Thank you very much for inviting me. I’d like to thank Access for organizing this conference and especially Brett Solomon, who has worked so hard to make it a hub for thoughtful exchange and discussion.
And I’d like to thank the many other friends here today who have helped map out how socially responsible companies can respect people’s fundamental freedoms online.
Today we face a series of challenges at the intersection of human rights, connective technologies, business and government. It’s a busy intersection and a lot of people want to put up traffic lights. In the next few minutes I want to help frame the challenges we face, and offer practical suggestions on the role of companies and how we can best work together to preserve Internet freedom.
First, a word about the challenges.
Almost every day, we see new examples of the power of connection technologies – the transformative power, and the disruptive power. Entire industries have been upended, starting with Old Media. In a single decade, new technologies have decimated traditional newsrooms and killed their business model, but given rise to literally millions of citizen bloggers and citizen filmmakers and a new global journalism outlet called You Tube. All in one decade.
Today we have tens of thousands of people armed with cell-phone cameras and video, documenting what is happening on the streets of the Middle East. Some can upload it within minutes. Others have to smuggle it out in places like Syria. But the truth is getting out.
And yet, these amazing technologies haven’t made it any safer to do reporting in these hard places – or for human rights activists to talk to one another.
The Arab spring brought home the power of the Internet to governments far beyond the Middle East, and the result has been more censorship, more surveillance and more restrictions.
Repressive governments used to set up firewalls at Internet Exchange Points to block external content they disliked. Now they’re using bots to delete posts and block emails in something approaching real time. They’re using surreptitious deep-packet inspection and sophisticated key-logger software to track what their citizens do online. They are exerting overbroad state control over content, over users, and over companies. And they’re trying to change national and international legal standards to legitimize it all.
Let me give you one example. Last month in New York the governments of China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan came to the UN to suggest the need for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security.” This would shift cyberspace away from being a multi-stakeholder, people-driven model – to a system dominated by centralized government control. Not a good idea.
An online world where more and more countries begin policing content for ideological correctness – whether they call it a Halal Internet or a hate-free Internet – would extinguish the promise of technology to drive global understanding and the free exchange of information, ideas, and innovation.
So my first message to you is that the Internet space – which has seemed so open and free – could become less so. We are up against an ever more sophisticated range of technical, legal, and political challenges to freedom in cyberspace. Secretary Clinton has called the Internet the town square of the 21st Century. The Obama administration has staked out a principled stand on Internet freedom, arguing that the fundamental freedoms apply online just as they do offline. That includes the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
I also want to say a word about the protection of intellectual property, which is sometimes seen as in conflict with Internet freedom. Even though it may be more difficult to enforce these rights in the Digital Age, as authors, artists and inventors are discovering, they are protected by international law. You don’t have the right to break into a movie theater and steal the film reels and you don’t have the right to steal movies online, either.
Before I joined the Obama administration, I spent most of my career in the NGO world, where for years I argued – you might say self-servingly – that progress on human rights is rarely generated by governments alone. Now from my perch inside government, it is even clearer to me that government can’t do it alone – and shouldn’t.
To advance these fundamental freedoms, we need the help of citizens, corporations and global civil society for what is likely to be a long, tough struggle with regimes that do not share our values or our views on the merits of openness. And I particularly want to call attention to the role of companies, because today corporations have more global influence than ever.
If Wal-Mart were a country, its annual revenues would rank it as the 23rd largest economy in the world — ahead of Norway and Venezuela. That’s comparing annual revenues vs. GDP. Hewlett-Packard is only 11th on the Fortune 500, but its 2010 revenues would rank it ahead of Vietnam and Morocco.
So the private sector is more powerful than ever. But it’s also less private than ever. Today, we’re all living in a fishbowl. Any one of us may face public scrutiny for any decision we make. And now it’s instant scrutiny in real time. Most of us are still learning the new rules for life on webcam.
It used to be that companies only faced this kind of scrutiny in a crisis—when the Labor Department exposed sweatshops or when violence erupted along a pipeline. The strategy was crisis-mitigation and damage control, without a lot of attention to the underlying issues. Today, more and more companies realize they can’t wait for the crisis to consider human rights. If you’re living in a fishbowl, on webcam, you have to do the right thing 24/7. And companies find it is often more effective to work together—even with their toughest competitors—as well as with governments like ours, and with NGOs. Through these cooperative efforts, they are addressing the underlying issues before they find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy.
Let me give you a few examples.
In the extractive industries, Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell and 15 other major oil and mining giants, who do business in some of the toughest places on earth, met in Ottawa last month. They joined seven governments and 10 NGOs in a collaborative effort that aims to minimize the risk of human rights abuses by security forces in conflict areas, which is where the natural resources often are.
In the private security industry, Xe Services LLC, formerly Blackwater, and 200 other private security companies have signed on to a new international code of conduct. The code addresses their use of force, and it bans torture, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and forced labor. The companies are now working with governments and NGOs to build a system to verify that everyone who signs up lives up to their pledge.
In the apparel industry, a number of large global companies have opened up factories in their global supply chains to scrutiny by independent auditors and posted reports about their labor practices online. For more than a decade, leading companies including Nike, adidas, Liz Claiborne and H&M have worked hard to improve working conditions in their supply chains, and they have found willing partners from NGOs and universities through an organization called the Fair Labor Association.
These companies are making money in hard places. Each has realized that one of the costs of doing business in those places is to assess the risks and to invest in developing principles, people and processes to address the human rights challenges they confront.
Your problems are not so different from those oil companies with wells in the Niger Delta, security contractors operating in Iraq or apparel companies sourcing in China or Bangladesh. Your challenges are unique, but the process of addressing those challenges is no different.
Over the coming decades, the growth markets for ICT companies will be disproportionally found in less developed countries. That’s where your next three billion customers live. And these are the places where repressive regimes are getting hold of the latest, greatest Western technologies and using them use them to spy on their own citizens for purposes of silencing dissent. Journalists, bloggers and activists are of course the primary targets.
So these are the places where companies will face the greatest scrutiny and real challenges. We’ve all seen the news about demands to turn over user information or questions about what has been sold to repressive regimes by Western companies. Three years ago, the headlines were about companies in China. Last month, rebels found Colonel Qaddafi’s Internet surveillance boiler room in Tripoli as reported in the Wall Street Journal. This week, it’s information technology in Syria.
Of course we have some sanctions in place, and we enforce them. But whether or not there are formal legal sanctions, companies should be thinking about how to do the right thing.
My point is that scrutiny—from the public, the media and Congress—is unlikely to diminish even if the Arab Awakening fades from the headlines, because other governments in some very important emerging markets appear fiercely determined to control what people do online. And just as the extractive industries, private security contractors and apparel companies have found a way forward under scrutiny; your industry must now do the same.
I’m not the right person to assess your business models, your technical capacities, or your dealings with individual governments. Each of you will take your own path. But after almost twenty years of working with companies on tough human rights issues, I can tell you what the smart companies are doing. In general, their response has five elements:
First, they have developed broad principles to guide their actions. In this field, these probably include principles on free expression and privacy and perhaps also criteria on when to avoid working with governments who use technology to become more efficient at committing gross human rights violations.
Second, smart companies are developing internal systems to ensure that these principles are applied in practice. This is not a public relations exercise. It requires senior level buy-in by company leaders, hiring people whose job it is to make sure it happens, and the same focus that executives apply to any other high priority for their business.
Third, leading companies devise internal benchmarks of progress. These benchmarks help assess risks and respond to problems, and they allow companies to evaluate whether they are solving the problems the principles seek to address.
Fourth, they are banding together to develop industry best practices and plans for collective action. In fiercely competitive industries, no company acting alone has the power to solve human rights problems. Working together, in concert with civil society organizations and willing governments like our own, you will have more clout. In my observation, in the area of human rights this often is an essential ingredient of success.
Finally, collective corporate action is bolstered by systematic engagement with stakeholders – with NGOs, universities, think tanks, experts and social investors. They have information, expertise and early warning of problems. Activists, journalists and bloggers are the canaries in your coal mine; if you listen, they can help you anticipate trouble and take steps to address problems before a crisis erupts. And for the record, I offer that same advice to the very governments who often shoot the instant messenger by going out and jailing bloggers instead of listening to the valuable information they convey. Whether you view your stakeholders as dissidents or advisors, they will shape the public debate on your issues. They can make you more credible and validate your efforts.
These elements aren’t a prescription or a quick fix. But they do offer a constructive approach that has worked for other companies. And I would be remiss if I did not call out the efforts of three particular companies, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, for their leadership and all of the NGOs, academics, social investors and other stakeholders with whom they are working through the Global Network Initiative. For the past five years this group has wrestled collectively with the thorniest issues of the day. These are the kind of efforts that help us find ways forward together.
Cyberspace belongs to all of us now. It’s where we live. It’s where you earn your living. And just as no business wants to open its doors in a high-crime neighborhood, no business wants to be located on the street where police are beating up democracy protestors. And we all share an interest in an open Internet that supports a culture of entrepreneurship in which people around the world can thrive. It’s not just the technologies born here in Silicon Valley that are revolutionizing the world and creating huge demand for your products. It’s also the culture, the ethos of innovation, the dedication to freedom, fun and profit that are finding resonance around the world.
