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Diplomacy in Action

The 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

FPC Briefing
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
March 11, 2010

Date: 03/11/2010 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, briefs on the 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the Washington Foreign Press Center on March 11, 2010. - State Dept Image


2:00 P.M. EST


Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. This afternoon we have with us Assistant Secretary Michael Posner to discuss the release of the 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights. He will start out with some opening comments and then take your questions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thanks. Good afternoon. I want to just say a few words about the report and then mention a couple of trends and then take your questions.

The report – this is the 34th year the State Department has done the Human Rights Country Reports. It covers 194 countries. It’s a huge report, over two million words. I can’t figure out how many pages it is, but we know it’s two million words. Literally, a thousand people or more worked on it – both reporting, editing, writing. And its purpose is really to – initial purpose was to inform the Congress in making decisions on foreign aid and trade in the 1970s. It’s expanded much beyond that. It’s used throughout the U.S. Government, but also relied on now by other governments, by intergovernmental organizations, by journalists. And I think most importantly it’s become a real resource to people living in countries around the world who often don’t get the information about what’s happening in their own place.

The report is not a policymaking document. It really is intended as a factual basis for making policy, but it does not prescribe policies. And it’s based on a premise that is very important to President Obama, Secretary Clinton, which is that we apply a single universal standard to every country, including ourselves, and that we have a fidelity to the truth. So the key challenge for us in doing this report is that we make a – not an analysis of policy, but really an assessment of what’s happening on the ground.

A couple words just about trends. One of the things we see in the report is a range of human rights abuses that are generated by wars and internal conflicts. We identify at least 30 such wars in the world that are fueled by ethnic, racial, religious tensions. It’s often the case that the most vulnerable groups in the society bear the brunt of the abuse and the violations – women, children, refugees.

We also identify in the report other vulnerable groups, the Roma, for example, in a number of European countries; LGBT community in Uganda, where there’s a law pending that would further criminalize conduct and even impose the death penalty; discrimination against Muslims and Jews in Europe and the like.

Another trend that we see that we’re paying increasing attention to is the effects of the new connective technologies – the internet, cell phones, and the like. Activists and citizens are using that technology more. Governments are reacting by trying to restrict access, restrict freedom of expression. Secretary Clinton talked about this in a speech in January. We have a lot on those issues in the report.

And then finally, a range of countries like Russia, like Egypt, like Sri Lanka, where a national security strategy includes overbroad interpretations of national security that curtail rights. I’m glad to speak about that if people have an interest.

I want to just mention a couple of places that we’re paying particular attention to: China, where the government’s human rights record remains poor and worsening in some areas, including increased cultural, religious repression in areas like Xinjiang with the Uighurs and in the Tibet area.

Iran – where an already poor human rights situation rapidly deteriorated after the June 2009 elections. At least 45 people were killed last year in clashes with police, 4,000 or more detained, another thousand in December.

And then, last but not least, some positive things we take great note of the efforts by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia to address a longstanding human rights crisis in that country, including the completion of a quite extensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2009 and the prosecution in The Hague of Charles Taylor.

Some other positive notes – law reform in Georgia relating to criminal procedure; Ukraine Office of – on Anticorruption Policy set up a recent successful election; in Bhutan a transition to a constitutional parliamentary monarchy; and the first multiparty elections in the Maldives.

Last point for me is just that the – perhaps the most interesting development is the growth, the explosive growth, of nongovernmental advocacy in the human rights area. And we start from the premise that it’s very hard to change societies from outside, but people are increasingly in their own societies challenging governments’ behavior, organizing, speaking out. And that trend continues and I think it’s the most important positive trend.

Let me stop there and then take your questions.


MODERATOR: Just a reminder before we start to please wait for the microphones on either side and state your name and your organization.

QUESTION: Thomas Paggini, Swiss Radio. On the raising discrimination against Muslims in Europe, the report mentions, and you talked about this too earlier this morning, the Swiss minaret bank. Do you think this is a case of discrimination against Muslims?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, let me say a couple things about this, the vote on the Swiss minarets. The report makes two points. One is that the referendum last year where 57 percent of the Swiss public voted to ban minarets is a reflection of a growing popular sentiment throughout Europe, throughout Western Europe.

