every society challenges that face police officials of excessive use of force and torture, and we have discussed among other things the Khaleed Sayid case and the prosecution of that case, which we welcome. It is important to us that there is accountability for excessive use of force.

The third is that there be a democratic environment and a space for civil discourse and freedom of association. We are eager that there be less government involvement or interference in the day to day operations by non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations. We are eager that there be an openness to foreign funding to support those organizations. We are eager that there be no changes in laws of governing NGO’s that would in any way further restrict the environment and the climate. We are also eager that there be a continuation in the openness in press and press freedom, which is evidenced here today, and we want to be sure that particularly now before parliamentary elections and the presidential election next year, that the press and multiple voices and views be allowed to be expressed.

The fourth area for us is the electoral process and again, these elections are for Egypt, by Egyptians its not our position to take sides or to offer any suggestions on how the outcome should be decided, but what we are concerned about is that the elections be free and fair and that there be a right to participate a free right to access to polling places, that observers would be allowed to monitor those elections. We have urged and continue to urge that there be both domestic observers as well as international observers, and we are also eager that there be an open process that allows voters to register, that allows political parties to register, and that allows maximum participation in the electoral process.

Fifth and finally, we are continuing to follow very closely the challenges posed by sectarian tensions in this society, between Christians and Muslims. When I was here in January it was right after the Naga Hamadi killings, which I spoke about publicly. We have reiterated our concerns in meetings here. Again, we are mindful and appreciative to the government that there is a prosecution going on in that case, but we are very aware that the government needs do everything within its power to limit and to reduce the tensions along religious lines. Let me stop with that and open up to questions.

Q.: First I would like to ask about what you mentioned about international domestic observation for the elections, but it seems the Egyptian government doesn’t want this, they refuse this claim, so why do you think are the reason behind this refusal. Is it fair or not? And if I can ask a second point about this, it is felt here that the American administration has lifted a little bit from demanding of democracy the ME and especially in Egypt, how do you see this? Thank you.

Posner: On the first question on international and domestic observers, it is the position of the United States Government that there ought to be an open process here and that observers, both national Egyptian observers and monitors as well as international observers ought to be allowed to participate and observe the scene. This is not unique to Egypt. We believe that in every country, an open electoral process is a healthy thing, there is a lot of international attention and interest in Egypt, and to these upcoming elections in November and we are discussing this routinely with the government of Egypt. I think you have to ask them their view of it, but our view is pretty straightforward.

I think there is a lot that can be done to ensure that there is greater access to Egyptian monitors and we took note of this after the Shoura Council election, that there were some problems in terms of access, both for voters and for monitors. The government has made a broad commitment to having open, clean, fair elections, and in our view, allowing monitors to be present and to have access is part of that process. The second questions is about the approach of the Obama Administration and whether there is a difference. I think it’s fair to say that I’m here for the second time this year, we are having very open discussions. It’s not just me, there is a commitment by this Administration that issues of human rights and democracy are a central piece of our bilateral agenda. Again, as I said earlier, we have a range of interests and issues with our Egyptian government’s friends and partners, but these issues of human rights and democracy are vitally important to us.

Q.: I have mainly one more question about sectarian tensions: you mentioned that you discussed this issue with Egyptian politicians and NGO’s and things like that. How do you see these tensions, and are there any suggestions of the American administration regarding this issue?

Posner: You know, every society, including our own, faces issues of discrimination and tensions between religious, racial or ethnic groups. We have in our own society in recent weeks a situation where somebody wants to burn the Koran. What is critical is that these are private actions largely, and we are mindful of that. These are not things that we are assuming the government is making happen, but I think every government has an obligation when these tensions arise to do everything it can publicly and privately to reduce those tensions, to create an environment or a climate where people are aware that the government is very much taking a lead in promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence. As I said, in January the Naga Hamadi killings were a flash point of violence, it made everybody aware here and elsewhere that these tensions had risen, and I think it’s a positive step that the government has initiated a prosecution of those involved. But there is a broader obligation I think of this government, as there would be for any government, to make sure it’s doing what it can both by words and deeds to make sure that these tensions are reduced.

Q.: Arabic.