The Internet on which the future depends can’t be maintained as an open and global network if we don’t work together to figure out how to push back against those who care more about political domination than empowering innovation. My problem is your problem. It’s all of our problem.
Silicon Valley has already given birth to game-changing technologies and a profoundly new approach to philanthropy. Many people here have made it their life’s work not only to develop transformative technologies but also to put them in the hands of people in places where digital empowerment is leaps ahead of political or financial or educational empowerment. Never have great ideas gone from dream to global distribution so quickly.
But with great code comes great responsibility. It isn’t enough simply to develop a revolutionary product and leave it to others to figure out what happens next. You, the people in this room, are the brain trust for the coming generation – for the next five billion users who will be coming online. So I challenge each of you to work with us to help figure out what can happen next, what must happen next, to preserve the Internet as we know it. Or the autocrats will figure it out for us.
And I challenge each of you to innovate again. Not just in your products, but in the way you will serve your customers. People with real needs, and rights, and aspirations for a better life. Innovate for profit, but also for the people in the hard places. We will be your partner. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Geoff, for inviting me. And I want to take a minute to honor you for everything you’ve done to build the Annenberg Center and now Sunnylands as a leading venue for thought and discussion about some of the most critical issues of our times. I am eager to have this chance to talk with journalists, aspiring journalists and public policy thinkers about Internet freedom, which I believe is the seminal free-speech issue of our generation.
As most of you know, our section of the State Department, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is charged with helping to maintain the Internet as an open space for the free expression of all people. My boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Internet freedom a foreign policy priority, and Congress has given us $70 million to fund technology, training and policy advocacy for Internet freedom around the world. We’ve funded a wide range of programs and trainings aimed at keeping activists in the most repressive environments safe, including a number of Syrians who tell us they are using what they learned in the current struggle for political freedom.
You may have read about the “Panic Button” developed by one of our grantees. This now comes in both Nokia and Android versions and they have encrypted voice and SMS capabilities. These were developed in response to what we heard from democracy and human rights activists on the front lines. If they’re being arrested, they can push a button that sends text messages to people to let them know they’re in trouble. And it wipes the contacts in their phone, which we’ve been told has already proven useful.
We’re making progress. But it’s a struggle. And before we open the discussion, I want to outline three trends that are of deep concern to us.
The first, not a new one of course, is confronting the increasing attempts by some governments to control their citizens’ peaceful online activities. Under international human rights law, people have the right to express themselves, and I quote, “through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Yet interference from states continues in endlessly nefarious and inventive forms. The Committee to Protect Journalists has done an excellent job tracking these tactics, from illicit surveillance and hacking, to offline intimidation of bloggers, to total Internet shutdown.
The Obama administration has staked out a principled stand by arguing that the rights to free expression, assembly and association apply to online activity just as they do to offline activity. Although it may be more difficult to enforce certain rights in the Digital Age, as authors, artists and inventors are discovering. But the principles are the same. You don’t break into a movie theater and steal the film reels, and you don’t have the right to steal movies online, either.
Second, we are seeing a growing number of repressive regimes get hold of the latest, greatest Western technologies and use them to spy on their own citizens for the purpose of quashing peaceful political dissent or even information that would allow citizens to know what is happening in their communities. Journalists, bloggers and activists are of course primary targets. I’m sure many of you saw the reports about rebels overrunning Col. Qaddafi’s Internet surveillance boiler room in Tripoli and finding it stuffed with Western technology. It’s a complex story, but one I hope the media will follow and explore in depth.
There are no easy solutions, because of course the United States wants people in every country to have access to the newest connection technologies, including people in repressive places. And we want to allow our tech industry a free reign for innovation, avoiding onerous regulations as much as we can. At the same time, the use of such technologies by repressive governments to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms is an ongoing concern. At the State Department, we are monitoring this issue very closely. And, we are urging companies to work together, and with like-minded governments and NGOs, to figure out ways to minimize such misuse. Some companies are already doing this by designing innovative fixes that help their products protect users. In some cases, their young customers are the Vaclev Havels and the Nelson Mandelas of the next generation.
And we need to make this dialogue real. Because the third disturbing trend – which I would argue has not received the attention that it merits – is the growing efforts to give countries more control over how the Internet is governed, to cut companies and civil society out of the conversation on shaping the Internet’s future.
Last month in New York the governments of China and Russia, with support from others, came to the UN to suggest the need for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security.” Were such a code to be enacted, it would almost inevitably erode media freedoms. And it would shift cyberspace away from being people-driven to a system dominated by centralized government control. Not a good idea.
As I said at the outset, I’ve come here for an exchange of views. And so I look forward to a conversation about how together we can defend freedom on these tough issues that are now playing out in some of the hardest places in our world. Thank you.
Since its creation in 1977, the DRL Bureau has been in the business of protecting and bolstering civil society. We tackled that issue with renewed vigor when Secretary Clinton made it a priority of the Department in her landmark speech on civil society in July 2010.
One way that DRL is supporting the Secretary’s civil society agenda is through the Lifeline: Embattled NGOs Assistance Fund, which is designed to quickly meet the emergency needs of NGOs when they get into trouble as a result of their work. For example, if NGO members are arrested on trumped up charges, we can provide funds for bail and legal representation; if an NGO is evicted without valid grounds from its offices, we can help that NGO get set up again with new office space. Lifeline also provides small amounts of funding to NGOs that want to raise awareness of the difficult, often hostile environments in which they operate and to address barriers to their fundamental freedoms of assembly and association.
Lifeline is funded by nearly $5 million in contributions from 13 governments spanning five continents: Australia, Benin, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. And it is being implemented by a consortium of NGOs based from Johannesburg to Bangkok to Prague. All 13 governments have also committed to acting together to protect and support civil society through Lifeline’s SOS Warning Platform. SOS will alert donor governments when an NGO gets into trouble or when there is growing repression of civil society in a given country. The donors will then consult and act, publicly or privately and as appropriate.
Over the next 15 months, the donors and NGO Consortium will spread the word about Lifeline so that as many NGOs as possible know about the Fund and can access it when they need help. The donors will also work to grow the Fund by recruiting more public and private donors.
On September 22nd, on the margins of the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York, the U.S. and Tunisian governments signed the Joint Political and Economic Partnership (JPEP). As I reflect on the remarkable events that led to the Tunisian revolution, it is clear that the voices of workers and youth everywhere must continue to be heard. Secretary Clinton’s signing of this strategic partnership symbolizes the solidarity that the American people feel with Tunisians as well as with people struggling for democracy in the region and beyond.
It has been less than a year since the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, who felt powerless to feed his family, started in motion the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring.” While the causes of the revolutions are numerous – rising food prices, youth unemployment, political oppression, and the struggle to provide basic necessities for loved ones – the people’s call for basic dignity could no longer be repressed.
During the Tunisian revolution, the voice of workers, demonstrating on the streets, helped force out the old regime and usher in a new transitional government. The people, exercising their newly found right to freedom of assembly, have demanded that the transitional government be accountable to the Tunisian people. The right to associate – a basic human right – is at the core of any democracy. On October 23rd, Tunisians will exercise another fundamental right – the right to vote in democratic elections, in this case for Constituent Assembly.
It is clear that respect for human rights and sustainable democracies are most effectively built on a strong foundation of social and economic inclusion. As Secretary Clinton has said:
“We cannot build a stable, global economy when hundreds of millions of workers and families find themselves on the wrong side of globalization, cut off from markets and out of reach of modern technologies…And we cannot advance democracy and human rights when hunger and poverty threaten to undermine the good governance and rule of law needed to make those rights real.”
Tunisians understand this as they endeavor to build an inclusive democracy and claim the right of all Tunisians to have a voice in how they are governed and in how they live their lives. The people of the United States stand with Tunisians as they take this important step to strengthen their democracy.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you. Good morning, everybody. As you know, the State Department is mandated by law to produce this report each year. The Secretary of State also designates Countries of Particular Concern, countries whose governments have, and I quote the statute, “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Secretary Clinton has designated eight states as Countries of Particular Concern. They are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. All of these countries have been long-term, chronic, and egregious violators of religious freedom. The report documents in full detail the violations that have prompted these designations.
In Burma, for example, hundreds of Buddhist monks are still in prison, and the government refuses to recognize that the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, are Burmese citizens.
In China, the government’s overall level of respect for religious freedom declined in 2010 and has worsened this year. The repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims continues.
In Iran, members of the Baha’i are arrested, expelled from university, and their leaders languish in prison.
Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of any religion other than Islam, and the government discriminates against the Shia minority.
And in Uzbekistan, it’s illegal to proselytize; and it’s dangerous for a Muslim even to discuss religious issues outside of a state-sanctioned mosque.
These and many other violations in the eight Countries of Particular Concern are spelled out in great detail in the reports. But I want to emphasize that the list is by no means the only measure of serious violations of religious freedom. In a significant number of other countries, we are also closely monitoring official repression of religious minorities or official indifference to their plight, and urging governments to uphold their affirmative obligations to protect religious freedom. Let me mention a few.
We are deeply concerned about the fate of Christians in Syria. Many of these people have been victimized twice: they fled the violence in Iraq and now many are seeking to flee Syria. The government has created a climate of instability and violence in which the human rights of thousands are being violated on a daily basis.
