THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: We are extremely pleased to welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center this afternoon Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Ms. Uzra Zeya. She’s here to discuss the reports. We’re short on time. I’m going to cede the floor right away and let her do some opening remarks before we go to Q&A. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Great. Thank you so much, Cynthia, and good afternoon, everyone. As in years past, I’d like to take a few minutes to share some of the major developments we found in this year’s Human Rights Reports, and then I’ll be happy to take some of your questions.
The year 2013 may well be known for some of the most egregious atrocities in recent memory. This includes events in Syria, where a single chemical weapons attack last summer killed over 1,000 civilians in a single day. And in North Korea, where rampant disappearances, detention, and torture were so deplorable that just last week, the chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry compared the regime’s actions to those of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s gulags.
We document those and other human rights violations and abuses in a series of reports covering almost 200 distinct countries and territories. They chronicle those abuses that generated headlines and those that took place in relative obscurity, those that continued unmitigated, and those that have receded in part due to domestically driven change and international pressure.
For more details, I’d encourage all of you and audiences all over the world to delve into the full reports online at www.state.gov or humanrights.gov. For now, I’d like to focus on several trends that stood out and have continued into this year.
First, as President Obama declared at the UN General Assembly last September, a growing number of countries are cracking down on civil society and restricting the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. Evidence of this reality is apparent in every corner of the globe: In Sri Lanka, where attacks against activists and journalists contributed to an environment of fear and self-censorship; in Cuba, where the government organized mobs to assault and disperse those who sought to gather peacefully; in Egypt, where state security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators and the government arrests many activists who led the popular uprising against the Mubarak regime.
Now, two months into 2014, the trend persists in Venezuela, where the government continues to stifle dissent through force and restrict information sharing via television, radio, and the internet. And it continues in Russia, where the government just sentenced seven of the Bolotnaya protestors to between two and four years in jail in a politically motivated trial.
In Ukraine, however, when a sustained, civic protest movement calling for government accountability and reform was met with increasing violence, former supporters of the government broke with their party to come together with the opposition in the national legislature. In response to the violence, the parliament established a government, revised the constitution to create checks and balances, and committed to early presidential elections. These are first steps to help the country move beyond the current crisis and pursue the more democratic and prosperous future that the people of Ukraine deserve. The power of the people has rarely been as evident as it has been in Ukraine this winter and this week.
At the same time, 2013 witnessed another troubling reality. When voices are stifled through intimidation, violence, or even indifference, societies suffer. Too many countries placed restrictions on free expression both in the streets and online. Some governments like Turkey restricted media freedom by imprisoning scores of journalists. Others such as Egypt used intimidation through politicized legal action against reporters. And still others like Ecuador use libel laws to suppress political criticism.
Throughout the year, many individuals were silenced as well. The Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to prison and 600 lashes for espousing liberal thought. The Vietnamese human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan was imprisoned on charges of tax evasion. And Chinese Nobel Peace Price Laureate Liu Xiaobo continues to languish behind bars while his wife, Liu Xia, remains under house arrest.
These developments point to another truth: When violations and abuses are committed without accountability or a means of redress, societies are less secure and more prone to conflict. In the world’s newest country, South Sudan, security forces on all sides committed brutal acts against civilians, from killing to torture to rape, amid a climate of impunity. And in the Central African Republic, an estimated one million people were internally displaced during the year and at least 1,000 people were killed in the capital in December alone. To date, there has been no justice or accountability for the violations and abuses that continue to occur.
The past year also revealed the human consequences of exploitative working conditions where workers’ safety was often compromised, and their ability to organize and bargain collectively was constrained. We saw the repercussions of this reality in Bangladesh where the collapse of an eight-story factory building killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured more than 2,500 others. And we continue to see the impact in many Gulf countries where migrant workers are subject to abuse and denied recourse and safe working conditions.
Like these workers, members of other vulnerable groups around the world were victimized or discriminated against because of who they were, what they believed, and whom they loved. In Pakistan, more than 80 worshippers were killed in a deadly church bombing, and more than 400 Shia were killed in targeted attacks throughout the year.
The Iranian Government continued to imprison Baha’i faith leaders as well as Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and so many others for the simple act of practicing their faith. And in Afghanistan, there continued to be widespread violence against women and girls.