The second thing is that the Swiss Government reacted well and appropriately – and we say it in the report – by committing itself to trying to reverse the decision. It was a very popular referendum. But I think the trend is certainly of concern, and it’s not just Switzerland. The minaret vote became almost like a symbol or an example of a much larger attitude or anxiety in a number of European countries about the influx of people from North Africa and the Middle East, a growing Muslim population. And those populations feel very vulnerable and that they are being discriminated against.

QUESTION: Let me follow-up.


QUESTION: Do you think that the decision of the majority of the Swiss population was a case of discrimination but the action of the government, the (inaudible) government, acted properly?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. I can’t say what each of the Swiss voters were thinking, but the effect of that vote – the signal it sends to the Muslim community in Switzerland is that they’re not being treated equally or fairly and they’re being subjected to discrimination. That was a popular referendum initiated by individuals. The government didn’t promote it, in fact, it opposed it, and the government took appropriate action afterwards to try to figure out how to remedy the problem.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to New York first. Go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi. Secretary, I want to talk about Cuba. The report says that Cuba has 5,000 people that were imprisoned without charges. And recently – this week – President Lula compared the situation in Cuba, regarding the prisoners, to the situation in Brazil, regarding common prisoners in Sao Paulo. And some organizations are telling that maybe President Lula should be – should mediate negotiations to release – to improve the situation in Cuba.

So my first question is: Do you think that President Lula is a good mediator? Second, do you think that – this cooperation between the president in Cuba and the president that is in Brazil – do you think it’s appropriate? And third, do the United States have any other measure regarding this situation in Cuba – how it will guide the foreign policy of the United States regarding Cuba? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Let me start by saying that in the report we are particularly focused not on the broadest population of prisoners, but the 200 or so people that we would regard as political prisoners. There has been a longstanding pattern in Cuba, going back to the – probably to the ‘60s – of the government arresting people, detaining them because of their political views and their dissenting views against the government.

There were 75 people arrested in 2003 in a quite highly publicized sweep, and 57 of those of people – or 53 of those people are still being held and detained. One of them, actually a hunger-striker, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died several weeks ago, and several others have apparently started a hunger strike in solidarity. So our focus is really on those individuals who are being held because of their views.

I think we would welcome the intervention or participation of any international leader who can act as an intermediary and can put pressure on the Cuban Government to release those people. It’s our view that they’re being held improperly, that the conditions in the prisons are poor. And there have been various efforts by various governments. The United States, as you probably know, is not probably in the best position to be negotiating these releases. We raise our voices, but we would welcome the intervention of the Brazilian Government or others to win their release.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Korning. I’m with the Globe and Mail of Canada. I had a couple of questions about Afghanistan, and in particular, prison conditions. And the new report makes reference again this year to agents of the government being involved in extrajudicial killings, torture, terrible prison conditions. There’s some notation of improvement, but still, things are very, very poor.

I’m particularly interested in whether you have any assessment about transferred prisoners. The United States keeps prisoners in Bagram and therefore has a good idea of the ongoing care and custody of battlefield detainees. But the other coalition nations largely transfer. Can you comment on what is likely to occur to transferred detainees once they get in the hands of the NDS and the ANP?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The report, as you say, identifies a range of serious human rights problems relating to detention imprisonment. And inevitably, in a country that’s wracked by war and where there’s so much military activity, there are going to be security detainees. We are aware of – also of the limitations, and report on them, in the Afghan legal judicial system to address those cases. Those are challenges we face and the Government of Afghanistan faces.

And one of the ongoing challenges, discussions is about the issue you raise – what – how much can the U.S. or the NATO countries that are participating there ensure or guarantee either safe treatment or fair process when those transfers occur? I don’t have particular details of what happens, but I think the report makes clear and I’m certainly well aware that those are issues that are very much on our minds and will continue to be, particularly in this period where the violent – where the war and the violence is still ongoing and the government is – has been slow to build up a proper functioning system.

QUESTION: If I could just quickly follow, do you think the United States and its coalition partners are in the difficult position of transferring to torture?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I can’t say that, and I think the report says in general there are concerns about treatment of prisoners across the board. I can’t say – I’m not personally involved in reviewing the cases of transfer, but it’s a place where the Afghan prisons certainly needs to be improved.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to the lady in the pink.