In Pakistan, the government has not reformed a blasphemy law that has been used to prosecute religious minorities and, in some cases, Muslims who promote tolerance or to settle personal vendettas. This year, there have also been several assassinations of those who called for reform of the blasphemy laws, including the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minister for minorities, whom Secretary Clinton and I met in February before he was killed.
The Government of Pakistan has taken steps to address these rising concerns. For example, in March, Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, Paul, was appointed a special advisor on religious minorities to the prime minister. In July, the government also created a ministry of national harmony, which will have oversight for protecting religious minorities at a national level. And in August, President Zardari celebrated National Minorities Day and committed his government to support protection of minority religious rights.
We will continue to engage with the Government of Pakistan to address these issues, to promote tolerance, and to improve religious freedom.
In Iraq, religious minorities and Shia pilgrims have been the targets of devastating attacks since 2003. Last October, more than 50 worshipers were killed in an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad. We welcome the fact that the Government of Iraq has tried and convicted the perpetrators of that attack, but the tragic massacre of the Shia pilgrims that Secretary Clinton mentioned that came to light yesterday indicates that there is more work to be done.
In Vietnam, the record is mixed. While the government has allowed hundreds of new places of worship to be built, significant problems remain, especially at the provincial and village levels. These include slow or no approval of registration for some groups, especially in the north and northwest highlands. There are also reports of harsh treatment of detainees after the protest over the closing of a Catholic cemetery in Con Dau Parish. And the government re-imprisoned Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic human rights defender who has been paroled 16 months earlier after suffering a series of strokes while in prison.
In Egypt, tensions between Christians and Muslims continue. For example, in January, a bomb at the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria killed 22 people. After the fall of the Mubarak government in February, soldiers fired on unarmed Copts at the Saint Bishoy Monastery, wounding six. And in May, clashes between Muslims and Christians in Imbaba left 15 dead, 232 injured.
In response to the Imbaba clashes, military leader Marshall Tantawi issued a strongly worded public condemnation of sectarian attacks, and 48 suspects have been referred for trial. Prime Minister Sharaf has ordered 17 churches be allowed to reopen across Egypt.
We will continue to call on the government to pass a unified law which would set one single, unified standard for building houses of worship that would apply both to Christians and Muslims. And we stand ready to support political, religious, and civic leaders in Egypt as they work to build a new society where democracy and religious tolerance can flourish.
In these and other places, we will continue to review and assess the state of religious freedom, and we are prepared to designate other countries as Countries of Particular Concern as the situation warrants.
Finally, I would urge leaders of all these nations and civil society groups as well to use this report as a resource to help identify and address violations of religious freedom. We stand ready to help.
Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Suzan Johnson Cook, who is the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you, Mike. And good morning. It is a privilege to be with all of you today as we release this important report. I was sworn in on May 16th after a long haul to get here, but it was worth the wait. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with people of different faiths to bring them together to achieve common goals. It is my belief that in order to live peacefully side by side, we cannot allow violence based on religion to continue under any circumstances.
In my first months in the Office of International Religious Freedom, I’ve met with inter-faith leaders from Switzerland, Turkey, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC. And I’m working with my colleagues in the U.S. Government and the religious community to address systemic challenges to religious intolerance.
As the Secretary said in her remarks last week, too many countries in the world today do not allow people to exercise their religious freedom, or they make it difficult or dangerous to do so. So as hard as it may be, we need to get up every day and keep trying to make a difference. The International Religious Freedom Report we’re releasing today is one way to do that. It shines a spotlight on this fundamental human rights issue and guides our policy making. The report is the work of my dedicated and talented staff in the International Religious Freedom Office who have put in long hours, as have all our missions overseas and others here in Washington, to verify that this report is comprehensive, accurate, and fair.
I would also like to thank the hundreds of activists and academics who regularly provide us with reporting and analysis, sometimes at great personal risk.
This year, we are publishing the report on our website, www.humanrights.gov. Humanrights.gov is now the one-step location for all our human rights reporting, and we’re updating it every day with other State Department statements, speeches, and materials.
This report covers every country, every faith, and myriad forms of harassment, persecution, and abuse on the basis of religion. We hope it will prompt other countries to redouble their efforts to create an environment where citizens can freely follow their faith or profess no faith, according to their own conscience.
In some cases we spotlight government violations of the right to religious freedom, and in other cases we call out governments that are not doing enough to stop violence by some citizens against others. Sadly, the list is long. So I urge all of you to read the Executive Summary, where we have distilled in just a few pages the state of religious freedom in 2010. Obviously, a great deal has happened since the end of 2010, including the upheaval in the Middle East and an uptick in sectarian violence there. So we’ve included a summary of key developments around the world in 2011.
We also used shoe leather diplomacy, where at the State Department, we call engagement. It’s going to countries and talking to government officials, religious leaders, educators, human rights activists, journalists, young people, and others about how to combat hatred and religious persecution. So I’m going to be hitting the road in the fall. I hope to visit a number of countries that face challenges in protecting religious freedom, including Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
And the third way we make a difference is by spotlighting examples of where things are going right. So I also plan to travel to countries that are doing the hard work of resolving religious animosities and taking practical steps to guarantee religious freedom to all their citizens. In July, I went with Secretary Clinton to Istanbul for a meeting on combating religious intolerance. As the lead U.S. coordinator for the implementation of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which she referred to this morning, I’m eager to work with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and others, other partners to discuss best practices and exchange ideas on how to best protect freedom of religion.
I will convene a meeting of experts later this year, with participants from around the world and from a wide variety of faiths and religions. We’ll talk about how to counter offensive expression through education, interfaith dialogue, and public debate and how to prohibit discrimination, profiling, and hate crimes. And we will share ways of combating hate without compromising the universal right to free expression, because everyone must have the right to believe as well as the right to manifest their belief.
So I want to thank you for coming this morning, and Assistant Secretary Posner and I will be happy to take your questions. Thank you.
MR. TONER: Any questions? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions regarding China. The first is, according to CECC, the Congressional and Executive Commission on China – according to their reports, Beijing had launched a new round of a campaign since the year 2010 to year 2012 that says calling for increased transformation of Falun Gong practitioners. So I’m wondering if you have been aware of this persecution, this continued persecution?
And the second question is: Recently, China is trying to amend their criminal procedure law, and if this is adopted, it would expand the police power and it may authorize the forced disappearance. So what’s your comments on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Sure. Let me just put those two questions in a slightly broader context. We’ve said repeatedly that we have concerns about what really has been a deteriorating human rights situation, especially since February of this year. I was in China in April for the human rights dialogue. We raised a number of these issues publicly. And the specific question you raised with the Falun Gong is part of a broader pattern. We have concerns about the treatment of those who are in unregistered churches, so-called house churches – the Shouwang Church, for example, in Beijing, where beginning around Easter time people were not allowed to gather, and a number of the leaders of that church were put in prison. We have concerns about the Uighur community and the restrictions on Muslim religion. We have concerns about the Tibetan community, the Kirti Monastery, where 300 monks were taken from the monastery and detained.
So there is a broader pattern of religious and other persecution that’s part of a broader human rights problem. I also would call out the case of Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has represented religious communities and who’s been missing since April of 2010.
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Two questions, one just to follow on China. As far as religious freedom in China, you say you’ve been visiting China and meeting officials and all that. One, what answer to you get from them as far as their – not their belief or not believe, but how they prosecute people because of their faith, especially people from Tibetans and Buddhists are still in jails and we don’t know – you may not know how many of them. And every day they go to jail because of their belief in God or what they worship. So what do you hear from them year after a year? This report comes and you meet and greet here and there and all that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I take the view – first of all, we will continue to raise these issues in China and elsewhere because they’re universal norms, they apply to every country in the world, and there is an obligation of every government to respect those norms. We have continuous discussions as part of a broader engagement with China, but these issues are an important part of that dialogue.
And I can’t tell you that every time I’ve had a conversation, we’ve agreed or had satisfying results, but I do believe that raising these issues both publicly and privately serves a number of purposes. It provides assurance to people in the country that we’re paying attention; we know what’s going on. It reinforces their commitment to move – to continue working. And in some cases, we have been able to get results like releases or better conditions. We’ll continue to press, even if some of the discussions are difficult.
QUESTION: My other question is on overall religious freedom. Let’s say – I’ve been going through this report and also what you said and Secretary said, as far as in Pakistan and also Saudi Arabia. And including in the U.S. or in Saudi Arabia or in Pakistan, if you go in the mosques, the teachings are not about their religion. Their teachings is basically hatred against other religions in the mosques. And also, in Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs and Christians are under attack more and more as you go through the last year’s report. But government officials have not taken any steps against those, even including reading these thirteen lines on Pakistan.
And so Pakistan is like an open society in many ways and friends of the United States and ally. And also on comparing with Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, it may be a different story because in Saudi Arabia, they don’t allow any non-Muslims to practice anything. But in Pakistan, it’s a different society. But still, why is there – Pakistan has not been taken care of or taking any steps against those who persecute other religious people?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think what I said in my opening comments – we are, as your comments suggest, or your question – we are concerned about the blasphemy law, about the intolerance in Pakistan, about the murder of Minister Bhatti and Governor Taseer.
At the same time, the government has in the last several months taken a few positive steps, and we’re working with the government on the assumption that these issues need to be addressed. We are – we work with the government on a range of things. This is an important subject. And the increasing extremism in that society, I think, is worrying to everybody.