Posner: Our view is that international observers supplement domestic observers and monitors. But by no means are they limited to embryonic or nascent democracies. In our country, for example, international observers come routinely to observe our elections. We welcome that. There is barely any attention paid to it frankly. Both political parties have regular contact with a range of international groups, and we encourage them to come, so I don’t view this as something that is confined to only new democracies or emerging democracies. I think it’s a healthy practice. Perhaps the more important issue is that observers or monitors, whether they’re international or domestic have the whole support of the government and that means that they’re fully recognized, that they’re given the proper badges and accreditation that they are allowed access to every aspect of the electoral system. They should have access to see what is going on in the polling places, they should have access to see as the ballots are moved, they should have access to the vote counting, so for us the key issue is really access, welcoming of observation, we would prefer to see both international and domestic observers there.

Q.: There has been a series of events in the last few weeks that were negatively seen by the local human rights activists and politicians such as a crack down on press freedom, cancelled conferences, and arrested protesters. I was wondering… I understand you have been in office for a year but I’m sure you have been following Egypt closely, do you think there has been a lapse in the democratic reforms that were instated in the past few years only in these few months, and how do you think about the upcoming elections? What kind environment is there, and how are they going to take place this year? And as a footnote to this we get a bit unclear about how the US decides to make public statements about violations of human rights or issues of concern to human rights activists here is Egypt. Sometimes there is a public statement about sectarian violence or an arrest of an activist, and sometimes there isn’t. Is there a criteria on when do you decide to make it public and when you actually follow it behind closed doors?

Posner: The first questions I think call for an answer that is beyond my ability because I’m only here for a few days, but I would say broadly that we in the last several years, in the last 5 or 6 years, have seen an opening of the space for journalists, for freedom of expression, and certainly some of the events in the last couple of weeks by private news organizations, whether newspapers or TV stations, are cause for concern. What we don’t want to see is that there is pattern of greater restriction on critical voices, especially in this period leading up to the elections. Now that is not necessarily a government decision, but we are looking more broadly at the environment in which the press operates and we favor and have said to the government that we are certainly hopeful that every effort is made to allow multiple voices in the media to be able to do their job. We are also aware that there is kind of irregular practice of some meetings being shut down– one on freedom of association a couple of weeks ago. Again the details are sometimes hard to piece together, but we would favor freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression as vital elements for a sustainable democratic society. This is particularly important in a period before an election. So in general those are observations about what we see.

As to when we make public statements, I have to confess I spend a lot of my time trying to answer your question. There may be less rhyme or reason in general to how we do it. It isn’t as though there is a model or a perfect system. What I would say, and I’m not just talking about Egypt, I’m talking in general, is that the US Government has lots of people working and different people always have different views on when something should be made public. What I would say more broadly is that the President’s speech at the General Assembly three weeks ago, and in Secretary Clinton’s speech on restrictions on civil society in Krakow, I think show that at the most senior level, this Administration in increasingly outspoken about human rights and democracy issues, and that translated into more activity in terms of our diplomacy, our public diplomacy, and the financial support we give to democracy and human rights organizations. So, I think from where I sit, looking broadly, there is more public commentary in the last 6 to 9 months, and I think it reflects back to a new administration that has now been there almost 20 months, and there has always been a recognition but there is an operational realization of a human rights and democracy program, and part of my visit here is one piece of that.

Q.: Does the US administration accept or notice its critics in other countries about human rights in Guantanamo, Baghdad, or Afghanistan?

Posner: Yes, part of my job is to help fulfill the second broad point that I mentioned, which is our commitment to have the same universal standards of international human rights apply to ourselves. Secretary Clinton has said we need to lead by example. We shouldn’t be critical of others without being first mindful of our own problems and deficiencies. We, over the last 6 months, put together the report to the UN under the Universal Periodic Review. We took it seriously. We had 18 sessions in 16 cities, where we brought together our own civil society to talk about relations and discrimination against the Muslim community. We had a meeting in Dearborn. In regards to the migrant community on the border, we had a meeting in Texas. We talked about national security issues in Washington. We talked about racial discrimination with African American groups in New York. We will appear on November 5th in Geneva and take comments from a range of countries, and we’ll take that seriously. I’m particularly focused on fulfilling the President’s commitment to close Guantanamo. I’ve spent time in Europe trying to get some European countries to take some of the people so that we can continue to close the facility. I think it’s an important commitment. The President has made very clear that no US official should be involved in coercive interrogations, and we are struggling with, but working through, issues of detention policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We take these things seriously. These are not easy challenges, but at the same time, it’s in our interest to get them right.