Across the globe, we also witnessed troubling acts of violence against LGBT persons. In Cameroon, HIV/AIDS activist Eric Ohena Lembembe was tortured and murdered in his own home. In Jamaica, 17-year-old Dwayne Jones was stabbed to death by an angry mob because he was dressed as a woman at a party. Both murders remain unsolved.
Of course, these are just two examples – two cases, two people – but their stories are not unique. As Secretary Kerry noted earlier today, LGBT conduct is criminalized in nearly 80 countries worldwide. Even when these laws are not enforced, their mere existence creates a climate of fear and sends a message to the broader population that it’s permissible to discriminate against LGBT persons in housing, in employment, in education; that it’s permissible to beat or kill or torture someone simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This past year demonstrated that the demand for human dignity is not a mere trend but a timeless truth. When governments deprive their citizens of human rights, they invite more collective frustration, anger, and eventually instability.
The Secretary mentioned earlier today some of the courageous and resilient human rights champions who remained undeterred in their defense of fundamental freedoms despite incarceration and intimidation. Inspired by their example, it’s our hope that these reports not only demonstrate where human rights problems exist but also where human rights progress is possible. And it’s our hope that these reports give shape to the aspirations and freedoms that people all over the world so richly deserve.
So with that, I would like to open the field to questions.
MODERATOR: All right. Just before we go to questions, I’d like to ask you to please wait for the microphone. We are transcribing this. We do not have a lot of time and I know there will be a number of questions, so please keep them to single parts. And identify yourself, please, by name and outlet.
New York, if you have a question, please approach the podium, and we will get to you in due order. All right. Right here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much. Good afternoon.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Good afternoon.
MODERATOR: Oh, I’m sorry. Would you mind identifying yourself? Thank you.
QUESTION: Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m sorry. My name is Atsushi Onodera from Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese daily.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Oh, great, uh-huh.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask about the human rights situation in North Korea and China. As you mentioned earlier about – well, let me – first on China: Liu Xiaobo is still detained and we also often see the crackdown in Xinjiang --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Yes.
QUESTION: -- yeah – Autonomous Region, and often self-immolation in Tibetan – from Tibetan, by Tibetan. So do you see any change or progress after new administration of President Xi Jinping, particularly in terms of human rights and rule of law and the condition of minority, especially in Tibet or Xinjiang regions?
And North Korea, we saw the execution of Chang Song-thaek at the end of the last year, so how serious – I mean, the condition has – also, how do you see change in the condition of North Korea? How serious compared with former Kim Jung-un regime? Thank you very much.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you very much. First I’ll address your question on China. Promoting human rights in China is central and integral to our bilateral relationship. Secretary Kerry, President Obama, and other senior officials have urged China to uphold international human rights commitments, and we have a number of concerns regarding the general trajectory.
Overall, I think we’ve seen a deterioration in human rights under the current leadership in key areas: freedom of expression, with a number of arrests and detentions of individuals for advocating peaceful change. That includes individuals like Xu Zhiyong and other members of the New Citizens Movement who have made calls for corruption and reform that, in fact, are consistent with some of the stated goals of the Chinese Government.
With respect to ethnic minorities and specifically the situation for Chinese Tibetan and in Uighur areas, we see a deteriorating situation. We see increased militarization, increased repression in both cases. In Xinjiang I believe there were over a hundred deaths in 2013 and some 26 Tibetan self-immolations.
On the issue of North Korea, I would just sum up to say our assessment is that the human rights situation remains absolutely deplorable. Secretary Kerry – I would commend to you his remarks this morning describing just the severity and the absolutely inhumane situation that exists. Our 2013 report, quite sadly, documents a catalogue of gross and systematic human rights violations, including public executions, forced labor, torture, rape, forced abortions, and other gross human rights violation. And I would just note that it also documents the extensive prison camp and detention system that exists in North Korea with harsh and life-threatening conditions. No one knows for sure, but the estimate is anywhere from 80- to 120,000 political prisoners continue to languish in these camps.
MODERATOR: We have a question in the back.
QUESTION: My name is Manuel Vial. I work for La Tercera, which is a Chilean newspaper. I have two questions from Venezuela.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Yes.
QUESTION: The first one would be: What do you think about the lack of leverage that the U.S. has shown, given the opinion of the experts, on human rights subjects?