QUESTION: (Via interpreter) I would like to ask what your opinion is of the United States Government pertaining to --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Can I find out – identify.

INTERPRETER: The lady is an IV, international visitor from Tunisia.


QUESTION: (Via interpreter) My question is about what is the U.S. Government’s position about the siege or the blockade that was imposed by Israel on Gaza and the human right violations in Gaza by the Israeli Government.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The report – we actually have two reports side by side, one on Israel and one on the occupied territories. They both deal in some detail – the one on the occupied territories in particular – with Gaza. There’s quite a bit of detail in those reports, and I – you got to take a look at it. A particular focus is the Operation Cast Lead which occurred in late December of 2008 and for about 20 days in January of 2009. And we report on some of the allegations, some of the concerns.

We’ve been involved, and I’ve personally been involved, in pursuing a U.S. Government commitment to – in the follow-up to the Goldstone Report. We had serious problems with that report – the methodology, some of the recommendations – but we also said and continue to say that there are serious allegations in the report that ought to be reviewed by all of the parties, including the Government of Israel. And there need to be credible accountability mechanisms. And so we continue to pursue those discussions and recognize the seriousness of the allegations.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take two questions from here and then go to New York.

QUESTION: Thank you. Annabel Kim with MBC TV and Radio from Korea. I just wanted to ask on North Korea – I know that in this year’s report, it says that the government’s human rights record remained deplorable, whereas last year it said that the record remained poor. So does that mean that it has worsened this past year? Can you just touch up on North Korea?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. I’m not sure that there’s any magic to those words. It’s – the record is uniformly poor, deplorable – you can pick your adjective – closed society, total absence of dissent or ability to comment on what the government’s doing, no free press, prisons are awful, lots of people being detained, being mistreated. There are – people live in hardship every single day in North Korea. It’s one of the most closed societies in the world. And I’m really – I struggle to find anything positive to say. So it’s poor, deplorable. It’s not good.

MODERATOR: The gentleman next.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) What are the main standards you used in making the report? And did you take into consideration the particularities of the countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yes. We – first of all, as I said at the outset, we are determined to apply a single standard to all countries. It’s not a U.S. standard. It’s an international standard. It’s the standard in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Convent on Civil and Political Rights. So it’s a single yardstick. We do understand and recognize and appreciate the fact that different societies have different cultural, religious, historic traditions. We try to be mindful of that, but the subjects we’re taking – if we’re talking about torture or we’re talking about prison conditions or we’re talking about free expression, we are looking at what the international standards are and then evaluating those countries by a single standard.

MODERATOR: New York, go ahead with your question, please.

QUESTION: Yeah. I didn’t identify myself before. I’m Marilla Martins from the Globo, Brazil. So I would like you to comment about Brazil’s situation. Is – but did it improve from the last year to this year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think the report speaks for itself. I’m not going to evaluate is it better or worse. There’s some encouraging things that I have experienced, and let me say something about that. One of the things that I – and we do comment on this in the report. Brazil has been historically struggling with challenges in the labor sector – in particular, issues of child labor, forced labor. One of the things we’re doing jointly with the Government of Brazil and the International Labor Organization is trying to address those problems.

And in fact, much to the credit of the Brazilian Government with the ILO and the U.S. Government, the Government of Brazil has started to work in your region with governments in neighboring countries – Paraguay and other neighbors – and in fact, is starting to look at ways in which some of the things that you’ve been doing domestically can be applied in Portuguese-speaking Africa.

So that’s a longstanding issue, and I guess I would say both an area where I think there has been improvement on a big, important subject and a recognition not only of Brazil’s role domestically, but some of the things it can do internationally.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sonia Schott, Globovision, Venezuela. I believe that you mentioned in your remarks that this report doesn’t pretend to be a policymaker or don’t prescribe policies, not even in the U.S. And I believe that the report highlights some human rights violation in Venezuela. I would like to know, does it mean that the relation between U.S. and Venezuela will be better or worse according to this report? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Again, we’re trying in this report simply to set out facts and to have that as a predicate, as a basis for the State Department, but other agencies of government, and others as well, to make intelligent policies. We have a – I don’t need to tell you – a strained relationship with the Government of Venezuela, in part because we are critical and have been critical, and are in this report, of a range of practices. We’re not alone. The OAS just did a report on Venezuela which very much reflects the things that are in this country report.