Q: Arabic.

Posner: I don’t know the exact comments you are referring to. I would say in the last couple of days we’ve had frank, but very constructive discussions with senior officials in both the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We don’t always agree, but friends and partners need be and are open with each other about our disagreements. So, we regard this as part of our strategic relationship with the government of Egypt. We’ll continue to raise these issues in a respectful but direct way, and we’ll hope that we can resolve some of our differences.

Q: Arabic.

Posner: A number of the issues I raised are subjects that we raised previously and will continue to raise in future meetings. So, for example, on the state of emergency, we raised our hopes in January that the state of emergency be allowed to expire and that there be in its place a more limited law on counterterrorism that would respect civil liberties. The government renewed the emergency law, but restricted its application to cases of terrorism and drugs. That’s a positive development, but from our perspective, we still strongly favor that the state of emergency be lifted or allowed to expire. It’s an ongoing discussion. It’s a critically important discussion.

We talked in January about issues of accountability, which was before Khaleed Sayid was killed, but that kind of a case is what we have been discussing and will continue to discuss. The events, his killing and the use of force, is something that disturbed us and disturbed many people in Egypt, but the fact that there is a prosecution is a positive step. We’ve raised in January the killings in front of the church in Naga Hamadi, which had just occurred ,and again the sectarian tensions continue, but we are, as I have said here, urging the government to do all that it can to reduce those tensions. But, we again commend the government for its prosecution of people who were involved in that murder. So, these are all discussions that are ongoing, and things change. Some of them are positive, and in some cases we haven’t seen positive stuff.

Q.: Arabic.

Posner: Before the election in 7 weeks, we are going to continue to support a range of civil society and democratic organizations that promote an open, fair, political process, both in terms of parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Both our bureau in the State Department and MEPI continue to look for opportunities to support organizations here that would reflect the broad spectrum of views within Egypt– peaceful views of people that are willing and eager to work within the democratic framework. So, we are urging the government to create more space for these groups to operate without interference, and we are also eager to be a partner with some of these groups in their activities and support what they do.

Q.: What do you think about human rights organization in the Middle East, especially in Palestine, West Bank and Gaza?

Posner: Throughout this region and around the world, we support and encourage the growth and development of human rights organizations– organizations that both monitor human rights conditions and advocate on behalf of prisoners and others who are vulnerable. That would be true in all the countries in all the parts of this region, including the West Bank and Gaza. I’ve met with many of the people in those organizations, and their work is critically important to helping to promote democratic and human rights objectives. Secretary of State Clinton’s speech in Krakow was focused on a growing pattern of restrictions against human rights and civil society organizations around the world. Many governments are making it more difficult for human rights and civil society organizations to function freely. Those problems certainly exist in various parts of this region, and part of what we are hoping to do now is to address those restrictions and to provide more, and to amplify the voices of civil society, to provide protection, to provide financial and technical support, and to help work with governments to create more space for those groups to operate freely.

Q.: Arabic.

Posner: I had planned to come to Egypt in January before the Naga Hamadi killings took place, but I was concerned about some of the same issues before while I was here. I continued to be concerned as I’ve said today about the tensions between Christian and Muslim communities here. I did not meet with the Pope. I did meet with a range of religious leaders both Christian and Muslim, and will continue to do that. I think it’s important that we do whatever we can to encourage harmony and tolerance and the ability of every person to have the freedom to practice their faith. Our job is not to prefer one religion over another; our role is to promote religious freedom, which means that every individual should pursue their faith.

Q.: Arabic.

Posner: On the issue of Guantanamo, what I’ve said is that since January 22, 2009, the second day President Obama was in office, it’s been the policy of this Administration to close Guantanamo. We can’t do it on our own. Our system gives great power to the US Congress, and there has not been a majority in the Congress willing to provide funds for a new detention facility or to allow other aspects of the plan to close Guantanamo. We also need the cooperation of some other governments, because some of the people either need to be resettled in a third country or to be returned to their home country. We are working hard in every aspect of that, and a commitment to close Guantanamo continues to be real. And so this is an issue of great importance to me, and it’s important to the Administration.