So we are very mindful of the things you raise in both Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia, and these are issues that we’re very attentive to and will be more so.
QUESTION: One more quickly, if you don’t mind.
MR. TONER: Come on, let’s give – Goyal, let’s give some other people a chance. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned engagement as a way of promoting religious tolerance in different countries. What about the countries where you don’t have access to, where you don’t have any relations, you don’t have presence such as Iran, for example?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we are obviously very frustrated by a number of things in Iran, including the continued harassment of the Baha’i. There were seven Baha’i leaders who were sentenced to 20 years in jail. The government then reduced it to 10 and now they’ve upped it again to 20 years. There are eight leaders of one of the Baha’i schools of higher education that are being put on trial. People – Baha’i kids can’t go to the regular universities. So there’s a range of things, not only the Baha’i but other minority communities.
We’ve raised these issues, we continue raising these issues. We have, obviously, a difficult relationship with that government or North Korea, other places that are on the list. But I think it is, again, important for us to be clear about the facts, to hold every government to the same standard. It does reinforce people in those societies who understand and know that the United States Government is listening and paying attention.
QUESTION: Resolutions have also been passed in Geneva, but even they apparently have not had any effect. Is there any other mechanism through which you can get to these countries, such countries?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think with respect to Iran in particular, there is now a special rapporteur that’s focused on Iran who’s just beginning his work, and I think that will also play a useful role. It’s not just the United States. It’s the global community. The Human Rights Council selected that individual. And we’re now going to see whether the government lets him in, and if – and what kind of a report he produces and then what the reaction is.
But again, I think there’s a drumbeat and there’s a growing view in this world that these issues of human rights and religious freedom are part of what’s expected of every government in the global community.
QUESTION: Is the OIC itself helpful at all? It’s Islamic.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think, again – and Sujay can speak to this as well, I hope – and will – I think the OIC has helped us change the discussion, which was a very negative discussion of defamation which was at the Human Rights Council for a decade or so. We were debating endlessly a Pakistan and OIC-promoted resolution that really pitted us against some of the Islamic countries because it focused on ways to restrict free speech. Our view is that free speech and promoting religious tolerance and harmony are consistent.
And so what the OIC secretary general has done – and Sujay and Secretary Clinton were with him in Istanbul – is to talk about an alternative, this 1618 resolution which has now been adopted by the UN, which says let’s go at the problem of religious discrimination, religious intolerance, affirmatively, let’s find some practical ways forward. And he’s listed about a dozen of them. Those are useful things, and that’s partly what we need to be focusing on, an affirmative agenda.
AMBASSADOR COOK: And the resolution that was achieved was the result of 10 years worth of work, and so it’s an ongoing effort. Where we’re now at is the implementation stage. And so Istanbul was a successful trip, and we’re going forward with my hosting the experts in December here at the Secretary’s invitation. So it’s ongoing, and so we will not let it go. Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. I wanted to ask you about Israel. There’s issues of Christians and Muslims being able to worship freely, and also there has been several attacks on mosques in the West Bank. Have you been speaking to the Israeli Government about this? How much responsibility do they hold in trying to protect as an occupying power?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We do speak to the Israeli Government about this and a range of other human rights issues. I’ve been myself particularly involved since the Goldstone Report in dealing with some of the issues of humanitarian access, et cetera, in the context of a UN resolution. But I would say – I think to put this in a broader frame, at the center of a lot of the tensions in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is the absence of a peace process, of a peace process that’s yielding a two-state solution. That’s what we favor. A lot will be – a lot of human rights issues are going to be dealt with much more directly and easily once we have that process up and running and once we get a result.
QUESTION: Thank you. And could you comment on the situation on religious freedom in Georgia in general? And also, I was wondering if you would give us some more details about Uzbekistan, the only former Soviet state that appeared in CPC list? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I don’t have anything, I think, to add to what’s in the report on Georgia. With respect to Uzbekistan, we have had a set of – I’ve been to Uzbekistan twice. We had a – my colleague, Tom Melia, was part of a bilateral dialogue that occurred last week here with the Government of Uzbekistan. And one of the things he raised, and Ambassador Blake, is the issue of religious freedom. We continue to have concerns about both restrictions on the ability of religion – religious groups, unregistered groups to participate, to operate openly. I met with a number of religious figures when I was last there who had church services disrupted, some religious leaders arrested. So there really is an ongoing problem there, and we are eager to work with the government to try to improve that record.
MR. TONER: Last question. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Hitting Pakistan again, I wondered if you see any progress on the blasphemy law and whether you considered adding it as a CPC.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We certainly consider adding any country, and there – and we are very mindful, as I said in my opening comments, about the both misuse of the blasphemy law, the fact that it’s been applied so often, and the fact that some people have been – have received severe sentences as a result of it.
We are going to continue to work with the government. We’ve seen some positive steps in the last few months. But I think the message here is we have great concern about the overall situation of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, and we stand ready to work with the government to try to address that.
MR. TONER: Thank you all.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Good morning, everyone. Here with me today are Michael Posner, our Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Suzan Johnson Cook, our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and members of their teams. They will brief you on our efforts to promote religious freedom and will take your questions afterwards.
Before I begin on this important topic, I want to address the situation in Afghanistan, where there was an attack on our Embassy in Kabul today. It appears that a number of Afghan civilians have been hurt, and we, of course, will do all we can to assist them. There are no reports of casualties among Embassy personnel at this time.
We are following this very closely, also the unfolding situation in the area, including at NATO-ISAF Headquarters, which, for those of you have been in Kabul, you know is across the street from our Embassy compound. We will take all necessary steps not only to ensure the safety of our people, but to secure the area and to ensure that those who perpetrated this attack are dealt with.
But I want to say a word about our civilians who serve at our Embassy. It is, of course, State Department diplomats, USAID development experts, but it’s a whole-of-government effort, and there are civilians from across our government who are there with the sole purpose of assisting the people of Afghanistan in a transition toward stability, security, and prosperity.
The civilians who serve are dedicated, brave men and women, committed to advancing our mission. They will not be intimidated by this kind of cowardly attack. While they work hard every day along with their Afghan colleagues to help children go to school, to help save mothers’ lives at childbirth, to build roads, to assist farmers, the opposition of violent extremists, the Taliban and their allies, engage in a constant effort to threaten and to undermine the peace and progress of the Afghan people.
So we will be vigilant, but we will be continuing with even greater commitment to doing all we can to give the Afghan people, who have suffered so much, a chance at a better future for themselves and their children.
Now, as you know, the protection of religious freedom is a fundamental concern of the United States going back to the earliest days of our republic, and it remains so today.
As we look around the world, in fact, we see many countries where governments deny their people the most fundamental human rights: the right to believe according to their own conscience – including the freedom to not believe or not follow the religion favored by their government; the right to practice their religion freely, without risking discrimination, arrest, or violence; and the right to educate their children in their own religious traditions; and the freedom to express their beliefs.
In Iran, authorities continue to repress Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, Bahais, Sunnis, Ahmadis, and others who do not share the government’s religious views. In China, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, “house church” Christians all suffer from government attempts to restrict their religious practice. In Eritrea last year, a 43-year-old evangelical Christian died in prison; he was reportedly tortured for 18 months and denied treatment for malaria because he refused to renounce his faith.
Of course, threats to the free exercise of conscience and religion do not always come directly from governments. Just yesterday, we heard reports that gunmen masquerading as security officers waylaid a bus of Shia pilgrims traveling throughout western Iraq. The women were abandoned by the side of the road, but the 22 men were shot, and their bodies left in the middle of the desert. This sort of hateful, senseless violence has no aim other than to undermine the fabric of peaceful society.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the transitions to democracy have inspired the world, but they have also exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers. People have been killed by their own neighbors because of their ethnicity or their faith. In other places, we’ve seen governments stand by while sectarian violence, inflamed by religious animosities, tears communities apart.
Now, the people of the region have taken exciting first steps toward democracy—but if they hope to consolidate their gains, they cannot trade one form of repression for another.
Shining a spotlight on violations of religious freedom around the world, such as those I just mentioned, is one of our goals in releasing this report.
We also call attention to some of the steps being taken to improve religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. One of those is UN Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which was introduced by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and adopted by consensus in March. It calls on all states to take concrete action against religious bigotry through tolerance, education, government outreach, service projects, and interfaith dialogue. And we worked very hard with a number of nations and with the OIC to pass this resolution, and we will be working with our OIC and European counterparts on implementing it. And Ambassador Johnson Cook is leading our efforts.
We have also seen Turkey take serious steps to improve the climate for religious tolerance. The Turkish Government issued a decree in August that invited non-Muslims to reclaim churches and synagogues that were confiscated 75 years ago. I applaud Prime Minister Erdogan’s very important commitment to doing so. Turkey also now allows women to wear headscarves at universities, which means female students no longer have to choose between their religion and their education.
Third, as we release this report, we reaffirm the role that religious freedom and tolerance play in building stable and harmonious societies. Hatred and intolerance are destabilizing. When governments crack down on religious expression, when politicians or public figures try to use religion as a wedge issue, or when societies fail to take steps to denounce religious bigotry and curb discrimination based on religious identity, they embolden extremists and fuel sectarian strife.
And the reverse is also true: When governments respect religious freedom, when they work with civil society to promote mutual respect, or when they prosecute acts of violence against members of religious minorities, they can help turn down the temperature. They can foster a public aversion to hateful speech without compromising the right to free expression. And in doing so, they create a climate of tolerance that helps make a country more stable, more secure, and more prosperous.
