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Diplomacy in Action

Briefing With Ambassador Michael Kozak on the Release of the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Michael G. Kozak
Senior Bureau Official, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Washington Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
March 13, 2019

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for waiting. The Foreign Press Centers are very pleased to welcome Ambassador Michael Kozak. His is the senior bureau official for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and he’ll be presenting our Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018. You have his bio in the briefing announcement, so I’ll not go into details here. Let me just cover quickly the ground rules.

The event is on the record. We’ll have introductory remarks, followed by a brief Q&A. And with that, let me please turn it over to Ambassador Kozak.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, thank you very much, and thank all of you for being here this afternoon. I thought I might just start with a little description of why we do the reports and how we do the reports, so that that background is there, and then open it up for questions about the reports themselves.

The requirement for the Executive Branch to do these reports was something that Congress enacted, I think, in 1976. So we’ve been doing reports from 1977 on. And the reason they did it was at the time, it was the middle of the Cold War, we were giving security assistance to a lot of different countries, some of which had pretty bad human rights records. And I think on a few occasions, Congress felt like, well, when you ask us to appropriate money for this country, you didn’t tell us they had such an awful human rights record. So they said henceforth, at the outset, they said any recipient of U.S. security assistance they wanted the Executive to report to them on the country conditions for human rights. Later on they figured out actually this was relevant to a lot of things other than security assistance, so they expanded it to all member-states of the United Nations. And there’s a few territories in there, too. When you see we do 199 reports and that – there are not that many countries in the world, it’s because we do, like, a separate report on Hong Kong because the conditions there are so different from China proper and other situations like that. Western Sahara, there’s a separate report that – because its status is still undetermined.

So that’s why we do the reports because Congress said we want to know who we’re dealing with when we are making decisions about aid and trade and other things. They get used in the Executive Branch by – I know, I worked for a former president, and whenever he’d be meeting with somebody we would take the executive summary of the Human Rights Report and put it in his briefing materials, because he wanted to know what it was. Secretary Colin Powell used to – if somebody didn’t put it in his briefing materials, he would go over and look it up on the internet, because he said I want to know who I’m dealing with.

The way we do the reports is that we have a set of instructions that go out every year sort of in the middle of the summer that ask a series of questions of countries. And it’s the same questions for every country in the world. There’s not one set of questions for NATO allies and a different one for North Korea or something. It’s the same for the United Kingdom as it is for Burma as it is for North Korea. And basically what we’re doing is taking the different human rights standards that you find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and asking questions. So the questions will be: Were there credible reports of extrajudicial killings or not? Were there credible reports of torture or not? Were there credible reports of using rape as a weapon of war or not? And then if the answer is yes, then you want some description of what’s going on in that area, and then an example.

We can’t obviously catalog every human rights case that comes up in the world. These things are 7,000 pages long as it is, and it would be – but what we do try to do is to give some idea of the quantity, to say there were reports of widespread systematic torture, and then you’ll give an example of a real person who got tortured and what happened, and how that worked. Or in some cases we’ll say there were reports of torture, but there were only one or two, and the government was on it and was trying to stop it and to try the people who were responsible.

So that’s what we’re trying to capture. So it’s very much almost a journalistic endeavor, as you all engage in. We’re trying to report facts that are relevant to determining the human rights situation in the country. We don’t try to draw conclusions or legal judgments about responsibility or anything. We – it’s facts, facts, facts to the maximum extent we can make it so. And I think that’s one of the strengths of the report.

Finally, things I would mention is just the innovation we started last year. In the executive summary there’s a paragraph – it’s usually the third or fourth paragraph in the executive summary of each report – where we ask our officers, when they’re doing this, to put in the sort of worst forms of human rights abuse, so that you can – and in the same order for every country. So the reader can – if they want to compare countries, can look and say, okay, here is that paragraph for this country, and here it is for that country, and we can see who’s committing more types of abuses and who is committing less. And we don’t draw those conclusions for you, but we’re trying to give the information to allow you to do it.

Finally, on process, how we prepare the report: The – as I mentioned, instruction goes out to every one of our diplomatic posts abroad and someone there – there’s a human rights officer assigned in every embassy and they have the initial job of drafting the report on that country. They’re supposed to use a wide range of information: information they got from the government, information they got from local nongovernmental organizations, information that they’ve gotten from international human rights organizations, diplomatic reporting, intelligence, the full range of information available to us. Obviously, we’re not going to repeat the intelligence information in the report, but it’s a way of cross-checking your information.