When you ask about specific laws, I mentioned the broad subject of the continuation of the state of emergency and the emergency law. That’s one area in which we would like to see the lifting of the state of emergency and a new counterterrorism law replace it that’s narrower in scope and that protects civil liberties and due process. There are other laws on the books. The other one I mentioned I think we have some concerns about is in the area of rights and obligations of civil society NGO’s. I know there has been some discussion of a new NGO law, and what we have said is that any new law ought to open greater space and freedom for NGO’s to operate, rather than restrict their conduct.

Q.: Arabic.

Posner: On my visit here, I actually met one individual from the Sinai, from the Bedouin community, who had been detained for many, many months and had multiple court orders ordering his release, and yet he continued to be detained. We are concerned about that, not only about people in the Sinai, but for everyone in this society. There ought to be a system based in the rule of law that allows individuals accused of a crime, to be prosecuted and tried. If they are convicted, they are sentenced and go to jail. But when courts are ordering people to be released, they ought to be released, and so this is for us a broader concern. It may apply particularly in the Sinai with the Bedouin community, but when we talk about rule of law, when we talk about lifting the emergency, when we talk about a more predictable system based on due process, that is what we are talking about.

If I may say a couple of words by way of conclusion, as I said at the outset, I have had a very productive visit here, constructive and direct conversations with both representatives of the Egyptian government and with various civil society actors. This is my second visit here. It won’t be my last, but our concerns are very much consistent with the kind of issues we raise around the world as part of the principal of engagement of the Obama Administration. We are not holding Egypt to a different standard; we are holding every country to the same universal standard, and we start from the premise here and elsewhere that it’s up to Egyptians to build and to live their democracy in a sustainable, democratic system. Our hope is that from the outside we can help reinforce those efforts, so thank you all for coming. I will be back and I welcome meeting you again. Thanks very much.

 


Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004

The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 begins by acknowledging an increase in acts of anti-Semitism, even in established democracies, and rearticulates the USG’s commitment to combating anti-Semitism worldwide.  The legislation calls for a Report on Global Anti-Semitism, reviewing acts of anti-Semitism and actions taken by governments to respond to those acts.  The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act also establishes the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the State Department, headed by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.  In addition to monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, the Special Envoy is responsible for coordinating anti-Semitism reporting in the annual Human Rights Reports and the International Religious Freedom Report.

 


Foreign Assistance Act of 1961

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA) established the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and separated, for the first time, military and humanitarian foreign assistance, acknowledging “that a principal objective of the foreign policy of the United States is the encouragement and sustained support of the people of developing countries.”  The FAA lays out U.S. development policy and sets out the conditions under which U.S. foreign assistance is given. 

Section 116 of the FAA prohibits U.S. assistance to governments that have engaged in a consistent pattern of gross human rights violations – including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charge, or forced disappearance ­– or which fail to protect children from exploitation and conscription into the armed forces.  In determining the human rights practices of a country, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), and the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom (IRF) will consider: how much the government has cooperated with investigations by international bodies such as the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC);  the results of previous diplomatic efforts by the President and the U.S. Congress; and whether the government has a history of committing or tolerating serious violations of religious freedom. 

The FAA also requires DRL to provide an annual report to the Congress on human rights practices in every country receiving foreign assistance from the United States and any remaining countries in the United Nations.  In addition to reporting on the human rights violations detailed above, these Country Reports on Human Rights Practices detail practices related to coercion in population control, refugee protections, and trafficking in persons.   

 

Section 502B of the FAA prohibits the provision of security assistance or crime control equipment to countries with poor human rights practices unless the President certifies that there are extraordinary circumstances to justify that assistance.  The FAA also requires that international security assistance programs promote human rights.  Congress is empowered to request a human rights report on any country, delivered within 30 days, which speaks to the country’s human rights record and whether security assistance should be made available to that country.

 

The Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act amended the FAA to require the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to include information on freedom of the press and to identify those countries that are particular repressive against members of the press.

 
 

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