So the United States Government will continue our efforts to support religious freedom. We are engaging with faith groups to address the issues that affect them. Our embassies encourage inter-faith dialogue. And we will speak out against efforts to curtail religious freedom.
Because it is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual. People who have a voice in how they are governed—no matter what their identity or ethnicity or religion—are more likely to have a stake in both their government’s and their society’s success. That is good for stability, for American national security, and for global security.
And with that, let me introduce both our assistant secretary and our ambassador-at-large to come forward. Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, could you just – do you have anything that – can you tell us anything about your understanding of what’s going on in Iran with the hikers and President Ahmadinejad saying that they might be able – that they will be free?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Matt, as you know, we have followed this very closely. And we are encouraged by what the Iranian Government has said today, but I am not going to comment further than that. We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government.
QUESTION: Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Posner’s Remarks at Afhad Women’s University “Civil Society and U.S. Foreign Policy”
I wish all of you a happy and blessed Ramadan. At this time of self-reflection and renewal, I am especially pleased to be invited here. I wanted to come to Afhad Women’s University today to speak to you but also to listen to you and engage in a dialogue. I believe that Sudanese youth, and particularly Sudanese women, can and must play a leading role in building peace, stability, and broad-based economic growth in your country. I hope that some of you will do this within government, but that all of you will do it as members of civil society.
The United States government and particularly my boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — have been emphasizing the importance of civil society in crafting strong constitutions, building stable societies and developing sustainable democracies.
In our country, and in a growing number of countries around the world, it is no longer unusual for young people to work in non-governmental organizations — NGOs — and then go into government. And after serving in government, many go back to being active in civil society.
As you may know, Secretary Clinton began her career in an NGO. She was a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund. And President Obama started his political career as a community organizer in Chicago. In those roles, both of them represented vulnerable populations, and both urged the U.S. Government to serve its citizens better.
Now, that’s not to say that in a democracy, governments and NGOs always see eye-to-eye. They don’t — and they shouldn’t. But there is a common recognition that it takes the work of many different kinds of citizen groups to improve democracy and governance. They do it by informing governments about issues that may not yet have hit the radar of busy officials. They do it by advocating for vulnerable people whose needs are not being met through existing government policies or programs. They do it by pushing government to do better, to work more efficiently and to spend its time and resources on the issues that matter most to the people. And they do it by holding those of us in government accountable for our actions.
These functions are indispensible. I say that from my personal experience. I began my career as a lawyer and then did human rights work at NGOs for more than 30 years before joining the government. Over these three decades, I have been able to see with my own eyes how the interplay between civil society and government has helped countries emerge from conflict and corruption and become stronger.
Let me give a few examples:
– When I first started working in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-1970s, there were virtually no NGOs except in South Africa and Zimbabwe, which was then called Rhodesia. Now there are civil society groups on every part of this continent, trying to turn weak democracies into truly representative and strong ones, and make strong democracies grow more transparent and responsive. The new constitution that was adopted by Kenya last year was the result of a decade-long struggle by civil society and government to create a constitution based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. And William Matunga, the former head of the Human Rights Commission, a leading NGO, has become the new chief justice.
– As an American, I find many parallels with civil society in my own country’s history. Of course Kenya’s constitution is an entirely Kenyan document, which is why the people have placed their hopes in it. But the open, consultative nature of the constitutional process was much the same in spirit. And by the way, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were at it for a decade. There were sharp regional divisions and different political histories and wide differences of opinion among the original 13 states. And if you think that process was easy, I encourage you to read their papers. Their debates over such questions as how to enforce the rule of law, how to put checks and balances on power, how much secrecy a government should be allowed and how much transparency should be required are still being reread and re-argued today.
That Constitution was in the broadest sense the product of civil society at its best. Of course it was flawed – it allowed slavery and failed to give women voting rights. Though we amended the constitution to abolish slavery in the 1860s and to give women the right to vote 60 years later, today we are still constantly working to build a more perfect union.
I have had the privilege of seeing civil society transform other countries in my own lifetime. In the Philippines, which grappled with serious problems with corruption, flawed elections, and lack of rule of law, I was involved with several human rights and legal organization that became part of a broader an open, electoral system. That resulted in the 1986 election of Corazon Aquino, the first woman leader and freely elected president of the Philippines. Civil society organizations pushed the government to create an independent electoral commission that presided over her historic election.
Likewise in Indonesia, hundreds of civil society groups are working on promoting democracy, human rights and religious tolerance and a range of other issues. Their efforts have been central to transforming a country with a history of ethnic conflicts into a vibrant young democracy. It’s a pluralistic system and one that respects religious diversity. Indonesia’s political stability has created as an environment that has attracted domestic and foreign investment. The economy has boomed. And this month Secretary Clinton flew to Bali to take part in a Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society.
This dialogue is part of a broader U.S. diplomatic effort to reach beyond government-to-government relationships and engage directly with the people of other countries. We seek to find ways to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, whether it’s human rights or environmental issues, improving education and employment opportunities for women and girls, or cooperating on global heath issues.
And finally, I’d like to say a word about the critical role we have seen women play in building peace and security around the world. Women suffer disproportionately in wartime and they continue to be grossly underrepresented in peace negotiations. Yet women have played a critical role in resolving conflicts, from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka, especially by insisting that peace settlements address the chronic unresolved issues that tend to make conflicts simmer on and then reignite again in a few years.
It is also worth studying the examples set two women who have helped countries wracked by violence build peace from the ground-up: former President Roza Otunbayeva of Kygyzstan and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. And as you may know, President Otunbayeva set an interesting precedent for her young democracy by taking office and then declining to run for re-election in order to create a tradition of peaceful and prompt transfer of power. But I will leave you with a quote from President Sirleaf. She said, “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”
So I hope you will dream big dreams, and then get involved. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and young people around this inter-connected world understand this intuitively. Most of those I meet are eager to get involved in shaping their societies, making them more inclusive, more respecting of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in doing so, making them stronger. The United States will support you in these efforts.
Thank you. And I’m happy to answer questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Distinguished Members of the Commission: I appreciate your calling this timely hearing on the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as we plan for the December Ministerial Meeting in Vilnius and beyond. I have the privilege of working for a former Helsinki Commissioner, Secretary Clinton, and it is my honor to serve as the Helsinki Commissioner for the Department of State. The Commission’s efforts help strengthen my hand and that of my State Department colleagues as we work with other governments, civil society advocates, and the private sector to defend and advance human rights and democratic government across the OSCE region.
Mr. Chairman, I would ask the Commission to consider my testimony today in conjunction with that of Assistant Secretaries Gordon and Vershbow. If I may, I will direct my comments today in particular to the OSCE’s Human Dimension – the principles that animate it, the challenges that confront it, and what all of us can and must do to defend and advance it. As the only regional forum with a membership that stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok, the OSCE constitutes a vital platform for raising concerns about human rights and democratic governance in key countries of concern, such as Belarus, Russia and Uzbekistan.
A Pioneering Process, Then and Now
The Helsinki process was launched 36 years ago next week, in the midst of a Cold War and in a different century. The past twenty years since the end of Soviet Communism have seen profound changes in the OSCE region and the world. With them came an opportunity for the participating States to increase in number, establish and develop the OSCE as an organization, and, most significantly, agree to ground breaking commitments in the areas of human rights and democratic governance. These commitments remain a global high water mark. The OSCE has not been merely a reflection of the great post-Soviet geopolitical changes. The OSCE’s comprehensive concept of linking security among states to respect for human rights within states, and the citizens monitoring movements that the Helsinki process inspired, helped create and shape the new reality in Europe and Eurasia.
And I would submit, Mr. Chairman, that the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security, the human and democratic values at the core of the Helsinki process, and its recognition of the vital role and contributions of civil society — remain inspiring and innovative concepts in this new century, not just to men and women within the OSCE region, but to people around the world.
Time and again, most recently in North Africa and the Middle East, we see that governments’ respect for human rights and their responsiveness to the aspirations of their citizens are essential to security, stability and peace. The OSCE, and the civil society groups associated with the Helsinki process, can make useful contributions of experience and expertise to our partner Mediterranean States undergoing transformations. Even as we speak, OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is holding its first workshop for Egyptian civil society representatives interested in election monitoring in support of the Arab Spring.
The Enduring Importance of Implementation
As Assistant Secretary Gordon noted, the participating States at the Astana Summit last December, including those that joined the OSCE in the post-Soviet period, reaffirmed in the Summit’s Commemorative Declaration the principles of Helsinki and all the commitments made to date. They also reaffirmed that human rights are not solely a domestic issue, but also a matter of “direct and legitimate” interest to other States. Secretary Clinton, Assistant Secretary Gordon, Ambassador Kelly and his outstanding delegation, and I worked intensively with like-minded counterparts to ensure that the Commemorative Declaration was strong and unequivocal. I believe that we succeeded.
But we all agree that reaffirmation is not enough. We must continue to address serious problems of implementation within OSCE participating States, through our bilateral diplomacy and through the OSCE and other multilateral organizations.