Those drafts are reviewed within the embassy, they’re sent back into Washington, then our editors have a look at them and they will either say this is inconsistent in this paragraph or that, same – again, I think similar to your own work where you have to deal with editors, and our guys and gals go through – will find inconsistencies or they’ll say you didn’t mention this case that has been all over the newspapers, why not, and it’s an iterative process.

So we go back with those comments, questions, and sometimes proposed edits. The embassy has another look at it at the end, the embassy sends it in cleared by the ambassador or his immediate deputy, and then back to us again. We do a final round of edits and work out any differences with the regional bureau and then off it goes.

So it’s quite a – there’s literally hundreds of people involved in this process and again, though, same exact process for every country. There’s no special treatment for countries that we like and different ones for ones that we don’t like or something like that. We’re trying to keep this as very much a “just the facts” approach to reporting on what’s going on in the country.

So with that, I think I’ll – if that’s useful, I’ll open it up for questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Ambassador Kozak. Quick review of our rules: Please wait for a microphone, please identify yourself by name and outlet. For our colleagues at the New York Foreign Press Center, please step up to the podium if you’d like to ask a question. I’m going to try and hit every region in the first round of questions, so I’ll be moving around, and we’ll start with Simon, please.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. My name is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa here in Washington, D.C. We’ve seen part of the report. Can you please comment on the human rights situation in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Uganda? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay. Well, I will comment on it to the extent of my memory, but the report is going to be more detailed than my memory will be. But on Cameroon, we continue to be extremely concerned about the situation there. I mean, not only do you have terrorist organizations, but then you’ve got the dispute between the Anglophone regions and the government – central government. We’ve had many discussions with the Cameroonian authorities about the need to investigate and to hold accountable security forces when they commit abuses. And these are documented in the report. I think you’ll see that.

You mentioned Nigeria. Again, similar kinds of problems. A strong democratic ally, friend of ours, but also facing Boko Haram insurgency and some of the methods that they’ve used in combating that insurgency have led to serious human rights violations. So we’ve raised those, we’ve tried to urge in every possible way we can the government to be more rights-respecting in carrying out its legitimate effort to defend its own territory and sovereignty. And we do this not just because it’s good human rights. It’s also good counter-insurgency. If you want to win a fight like they’re engaged in, you have to do it – in our experience, you have to do it with respect for human rights. If you fail to do that, you often end up adding steam to the other side of the conflict.

And the third?


AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Uganda. Yeah, on Uganda, I think we’ve – I can turn to my cheat sheets here, but I think one of our main concerns there has been LGBT issues and trying to encourage people to be – on that subject generally, we are opposed to criminalization of LGBT status. We’re opposed to gross discrimination in things like provision of government services and in housing and employment, and we’re against societal violence and urging governments to put a stop to that. On the theory, it’s not that LGBT people have some special rights, but they have the same rights as everybody else and shouldn't be subjected to that kind of mistreatment. So that has been one of our ongoing dialogues with Uganda.

We’ve also been concerned about arbitrary killings, disappearances, torture, political prisoners, criminalization of libel, and corruption. So I think all of these topics you will find laid out in much more detail in the reports.

MODERATOR: So I’ll take one more down here and then we’ll go to New York. Sir, we’ll take you. No, this gentleman in the front. I will get to you, but let this gentleman go first.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador. Rafael Mathus from La Nacion newspaper from Argentina. This mention in the report about a very big case – corruption case in Argentina known as the cuadernos de las coimas, notebooks of payments. I was wondering if you could give me an idea of what’s the significance for the State Department of this litigation. If you could put it a little bit in perspective. It shows that there have been gains in the fight against corruption. And there’s several mentions of former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who might run again this year. Is this a matter of concern for the State Department that a person that has been – that is facing several different litigation that she is running for president again?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, we generally do not express favor or disfavor towards any potential candidates in another country’s elections. But what we are trying to capture in the report are facts. And so if there are allegations of corruption involving either a sitting government or a former government, those get reported. The reason for that, and this was something that was added to the Human Rights Reports – I don’t know – maybe five, seven years ago, whole corruption section, and it’s based on the experience that where you find serious human rights violations you usually find corruption and vice versa, that there’s a – it’s hard to be an oppressive government without being a corrupt, oppressive government, because they need that kind of income and so on to finance their things. So that’s why we report on the subject. But in terms of expressing favor or disfavor for somebody’s possible candidacy, that’s not where we go.