And the second one would be: We know that President Maduro is sending an ambassador, a new ambassador, and which do you think would be the ideal profile of an American ambassador to Venezuela in between a pragmatic expert or a more political expert also that would be – thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you for your question. On Venezuela and human rights in general, I would say that we strive to have a consistent approach to human rights, advocating what are universally enshrined freedoms: freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience. And I think that this is just an integral part of American foreign policy.
And with respect to Venezuela, to be frank, there are a number of deficits that I think are well documented in our 2013 report. I note a increased concentration of power in the executive branch; the government harassing, intimidating, pursuing legal actions against media, journalists; and manipulation of the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute political union, business, civil society, or other individuals who are perceived as critical of the government. So I think our report stands as an objective documentation of this situation.
With respect to some of the policy questions you addressed, I think that’s probably better addressed to the spokesperson. My focus today is to look at the assessment of the human rights situation across the globe.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Iftikhar Hussain. I work for Voice of America Pashto border region service. We broadcast to Pakistan, especially the border regions, and Afghanistan. My question is: I have not read the report, but you mentioned in your remarks the war is going on in Pakistan, especially the Shia are being killed.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right.
QUESTION: Also, on daily basis, innocent people are being killed in the bomb blast –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- done by – carried out by Taliban. Some of them are – I mean, they accept the responsibility, some of them not.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right.
QUESTION: So my question is – and there’s both sides – has you position – the United States position, at some point the severity of the violence and what it is doing to help Pakistan Government work on the situation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right. Well, with respect to Pakistan, I think, as you pointed out, there have been innumerable violations of human rights by non-state actors and terrorist organizations, which has victimized too many civilians over the recent years. I noted in my remarks some of the sectarian attacks that have taken place, but we’re very mindful that there is a whole series of actors who are violently and in a very undiscriminating way targeting the Pakistani people.
With respect to the Pakistani Government, our report documents continued concerns in specific areas, including extrajudicial and targeted killings, abuse and alleged torture taking place amid a culture of impunity, with a lack of accountability and investigation in cases where allegations are made. We also note continued disappearances, sectarian violence, and are deeply concerned about the continued phenomena of blasphemy laws – which, I would note, for last year, there were 17 Pakistanis incarcerated, awaiting execution for this, and this includes hundreds of Pakistani citizens, Muslim and Christian have been caught up in these laws. We don’t believe that blasphemy laws are consistent with core human rights principles of freedom of expression and freedom of religion.
Just on the final issue you raised, certainly our partnership with Pakistan is intended across the board to help address these issues, to help the Pakistani people achieve both human dignity, security, and universal rights that they have strived for so deeply. So we continue to engage the government, Pakistani civil society directly. And many of our civilian assistance programs are directly intended in these areas to make this kind of progress possible.
MODERATOR: I think we actually only have time for one more question. And I will go here into the middle.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ali Imran, a correspondent with APP.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Okay.
QUESTION: My – staying in South Asia, in the disputed Kashmir region where there have been numerous incidents and well-documented incidents of violence and terrorism. The Indian security forces, they use highly discriminatory laws which are used indiscriminately against the population and only this week there were widespread protests and a lot of different forms of violence and terrorism is going on there, including by the state operations and security forces. What is the U.S. position on that? Did you take up that issue with the Indian Government during your India dialogue? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right. Well, thank you for your question. I would commend to you our just-released Human Rights Report for India, where you can read about all of this in greater detail. India is a robust democracy with a vibrant civil society that addresses human rights problems, but our report notes the most significant problems we’ve observed are in some of the areas that you mentioned, alleged extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and insurgents, including in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeastern states, and (inaudible); allegations of police and security force abuses; corruption at all levels of government that leads to a denial of justice; exploitative labor practices; and separatist, insurgent, and societal violence. So the sources of violence and abuse certainly are not limited to government and include many non-state actors as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can we do one more?
MODERATOR: I don’t know that we have time to do one more. I’m very sorry.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Venezuela.
MODERATOR: If you would like to pass your question, we’ll get you a response, okay? We just – I’m sorry, I have to close the briefing now because we really do have to keep on time, and I realize we were late, but --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: We’ll get you an answer. Yeah. Sure.
MODERATOR: -- we will get you answer. I’ll stay back and get that, okay?
Okay. Great. Thank you.