All countries, including our own, have room for improvement in living up to our OSCE commitments and all have a responsibility to do so. That said, the work and resources of the OSCE should focus most on the areas where implementation remains weakest and where humarn rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals and democratic principles of government face the greatest challenges. This is not a reflection of political bias or double standards. It is not a matter of “East of Vienna versus West of Vienna” — as some participating States assert. The divide that concerns the OSCE is not between East and West; OSCE must address the gap between commitments and practice. Human rights are universal, but they are not universally respected in the OSCE region. That is the truth, and the OSCE must address it.
Advocates of human rights, democracy, and labor who seek to help their fellow citizens know and act upon their rights are targeted for persecution, even murder, in some participating States. Laws are wielded like political weapons against those who expose abuses or express disagreement with official policies and practices. Judicial independence and the rule of law have yet to be established or fully respected in practice. NGOs are subjected to increasing legal restrictions and burdensome administrative measures that impede their peaceful work, reflecting a disturbing global phenomenon. There are human rights and humanitarian aspects of protracted conflicts that must be addressed as essential elements of settlement and reconciliation processes.
Media – particularly independent media — are under pressure to be silent or to self-censor. For practicing their profession, journalists are victims of brutal, sometimes deadly, attacks, often carried out with complete impunity. Countries in the OSCE region are also part of a growing global trend by governments to restrict Internet Freedom, and thus the exercise of freedoms of expression, association and assembly via new media. Too many people in the OSCE region are denied the opportunity to access a range of sources of information. The Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, who testified before you a few weeks ago, deserves special mention for raising awareness and pushing to protect journalists and an independent media throughout the OSCE space.
Democratic development is uneven across the OSCE region. Not all elections meet OSCE’s standards. Not all officials and government institutions operate in an accountable and transparent manner. The next few years will see national elections in a number of OSCE States, including my own country. The United States continues to welcome ODIHR observers and we hope our fellow participating States will do likewise. We are pleased that Russia recently has invited ODIHR to conduct a needs assessment for an elections observer mission in the lead-up to December’s parliamentary elections, and we urge Russia to extend a formal, unrestricted invitation for this observation mission once the assessment is completed. We also look to Russia to invite ODIHR to do the same for the presidential elections in 2012. Similarly, we hope that ODIHR will be invited to observe the upcoming parliamentary elections in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine, and the presidential elections in Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Turkmenistan.
Not surprisingly, participating States with serious implementation problems do not like to have their records in the spotlight, as we see so clearly demonstrated by Belarus’s refusal to extend the mandate of the OSCE Office in Minsk, its refusal to cooperate with the Moscow Mechanism Rapporteur, and now its resistance to joining consensus on the detailed agenda for the annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. The Representative on Freedom of the Media has not been allowed to visit Belarus since the crackdown last December. Belarus rejected a fact-finding mission by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Working Group on Belarus and the Working Group’s Chair was denied a visa to observe trials of political prisoners. Such obstructionist behavior only draws more attention to Belarus’ lamentable human rights record.
The report of the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism Rapporteur on Belarus contains a wealth of constructive recommendations, which we urge Belarus to accept so that it can increase its integration into the OSCE community, instead of deepening its isolation.
With respect to Russia, we have spoken out in the OSCE Permanent Council and other OSCE fora about the continued assaults on fundamental freedoms of the press and assembly, and the rule of law. We repeatedly have expressed our concerns about: the many unsolved cases of murdered journalists like Paul Klebnikov and human rights activists like Natalia Estemirova; corruption and impunity as exemplified by the tragic case of Sergei Magnitsky; and restrictions on freedom of assembly for members of groups like Strategy 31, the Khimki Forest Defenders, and for members of various Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender groups. We have raised our concerns about Russia’s disappointing decision to deny the opposition group PARNAS registration so that it can compete in the upcoming parliamentary elections and we urge Russian authorities to reconsider that decision.
We continue to monitor and speak out about the treatment of minorities in Russia, including the application of the so-called “law on extremism” to peaceful religious groups. We also are concerned about inter-ethnic tensions and incidents of violence between ethnic Russians and minority groups, as well as by reports of serious human rights violations in the North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya. These reports include disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and retribution against those who report abuses.
Mr. Chairman, as we set our sights on the Ministerial in Vilnius, I want to emphasize that our interest in human rights and democratic development in Central Asia did not begin or end with the Astana Summit. The United States remains committed to working bilaterally and within the OSCE with the participating States of Central Asia and with civil society in that region to advance domestic democratic reforms, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. We also will continue to work with Central Asian states to reinforce border security to counter transnational threats such as narcotics and terrorism, and to bolster security in Afghanistan, an OSCE partner. We have stressed that Kazakhstan’s legacy as the 2010 Chair of the OSCE will be determined by the continued efforts it makes, now that the spotlight has left Astana, to deliver on the pledges made there to reinvigorate comprehensive security and protect the human rights of citizens. We strongly encourage OSCE representatives, as well as high public officials from the participating States, including the Members of this Commission and Members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, to seek opportunities to engage with the governments and citizens of Central Asian states to advance Human Dimension issues.
We have seen that such engagement can yield results. Most recently, the Government of Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel, an issue on which the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media had persistently focused. We applaud Kyrgyzstan’s becoming the first Central Asian country and the 13th OSCE participating State to decriminalize defamation. This measure will strengthen freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan and set an example for the rest of the OSCE community. Kyrgyzstan also deserves recognition for its support of the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, which operates according to a Memorandum of Understanding between the Kyrgyz government and the OSCE. The United States joined the Academy’s Board of Trustees in March 2011 and since its foundation in 2005 we have been strong supporters of the excellent work the Academy is doing to provide graduate studies to Central Asian and Afghan students. Coupled with the steps Kyrgyzstan has taken to ensure inquiry into the abuses committed during the June 2010 conflict, we think that the positive trajectory for Kyrgyzstan’s democratization can continue. The OSCE remains well-poised to assist.
Mr. Chairman, the comprehensive security we seek in the OSCE region, and in Central Asia particularly, will remain elusive until serious human rights problems are addressed. We will continue to press for the implementation by the Central Asian states of OSCE commitments in all three dimensions, and to offer our assistance toward that end.
For example, Uzbekistan continues to exhibit a poor record on media freedom, freedom of religion, and a wide range of human rights and fundamental freedoms. We regretted the Uzbekistan Supreme Court decision in June to close the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent. We have raised in the OSCE and elsewhere the cases of Dilmurod Sayid, a journalist imprisoned for writing about corruption, and Maxim Popov, who remains incarcerated for working to decrease the incidence of AIDS in the country, and we will continue to advocate for fair treatment and due process in those, and similar, cases.
We also remain deeply concerned over the arrests of religious adherents, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Protestants and members of some Islamic groups in Uzbekistan. Reported raids on the homes of members of non-majority religious groups, coupled with bans on the import of some religious publications and the confiscation or destruction of religious literature, further chill the climate for religious expression.
We will continue to use the OSCE as a platform for pressing these and other human rights challenges in Uzbekistan, including ongoing reports of torture in detention and the use of child labor in the annual cotton harvest.
Mr. Chairman, looking across the OSCE, community, we see intolerance and hate crimes against religious and ethnic minorities, including Roma and Sinti. I wish to commend the essential work of OSCE’s three tolerance representatives: Rabbi Andrew Baker, on Combating Anti-Semitism, Dr. Massimo Introvigne, on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions, and Ambassador Adil Akhmetiv, on combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims. I also salute the efforts of the OSCE’s Contact Point on Roman and Sinti Issues. Violence against women and assaults on individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are widespread problems. People with disabilities experience discrimination and tend to be relegated to the margins of society. The OSCE region is both a source and a destination for human trafficking. Men, women and children are forced into servitude within its borders.
To meet all of these challenges of implementation, participating States must strengthen their political will to honor their commitments. We and other like-minded governments must work vigilantly to ensure that the capacity and integrity of ODIHR, the High Commissioner on National Minorities, and other OSCE institutions are strengthened, not weakened, and that full use is made of the OSCE’s good offices, mechanisms, and field missions. Today, for example, the High Commissioner is working to prevent ethnic tensions from boiling over again in Central Asia and to ensure that children can receive an adequate education in their language in Slovakia, Serbia, and other parts of Europe. And the field missions are standing up freedom of information and human rights ombudsmen who can defend citizens’ rights.
Let me now say a few words about the state of consensus in the OSCE and its prospects for meeting today’s human, economic, and military security challenges. It is evident that some participating States lack the political will to meet the commitments they have already made. They are often reluctant or unwilling to give their consent so that the OSCE can take timely and effective action in key areas of concern, including the persistent implementation problems.
Mr. Chairman, we have encountered such dilemmas before in OSCE’s history. During the Cold War, Human Dimension commitments made by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries were honored more in the breach than in practice. Despite this challenge, the Helsinki process managed to advance, thanks to the moral force of Helsinki monitoring groups as well as the West’s principled, sustained diplomacy. This tenacity ultimately paid off with the emergence of the democracies of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. And the need for sustained, principled efforts by governments and their citizens is equally compelling now.
Today, we must be steadfast in the face of threats from some participating States to withhold consensus or attempt to water down commitments or weaken OSCE institutions. We will creatively use the full array of existing OSCE authorities, institutions, principles, and precedents to support the efforts of today’s activists on the ground who are pressing for human rights and democratic reforms. Consensus to act on issues of human rights and democracy may be hard to reach at the State-to-State level, but there is a growing grassroots consensus among citizens of the OSCE region and regions across the globe that governments must respect human rights and give their people a meaningful role in shaping the future of their countries.