MODERATOR: The first question, the significance about the cuadernos de las coimas. It’s the first time that you mention this in the report.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yeah. Well, I think it’s because it occurred during the year. The report is trying to report on developments that occurred in the previous year. So if a prosecution started or something, that would be why that would be there. And again, as I mentioned, we’re trying to give examples. So if corruption is an issue in a country, we can’t report on every corruption case that occurs, so we try to pick ones that are very prominent and well-known in the country, so it’s not hard to understand why it’s important.

MODERATOR: We’re going to go to New York and then we’ll come back down to Washington.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. My name is Manik Mehta. I’m a syndicated journalist. I write a great deal about Asia. Could you name some, two or three worst offenders of human rights violations in Asia? And also, could you speak a bit about discrimination on the basis of religion, such as we have this very infamous blasphemy law in certain countries. I would like to hear your comments on that, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Okay. Well, first, I won’t try to say who are the worst violators in Asia, because that – we very studiously do not try to rank order countries or something like that. We try to make it so the reader can do that by where the facts lead them. So if you want to ask me about particular countries, happy to comment, but I’m not going to try to self-select those.

Blasphemy laws we are very strongly opposed to. In most cases, they’re a legacy of colonial powers. Some people think that they are inherent in religions or something, but we have blasphemy laws still on the books in our country that came from our colonial power, but they – they were long ago declared unconstitutional by our courts, so they’re not the law of the land anymore.

But we – this is something in our advocacy work that we do work on worldwide, is to say where blasphemy laws exist, that we – they should be removed. It – there – it’s a very severe restriction on freedom of expression and can be readily used to oppress certain points of view in favor of others. People always want to say, well, it’s protecting the religious feelings of a group or something, but the cases I’ve seen you have governments deciding that their version of religion is the true one and that journalists or religious figures who have a different interpretation need to be put in jail or otherwise oppressed by it.

So we – it’s something we feel very strongly about. My colleague, Ambassador Sam Brownback, works on this very effectively as Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. It’s both a freedom of religion and freedom of expression issue.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’re going to go to this gentleman here in the blue jacket and then we’ll go to Epoch Times.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is David Nikuradze. I represent Georgian television station Rustavi 2 in Washington, D.C. Ambassador, 2018 report highlights a lot of issues on Georgia – presidential elections, political violence, media freedom, judiciary independence and political pressure on judges, corruption. I wonder if you could give me your opinion: What are the main challenges for Georgia today? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, I think you ticked off pretty well – (laughter) – a series of those problems. But I would say too, I mean, that we – these reports are one-year snapshots of where a country not is but was at the end of last year. And over the years, at least in my experience, I think Georgia has made very significant progress on all of these fronts of trying – having better open elections. You had alternations of power through peaceful transfers of power through the elections. But there’s still a lot that can be improved, and that’s what we’re always urging our partners to do, and we work with the Government of Georgia. I’ve had the privilege – there’s – we have a standing – there’s a human rights working group as part of our national strategic dialogue. I forget the exact name we apply to that dialogue. But I’ve had the privilege of going to Georgia and engaging with the government there on these issues. And it’s a good, serious discussion, and I think the Georgian Government – successive Georgian governments have acknowledged that there are things that they can do to improve and are working on, and if we can help them do that, that’s something we’re very much for.

Like I said, but problems exist. Problems exist everywhere. I mean, we – we’re not immune.