We’re particularly concerned about the closing of space for civil society, by the closing of radio and television stations, by a range of things that have made it less easy for people internally within Venezuela to be publicly outspoken about things going on in the country. When we say those things, I imagine the Government of Venezuela is not happy, but that – it’s – we’re required to do this by law. It’s also, I think, the right thing for us to do. And our policy has to evolve based on a clear understanding of what’s happening there.

QUESTION: A couple of days ago, it was a human rights report also released by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.


QUESTION: I would like to know, there is any relation or any connection between this report and your report? And how do you collect the information in that case regarding Venezuela? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: It’s a good question. I should have said something about that at the beginning. Our primary source of information is our embassy representatives who do their own reporting and investigation, talk to people in country. But we also look very much at the work of intergovernmental bodies like the OAS, the UN. We look at reports from human – private human rights organizations, both international organizations and those working on a national level, and any other information that comes our way.

The process of getting at this information is a pretty rigorous one, but we start from the premise that we want U.S. officials to be in the middle of this and having their own original conversation so that there’s primary research done as well. And we communicate with the OAS. The OAS certainly gets copies of our reports and we read their report very closely, so there’s a good working relationship.

MODERATOR: We’re going to go in the back and then we’ll come up here.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Shahinaz Abdel Salam. I’m a blogger from Egypt and I’m here with Freedom House New Generation program. I saw your report and I saw the part of freedom of expression about bloggers. And a lot of names were mentioned before by the Department of State, but they still behind the bar, like (inaudible) and Karim Amer. What will be the next step? I mean, this is a report. What’s after the report? And what is your message to our repressive regimes that governing our countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The report on Egypt also is quite clear in its expressions of – detailed expressions of what’s happening to bloggers and to journalists, as well as restrictions on political opponents of the government, people in the human rights community. We also talk about some of the recent violence against the Coptic Christian community in Naj Hammadi, where seven people were killed in front of a church on Christmas Eve.

We talk about –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Uh-huh. We’re very concerned about all these things. I was in Egypt in January. I spoke to government officials, I spoke to NGOs, I spoke to some bloggers, raised them in a press conference. These are things we’re paying attention to. The state – the emergency law. There’s a long list but our intention is to stay with this and to be clear with you and with others that this is part of our bilateral relationship with the Government of Egypt. These are hard issues but they’re important issues. The government knows that these are things that matter to us.

QUESTION: Thank you. Yasmeen Alamiri from Saudi Press Agency. Can you please speak to the specific grievances, I guess, or the concerns of the Goldstone Report? I mean, you said that they need to be investigated further, but what are the – I mean, it was – it came out of the UN, so obviously it’s a legitimate source that backed it. So I don’t know why, after the fact, there’s an issue.

Also secondly, if I could follow up to semi the same point, but with Saudi Arabia, do you think the concerns about press freedom, bloggers, would ever reach to the government level where maybe in the next trip, Secretary of State Clinton or President Obama or Vice President Biden would take up these concerns with the leadership of these countries?

QUESTION: On the issue of Goldstone – Gaza issue first. Three different things that we’ve said, and we’ve said them consistently since last September. One is not related to the report but the context in which it was presented, and we’ve said that and believed that there is a disproportionate attention to Israel in the Human Rights Council. This session, this March session, there are not one but five different resolutions dealing with Israel. It’s the only country in the world that has a permanent agenda item, Item Seven. So that’s the first piece. That’s not Goldstone.

The second piece is that the Government of Israel didn’t talk to him, so he has one side of the picture. That’s not his fault, but the report suffers from having a partial picture of what went on.

The third thing is that the report doesn’t deal – it deals in – it’s a 570-page report. It deals very – in very few pages with the phenomenon of an urban war, an asymmetrical war. And again, there are a range of challenges in protecting civilians and providing humanitarian safeguards when you’re fighting against an enemy that’s working in a densely populated urban area. That’s a piece of the puzzle.