The Helsinki Process and Support for Citizen Activism
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made support and defense of civil society a global foreign policy priority, and we see our work in OSCE as integral to that effort.
OSCE was the first regional organization to recognize the importance of civil society and provide for NGO participation in its proceedings. Secretary Clinton made a special point of holding a Town Hall with civil society groups in Astana during the OSCE Summit, and we will continue to encourage and defend NGO involvement at the Human Dimension Implementation Meetings and other expert meetings of the OSCE.
Mr. Chairman, the Commission has long championed the vital role that non-governmental organizations play in the OSCE process. I am pleased to report that my own Bureau and Ambassador Kelly have collaborated on a new effort aimed at helping connect civil society activists across the OSCE region through new technologies.
In mid-August, my bureau will be reviewing proposals for a new $500,000 program to create a demand-driven virtual network of human rights and democracy activists in the OSCE region, which we intend to launch in September. We call it Helsinki 2.0. The network would serve as a sustainable coordination platform for reinvigorating human rights advocacy in Europe and Eurasia. A virtual interface will be created to enable activists to have regular engagement with governments beyond the traditional appearances at annual OSCE meetings. We hope that this Helsinki 2.0 platform will enhance activists’ ability to network with one another and with the OSCE. This effort should help extend Helsinki’s Human Dimension and its legacy of citizen advocacy into the Digital Age.
Enduring Freedoms, New Apps
Mr. Chairman, the Commission has greatly helped to elevate the issue of Internet freedom. I very much appreciate your holding a hearing on the subject a few weeks ago, at which my Deputy, Dan Baer, testified. It is vitally important that the OSCE take a principled and pioneering stand on Internet freedom.
In the past, the Helsinki process was a major international platform for defending citizens who expressed dissenting views via samizdat and for protesting the jamming of radio broadcasts. Two decades ago, in response to efforts by the Ceausescu regime to restrict citizens’ access to Xerox machines, an explicit commitment was included in the OSCE’s Copenhagen document pledging that “no limitation will be imposed on access to, and use of, means of reproducing documents of any kind.” Today, email, social networking, and text messaging are new forms of samizdat and tools of human rights advocacy as well as indispensible tools of commerce, education, and global communications.
We applaud Lithuania for making media freedom via old and new technologies and the safety of journalists key themes of its Chairmanship. I want to emphasize that cyber issues are relevant to all three dimensions of the OSCE. As we partner with other governments, civil society, and the business sector on ways we can safeguard against very real cyber security threats, we will do so ever mindful that the measures we take must be consistent with our human dimension commitments to respect the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Mr. Chairman, as Assistant Secretary Gordon noted, the United States advanced language for inclusion in the Astana Summit Action Plan on the exercise of “Fundamental Freedoms in the Digital Age.” Since, as you know, the Astana Summit ended without the adoption of such a plan, we intend to renew our efforts to get this breakthrough language adopted at the OSCE Ministerial in Vilnius in December. OSCE’s adoption of such language would, I believe, mark the first time that any regional organization formally recognizes that respect for the full range of human rights, and fundamental freedoms must extend to the use of new technologies.
The United States looks forward to working with the Lithuanian Chair, the EU, other participating States and civil society to ensure that the OSCE sends a strong and clear message from Vilnius on Internet Freedom. If I were to distill that message into a tweet to the world, it would be: “Enduring Freedoms, New Apps.”
Promises Made, Promises to be Kept
Mr. Chairman, when he signed the Helsinki Final Act 36 years ago, President Ford famously said, “History will judge this Conference not by what we say here today, but by what we do tomorrow — not by the promises we make, but by the promises we keep.” He was right then, and his statement is even more true today.
Europe cannot be completely whole, free and at peace –
Europe and Eurasia cannot become truly integrated –
There can be no lasting security extending from Vancouver to Vladivostok –
until human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully exercised by all people who live within the OSCE community of nations.
On behalf of President Obama and the American people, I thank the Commission for its decades of principled work to ensure that the promises made in Helsinki are kept. Now I would be happy to answer your questions.
Chairman Chabot, Ranking Member Ackerman, Distinguished Members of the Committee: thank you for inviting us to appear before you today to discuss the Iranian and Syrian governments’ continuing and worsening abuses against their own people.
As people across the region are taking stock of their governments, we see in the Syrian and Iranian regimes a parallel failure to respond to or respect the will of their citizens. Our concerns about these countries’ horrendous human rights abuses are longstanding, but never has their repression been more flagrantly at odds with the realities of the region – the irrepressible demands for democracy and fundamental human rights that have already swept two leaders from power. The United States has played an essential leading role in demanding an end to this repression, enlisting the international community’s support for fundamental human rights in the region, and leveraging our resources to support the peoples’ demands for justice, freedom and dignity. We have used new authorities to single out and sanction those most responsible for these abuses and have encouraged other countries to do join us in this effort. Going forward, the United States will expand our efforts to answer the call of Syrian and Iranian citizens that their governments be held accountable for their actions.
As a prime example of its contempt for dissent, the Iranian regime has held the de facto leaders of the Green Movement, former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, under house arrest without charges since February. Many from the second-tier leadership of the Green Movement-affiliated entities remain imprisoned or have fled Iran, and their family members have been intimidated, attacked, and detained. This has left the Green Movement beleaguered and scattered. Although demonstrations are rarer, government intimidation didn’t stop the Green Movement last February from demonstrating in solidarity of their kindred spirits protesting government oppression across the Arab world.
In Syria, a committed, peaceful grassroots opposition movement has rapidly emerged in response to the Asad regime’s brutality. Last March, security forces fired upon demonstrators calling for the release of children held for weeks for simply writing political graffiti. That brutal act sparked the collective outrage of the long-oppressed Syrian people. The growing momentum for change, which has drawn people from across Syria to participate in peaceful demonstrations, is now well into its fourth month.
President Asad and his regime have responded with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and abuse. Human rights organizations report that more than 1,800 Syrians have been killed and over ten thousand jailed, while security forces hold the Syrian people hostage to a widening crackdown. Through high-level intervention, Ambassador Ford and Embassy Damascus have secured the release of ten Americans who had been detained on security grounds since January.
Amnesty International has reported killings and torture by security forces in the town of Tell Kalakh near the Lebanese border in May. Residents reported seeing scores of males including some elderly and under18 being rounded up. Detainees described brutal torture, including beatings, prolonged use of stress positions and the use of electric shock to the genitals. Human Rights Watch interviewed 50 witnesses to the weeks of violence in Daraa, and reported that member of various branches of the mukhabarat security forces and snipers on rooftops deliberately targeted protestors and that victims had lethal head, neck and chest wounds.
But in spite of this intense repression, the Syrian people have lost their fear. They have not backed down. They are continuing to take to the streets to demand freedom, respect for their basic rights, and a transition to democracy. Beyond demonstrations, we have also seen the opposition organize itself and begin to articulate an agenda for Syria’s future, recognizing that the strongest Syria is one in which all citizens, regardless of faith or ethnicity, are equal participants. And for our part, the Obama Administration has articulated clearly that the United States has absolutely nothing invested in the Bashar al-Asad regime, which has clearly lost legitimacy, most importantly in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have taken to the streets. A peaceful and democratic transition would be a positive step for Syria, the region, and the world.
It is up to the Syrian people to determine what the next chapter holds for Syria, as the pages turn toward a new future for this country. President Asad can delay or obstruct it but he cannot, however, stop it. As Syrians chart their own future, we hope to see the participation of and respect for all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups. The United States, and the international community, want to see a Syria that is unified, where tolerance, respect for human rights, and equality are the norm. This is the message that Ambassador Ford is delivering to the Syrian leadership and the Syrian people.
Even as the Syrian military and security forces have besieged communities, conducted mass arrests, targeted emergency medical responders, tortured children, shot peaceful protestors with impunity, cut off water, internet and telephone services, and barred an independent media, people have found ways to get their word out, through reports, images and videos taken by brave demonstrators and smuggled out.
In bearing witness to these terrible abuses, the United States has and will continue to play a crucial role. Demonstrators have peacefully protested for over a month in Hama, where over 10,000 Syrians were killed in 1982 by President Asad’s father Hafez Asad. The people of Hama kept their peace despite their tragic history and the provocation of the government forces besieging the city. We know this precisely because our representative to the Syrian people, Ambassador Ford, toured Hama and reported seeing no protestors carrying weapons, nor damage to government buildings. We also know through Ambassador Ford’s reports that, contrary to the promises from President Asad to end the emergency law and follow proper judicial procedures, the government has carried out sweeps and arrested dozens of peaceful demonstrators in Hama, and reports of torture in custody are well documented. Our diplomatic presence and watchfulness is an important way for us to gain independent knowledge of the facts, to show support for Syrians’ rights, and to speak directly and plainly to the Syrian government about the need to change course.
Returning to Iran, more than two years since that country’s disputed presidential election, Iranian authorities persist in harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, and imprisonment of their citizens, as well as some of ours. Targets include those who demand accountability from their government and who stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens; ethnic and religious minorities; journalists, women’s rights activists, bloggers and students.