QUESTION: Jennifer Zheng from The Epoch Times. In your report, you briefly mentioned an issue of involuntarily or harvest organs from Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience. And also, you called the Chinese Government as denying this allegation. They officially claim that they have ended the practice of harvest organs from executed prisoners in 2015. And I’d like to know whether you have evidence that they have stopped this or is there a difference between harvest organs from executed prisoners and living people, like Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience? I think there is a huge difference between this. And also, the U.S. Congress has unanimously passed Resolution 343 condemning this practice. I’m wondering if this administration is ready to follow suit to step up the pressure, like mentioning recent human rights issue and especially organ harvesting issue in the trade talks with China? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank you. I think if those of you who saw the Secretary give his remarks on the rollout this morning, he mentioned it; China is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations, and some of the things that you mentioned that are documented in the report are part of that. From Xinjiang, where you’ve got hundreds of thousands or millions of people in camps, to the treatment of Falun Gong, to house churches – I mean, you go across the board. And the situation in China has not gotten better, it’s gotten a lot worse over the last several years. So we’re trying through various means, including the report, to bring that out. We do raise these issues with the Chinese authorities when we see them, but getting them to take it seriously – I was comparing – the kind of dialogue we have with Georgia is – it’s very different than the kind of dialogue that you have with China on these issues. So the – I think what we’re trying to do is just raise the level of attention to the issues, and it – that does have some effect, as I mentioned this morning.

Initially, with these camps in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities were denying there were any camps. They said no, this is fake news, there’s no such thing. And now they’re saying, well, yes there are camps but they’re vocational training camps and the people there are happy. You can evaluate how accurate that information is, but at least there’s an acknowledgment now and an effort on their part to try to make it look better. So that is our – our whole effort is to try to raise these issues and get them to react in – hopefully in a more positive way and improve the treatment of the people in the country.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’re getting down to the wire. I’m going to take one from New York and then try and get at least one more down here.

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Halil Mula, RTV21, Kosovo. Ambassador, what can you tell us about the western Balkans like Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia? And how is the Russian involvement have an implication on everyday life and human rights as well?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Yeah. Well, thank you. I won’t try to go to each country because the human rights situation in each of the countries you mentioned is distinct. They – some have one kind of a problem and some have another. What they do have in common is the malign Russian influence that you mentioned. And I should just say on that front, we have been working both with the governments, but also with civil society in those countries and with media. Our thought is that the more you have independent media voices and more space for that, the better to overcome the kind of false propaganda and efforts to stir up ethnic hatred and so on that Russia is engaged in. So there’s a lot of effort on that front, also on the corruption front, that Russia’s influence is often associated with corruption. So we’re trying to – in addition to exposing things in the Human Rights Report, we’re also engaged in programming to try to strengthen, like, investigative journalism and the capacity of local court systems to bring people who engage in that kind of behavior to justice. So that’s a – it’s a big, complex issue and that’s a short answer to some of the things we’re trying to do to counter it.

MODERATOR: Let me take our colleague from Bangladesh and then, if we have time, I’ll try and take one more, but we have a hard stop unfortunately.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. This is Mushfiqul Fazal. I am representing Just News BD. In your report you mention that last election was held Bangladesh December 30th. It is not free, fair, and credible, and it was marred by the irregularities, ballot stuffing, and crackdown on opposition supporters and their candidates. And you mentioned your – in your report, main opposition leader is in jail and it is political ploy to remove her from the electoral process. So what is your recommendation to rescue a country from this darkness? And what is the U.S. position (inaudible) these issues?

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well it’s a very good question and a difficult issue. Bangladesh is a wonderful partner and ally, an important country in the region. At the same time, the democracy and human rights problems there have gotten progressively more difficult. Again, it makes the country vulnerable to outside interference and so on when that happens. I had the pleasure of engaging actually with the foreign secretary on this. We tried, for example, to get election observers in from ANFREL, the Asia election observation thing. The government wasn’t able to get visas for most of the people in time to have them be able to do their job. But our whole effort there was to say look, why don’t you get people in who know about elections? They’ll tell you what they’re seeing is going wrong, and then correct it before it happens and you won’t get into the kind of situation they’re into now.

But it’s – all of these problems are documented in the report, and what I can say is that in our bilateral contacts with the authorities there, we are making all these points and saying you really need to work on this if you want to get your country back on track. It’s – but it’s – unfortunately, the number of those issues has multiplied, and we’re – but we’re still trying and we’re still talking, and that’s always a good sign.

MODERATOR: Okay, the one region we haven’t taken is Middle East, so I’m going to take one there, and if there’s even a minute left, I’ll take one after that, but I don’t think so.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador. This is Rahim Rashidi, or Mr. Kurd, from Kurdistan. (Laughter.) Can you please comment on human right records in Iran and minority situation over there?