It does not mean – nothing I’ve just said negates what I said before, which is that there are serious allegations in the report, we take them seriously, we’ve urged the Israelis to have a review and investigation. I’ve met with the group that’s doing it. We continue to meet with them and push. They’ve issued an interim report. This is General Mandelblit. It is a beginning of a process; it’s not the end. And we continue to say there has to be credible accountability mechanisms. So that’s the piece there.

On the Saudi question, we are very mindful of a range of problems in Saudi Arabia, a range of human rights violations, which are ongoing, relating to prisons, relating to religious freedom, relating to the rights of women, relating to textbooks that are used in the schools. There are a range of things we’ve raised, are raising. I’ve met with and talked to our ambassador to Saudi Arabia. My job is to encourage as many U.S. officials to deal with Saudi Arabia on different subjects to make this a part of the dialogue.

QUESTION: Including (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: At whatever --- At the highest level. I mean, this is – these are important issues. People in our government need to be – and it shouldn’t just be me; I’m the human rights guy. We need to have a broader dialogue with the Government of Saudi Arabia about human rights issues.

QUESTION: And do you think it would happen?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think it’s happening in different ways, and more can be done.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is David Aladuete with El Pais from Spain. Let me go back to Europe very briefly. You were saying – you were talking not only about an increase in hostile sentiments towards Muslims, also the Jews, and you also mentioned the Roma. Do you think or you have any proof that racism or some kind of xenophobic sentiment is increasing in some European countries? Can you name which ones, if that is the case, and the recent reasons associated to it? Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I – proof is probably a strong word. There is certainly – there are many reports done. Some in the report we’re releasing today, some done by European agencies. ODIHR, for example, from the OSCE has done reports in the last year on hate crimes; some by private organizations, like the one I used to work for, Human Rights First. There are – there has in the last decade been a trending up of more violent attacks against people, presumably because of their religion, or in the case of the Roma, their status.

There is a concern that we have, and again, I think there’s enough of a pattern to say that there is a growing uneasiness on the part of many people in Western Europe with the increased number of Muslims in your society. And there’s been a response, in some cases a violent response, in a number of instances: discriminatory actions in terms of housing, in terms of jobs, in terms of day-to-day contact. So, yeah, this is a problem. I think it’s a problem that we would like to work with European governments on, but it’s something that I think needs to be given attention.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible) from Syria, a New Generation Fellow with the Freedom House. I think the country report is missing a very important point. I think that is, we understand that the universal law, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, is – doesn’t have the force of law. But also, we need to know that in many countries, there is law support the violation of human rights. I expect to see this article on the first page of the report to tell all the world that this country – that the law in this country supported this violation so that would be a good motive to change this law.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: It’s an interesting question. We’re trying to do two things here. We’re trying to evaluate both what’s the official structure, what are the laws in Syria or China wherever. And we’re also looking at official conduct. And we try as best we can to identify those laws that are, on their face, violative of these international standards. And if we missed some in Syria, I would urge you to come tell us and we’ll look at that for next year. But we’re also very focused on lots of governments have decent laws and then they’re misapplied in ways that violate human rights. So we’re trying to do both things.

MODERATOR: We only have time for one more question. Go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Hi. Once again Brazil, the report tells that – criticizes very much regarding the situation in penitentiaries and the violence and – in major cities in Brazil. So what are the sources you have for this report?

ASSITANT SECRTARY POSNER: As I tried to say before, we start with our own embassy staff, generally a human rights officer or political officer in the embassy, and we ask them, we instruct them to go out and meet with a wide range of people in the country where they serve – government officials, human rights people, church leaders, community leaders, journalists, the like. The goal is to get as broad a picture as possible from as many different sources. We then supplement that with information from nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International. We look at what the UN rapporteurs are saying. We look at what’s being – what else is in the public domain. So it’s a composite of our own sourcing, our own reporting, and what’s out in the public domain from experts.

The issue you raise is a longstanding challenge for Brazil but for many countries. We – and we’re mindful of that, including this country, which has two million, I think, people in federal or state or local prisons. And there are all kinds of groups in the United States focused on our own prison record. But our – again, our task here is to identify the issue and, where there are violations, simply to call them out. These are problems that take a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of energy to overcome, but they are things that we expect governments to be doing.

MODERATOR: We’ll have to end there. Thank you all for coming.