Unfortunately, the situation has only further deteriorated in 2011. Protestors were killed in Tehran in February and in ethnically-Arab areas in April; political prisoners are held in deplorable conditions with convicted murderers in former stockyards; those released from prison are forced to pay exorbitant bail sums or often released with conditions such as long bans on travel or work in their field; additional sentences were levied on those already in prison merely for sending letters to family members; mass executions of mainly ethnic minority prisoners have been carried out without their families’ knowledge; at least 190 people have been executed this year, more than in any other country in the world except China; restrictions on speech have intensified; journalists and bloggers continue to be targeted by the regime for daring to write the truth; teachers and other workers are harassed and incarcerated when they seek freedom of association and payment of wages owed; trade union leaders remain imprisoned on questionable charges; politically-active students have been banned from universities; entire university faculties deemed un-Islamic face threat of closure; and, recently, female journalists and artists have been arrested for merely practicing their profession.
Particularly troubling is the deepening persecution of religious minorities. On May 1, the Revolutionary Court in the northern city of Bandar Anzali tried 11 members of the Church of Iran, including Pastor Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Zainab Bahremend, the 62-year-old grandmother of two other defendants, on charges of “acting against national security.” This month, Iranian courts ruled that Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani must recant his Christian faith or face the death penalty for apostasy. In March, over 200 Gonabadi Sufis were summoned to courts around the country to answer allegations that they were insulting Iranian authorities. In April, eight other Sufis were re-arrested on charges of disrupting public order – charges for which they had been punished with flogging and imprisonment. The Iranian government also continues to arrest and harass members of the Baha’i faith.
As the Iranian and Syrian regimes have expanded their repressive tactics, we have expanded the scope of our efforts to challenge these governments’ deplorable human rights violations. We have designated 11 Iranian officials and three government entities for serious human rights abuses in accordance with the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act and, as the act requires, we are actively seeking more information on possible targets. Separately, on July 8, the United States and the United Kingdom imposed visa restrictions on officials of the Government of Iran and other individuals who have participated in human rights abuses in Iran. Iranian officials subject to this visa ban include government ministers, military and law enforcement officers, and judiciary and prison officials.
Responding to the atrocities in Syria, President Obama signed two executive orders. The first, E.O. 13572, signed on April 29, targets those responsible for human rights abuses and the repression of the Syrian people. The second, E.O. 13573, signed on May 18, targets senior officials of the Syrian government because of the ongoing crackdown and refusal to implement political reform. These two authorities were used to impose sanctions against President Asad and senior Syrian officials responsible for human rights abuses. In addition to President Asad, the sanctions so far have designated the Vice President, Prime Minister, ministers of interior and defense, the head of Syrian military intelligence, and director of the political security directorate. Other U.S. sanctions target President Asad’s brother and two cousins, the Syrian military and civilian intelligence services, its national security bureau and the air force intelligence, as well as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Qods Force and senior Qods force officers that have assisted the Asad regime in suppressing Syrian civilians.
It is no coincidence both Iran and Syria have responded to their citizens with similar contempt and brutal tactics. As the latter designation shows, we know that the Syrians have employed Iranian help in curbing dissent. This has exposed a strident hypocrisy on the part of the Iranian regime, which has tried unsuccessfully to take credit for democratic movements in Egypt and elsewhere and laud protesters when it suited its strategic interests, but has materially helped the Syrian government crush its own protestors in order to preserve their ally. The Iranian regime’s false narrative is further exposed even as the regime continues to smother its own domestic opposition.. Nevertheless, hundreds of brave Iranian citizens continue to engage in the most basic but critical of human rights work, documenting and reporting on abuses, with the hope that one day Iranian government officials will be held accountable for crimes they have committed against their fellow citizens.
In the case of Syria, we have seen the regime play a cruel double game designed to divert attention away from people’s demands and justify the regime’s monopoly on power. Asad is exploiting fears of sectarianism and factionalism by surreptitiously fomenting violence of an intentionally sectarian nature, while at the same time cautioning Syrians not to rock his carefully guided boat. As a consequence, deadly violence has at times taken a purportedly sectarian shade. This has only left more blood on Asad’s hands.
We view these incidents as further evidence that President Assad’s government continues to be the real source of instability within Syria. He has promised reforms but delivered no meaningful changes. He talks about dialogue, but continues to engage in violence that proves his rhetoric hollow. Assad has made clear that he is determined to maintain power regardless of the cost. And the human toll is mounting.
Nevertheless, the Syrian people will not be distracted – they have shown they will not cease their demands for dignity and a future free from intimidation and fear, and they are countering the regime’s propaganda falsely accusing them of seeking that division and ethnic strife. Asad has made occasional conciliatory gestures, but to date these starts have not been credible, sustained, or made in good faith. The regime’s promises of reform have been shown to be false by the continued arrests and shootings of peaceful demonstrators.
The European Union and other nations have joined the United States in enacting sanctions on key regime figures in Iran and Syria to hold their leaders accountable for the violence. We continue to urge more nations to join our call, in bilateral and multilateral settings, to shine a spotlight on these countries’ gross violations of human rights. We also urge other countries to press Iran on its abuses in their bilateral diplomacy. An international consensus is forming to mobilize greater diplomatic pressure on these regimes. We successfully prevented both governments from joining the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) after they had announced their candidacies and have appropriately used this forum to draw the world’s attention to their offenses. And in the U.N. General Assembly last year, we helped win passage of a Canadian-led resolution condemning Iran’s human rights abuses by the largest margin in eight years. At the March session of the HRC, we led a successful effort to establish a Special Rapporteur on Iran, the first country-specific human rights rapporteur created since the Council came into being, and last month, the Council confirmed former Foreign Minister for the Maldives Ahmed Shaheed at that position. This historic action sent an unmistakable signal to Iran’s leaders that the world will not stand passive in front of their systematic abuse of their own citizens’ human rights. More importantly, the Special Rapporteur serves as a critical voice for those Iranians whose own voice is repressed because of their political, religious, and ethnic affiliations.
In a Special Session in April, the HRC also condemned the ongoing violations by the Syrian authorities. The Council called on Syrian authorities to release prisoners of conscience and those arbitrarily detained, and to end restrictions on Internet access and journalists. It also established an international investigation led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, though President Asad refuses to allow the monitors mandated by the Council to enter Syria. In the June HRC session, the United States joined Canada and more than 50 other countries in a forceful joint statement that again condemned violations committed by the Syrian authorities and called for credible, independent, and transparent investigations into these abuses, accountability for those who perpetrated such abuses, and unfettered access to the UN High Commissioner’s mission to investigate the many allegations of human rights abuses. The High Commissioner will present a report on the human rights situation in Syria in the September session.
We have been working assiduously with other members on the UN Security Council to obtain a resolution condemning the ongoing atrocities being committed by the Asad regime. We are aware that some key Council members oppose such a resolution, but we are moving to forge consensus and will press for a vote.
Our efforts to support the Iranian and Syrian people as they seek to exercise their rights have been consistent and sustained. Just as we do throughout the region, we work with civil society organizations to support their efforts to defend human rights and to advocate for change. We help them expand political space and hold their government accountable. We provide training and tools to civil society activists in Iran and Syria, and throughout the world, to enable citizens to freely and safely exercise their freedoms of expression, association, and assembly on the Internet and via other communication technologies. In cases like Iran and Syria, where governments have good reason to fear the spotlight on their activities, access to technological tools allows the people to tell their story to the world. Despite both government’s ramped up activities to try to suppress information flows, the days are gone when governments could brutalize their people without the world knowing.
As Secretary Clinton has said, “we stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. …This challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic.” Our Internet freedom programming is aimed at making sure that voices for peaceful democratic reform across the region can be heard. Countering such regimes’ increasingly active Internet surveillance and censorship efforts requires a diverse portfolio of tools and training. State Department grants will support more advanced counter-censorship technologies, including circumvention tools in Farsi and Arabic, secure mobile communications, and technologies to enable activists to post their own content online and protect against cyber attacks. We also have trained 5,000 activists worldwide, including many from the Middle East, in cyber-self defense. And we plan to expand these efforts to teach democratic activists, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and others how to protect their online privacy and their data – so that they in turn can train others. Given the evolving state of technology, no single tool will overcome the efforts of Internet-repressive regimes, and that is why we have invested in incubating a diverse portfolio of technologies and digital safety training. This way, even if one particular tool is blocked, other tools will still be available. Likewise, we work to prevent all repressive governments from acquiring sensitive technology to repress its citizens.
A strong, representative government can be responsive to popular demands; an autocratic one is threatened by empowered publics. But these crackdowns also indicate a basic lack of understanding that free speech – whether it’s supportive speech or subversive speech – is harder than ever to suppress in the Digital Age. The young people who have taken to the streets across the Arab world this year understand what their governments are suppressing. It’s not just the Internet, it is people – it’s their demands for dignity and a say in the political and economic future of their countries.
The United States will continue to stand with those who struggle to assert their fundamental humanity. It is essential that these brave people know that the international community supports them, just as it is essential that human rights abusers in Damascus and Tehran know that we are watching them. Until such time as they are held accountable by domestic authorities, it is our responsibility to hold them accountable at the international level.
Similarly, we hope that today’s hearing will serve as further evidence that the American people and our government in Washington stand united in our admiration and support for those across the region who have boldly assumed the duty and made the sacrifices to advance their rights. For this opportunity, we wish to thank the Committee again, and welcome your questions.