And second question, human rights in Iraq and what is differences between Baghdad and Erbil about the human rights records? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, first on Iran, it’s one of the most serious human rights situations in the world, I think. When you read the report, it’s just one abuse after another. Executing people for no – without any due process, the political system where this self-appointed group selects who can be the candidates, just terrible abuses of people, lots of political prisoners. So not – very, very difficult situation and has been for some time, sadly.

On Iraq, I think you can see some of the same and some in contrast. The contrast is Iraq is a genuine democracy – have had elections. The last elections were seen as free and fair. There’s always the struggle to then compose a government coming out of that, but all the different groups in Iraq have managed to do that. So on that front, on the democracy front, it’s a model in the region.

On the human rights front, though, what we see is despite the defeat – the territorial defeat of ISIS and removing its horrible claws from the backs of people in the country – you’ve still got a lot of ISIS players around there who are committing violent acts and abusing people. And you also have the PMF militias, which is a really, really serious problem, particularly the ones that are under the domination of the Iranian Government. So it’s a – they get reported on as being part of the government forces because legally they are so, but in fact, the Government of Iraq doesn’t control them.

This has been a huge problem in trying to resettle people. I know in the Kurdish region you’ve got refugees that fled from ISIS. Everybody wants – including those people – would like to see them go back to their homes in safety and be able to resume their lives, but one of the big obstacles to that is the security situation caused by these militias that are not – do not have the interests of the people in the country in mind.

So that’s a mixed picture, but I would say certainly, when you compare it to a couple years ago, a lot better. We don’t have ISIS anymore and congratulate the people in Kurdish region and in the rest of the country in being able to work together and deal with a lot of these problems.

MODERATOR: I do have one minute. I will take NTN if it’s short, and then everyone else, I’ll give you instructions to get your questions to me, please.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for this extra question. On your report, when you read about Venezuela, Nicaragua, words such as torture, political prisoners, extrajudicial killings show up – you read them. How concerned are you about the situation in these neighboring countries in America such as Venezuela, Nicaragua?

And since you mentioned before that the embassies in the world play a major role gathering, extracting data, I’m wondering what is going to happen with next year’s report in Venezuela. Since all your diplomats have gone, how you going to extract this data? Thank you very much, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Well, thank you. Well, we can hope that the situation changes and that our embassy is able to back and operate safely. But even in countries where we don’t have embassies, like Iran or North Korea, we still do the reports. We are able to access information from a lot of sources – international NGOs, people who are traveling from those countries often – you can learn a lot, other nongovernmental organizations or other governments that do have representation there. In Venezuela, we’ll have a protecting power to handle going into the prisons to see after American citizens who are there. But it – both countries, it’s really, really disturbing. The rapidity with which the human rights situation has degenerated – I mean, you look at Nicaragua, where they’re putting snipers out and then shooting people for peaceful demonstration. They have what they call their policy, it’s like jail or kill or exile – basically, it’s – that’s their idea of how you deal with people who don’t agree with you, is you kill them, put them in jail, or put them into exile. But Venezuela is really in a terrible state right now because of the damage that the illegal regime of Maduro has inflicted on the country. They don’t even have electricity now because of lack of maintenance and not buying spare parts. They’ve stolen everything they can move. So it’s a really, really serious problem.

Happily, we are working there with most of the other countries as – or the larger countries in the region, in a common effort to try to bring about a departure of the usurper regime, and to allow the Guaido regime to go forward, but not because we have anointed him as president or something. He fell into that job as the elected head of the National Assembly when the government failed to have elections to elect a legitimate president. And his job then, once he has control of the means of doing so, is to bring about early, free, and fair democratic elections so the Venezuelan people can pick their own leadership. So that’s what we’re trying to do, but it’s a very, very sad and difficult situation right now.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. I apologize, that was the last question. If my colleagues here can come see me as soon as we finish, I’ll take your questions and make sure they get to the press team. And for New York, please speak with the New York Foreign Press Center staff, and we’ll make sure the question gets to the DRL press team. Thank you very much.

AMBASSADOR KOZAK: Thank all of you.