Briefing on the 2015 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Thank you, everybody. My thanks to the Secretary. Also want to begin by thanking all of the hundreds and hundreds of people who work so hard over a period of months to compile these reports – from Stephen Eisenbraun and his team at DRL, my bureau, to the hundreds of wonderful human rights officers who we have at embassies all around the world who do the legwork.

We are very proud of what the Human Rights Reports have come to represent after 40 years of doing them. The reports help to keep us honest with ourselves and with the world about allies and adversaries alike. We still have our debates and disagreements around here about how to address the challenges that are outlined in the reports, but when it comes time to settle on policy, this document ensures that we all argue from the same set of facts.

Now, the Secretary focused on Syria in his remarks, and that’s where I’ll start too because I think the crisis there shows just how vital the defense of human rights is to everything that we do around here. In Syria, we see how human rights abuses in one small country can have consequences far beyond that small country’s borders – from a refugee exodus that is altering the politics of Europe to the spawning of a terrorist group that threatens us all.

I think Syria also shows us something that is perhaps a little bit more encouraging. When you think about how the crisis there began five years ago, it began with ordinary citizens going out onto their streets holding peaceful marches and rallies to ask for basic freedoms. In response, they were met with sniper fire, with Scud missiles, with chemical attacks, with mass torture, with starvation, with cruelties that one would think would leave any ordinary human being completely numb and hopeless. And yet what did Syrians do the moment that the cessation of hostilities that Secretary Kerry helped to negotiate gave them a fragile respite from all of those horrors? They went out onto their streets holding peaceful rallies and marches, asking for the same basic freedoms that they were asking for five years ago. And that’s something that we have taken note of here.

Everything we are doing in Syria is done with the aim of helping those people win back a country that is worthy of the sacrifices they’ve had to make, a country that is free of both the nihilism of Daesh and of the brutality of the Assad regime – for their sake, and for ours.

Now, these reports contain a lot of unhappy stories from many countries. And they come at a time when it seems that authoritarian governments, beginning with influential powers like Russia and China, are striking out with particular ferocity against the freedoms of expression, association, and the press. If you look at the introduction to the reports, you’ll find a section where we tried to itemize and respond point by point to the arguments that Secretary Kerry and I and others here get when we travel around the world from governments that are going after civil society, which I hope you’ll find interesting.

The trend obviously disturbs us. It ought to disturb us, but I don’t think it ought to surprise us. Civil society has become a growing force around the world, and so if you are trying to steal an election or to stay in office for life or to profit from corruption, then of course you’re going to be threatened by NGOs and by journalists who try to expose those abuses of power. But in all of these countries, there are people who face that kind of persecution and who just carry on with faith and determination and even good humor. Secretary Kerry and I meet people like that in all of our travels, from Cuba to Bahrain, where we just were a few days ago, to Burundi, to Vietnam. And they always remind us, every chance we have to meet them, that there’s always something the United States can do to help.

Now, the Secretary mentioned some places where sustained U.S. efforts have helped over the last year. We’re focused on how to push for more progress in the year ahead.

In Burma, an elected civilian government has begun to free political prisoners. We will do everything we can to support it in tackling reform of the country’s laws and constitution, seeking peace with ethnic minorities, and addressing the human rights and humanitarian challenges of the Rakhine State.

In Vietnam, TPP – if Congress approves it – offers the chance, as the Secretary mentioned, to break the government’s monopoly on labor organization. President Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May will encourage progress on other human rights issues in keeping with Vietnam’s pledge to bring its laws and institutions into harmony with its constitution and with international standards.

In Nigeria, we will support a newly elected government in its fight against Boko Haram, gearing our assistance to a strategy that wins the trust of the civilian population by protecting them and respecting their rights.

In Tunisia, we are increasing our support to civil society groups and the government to strengthen the most hopeful model of governance to emerge from the Arab Spring.

In Iraq, we will be advancing our campaign against Daesh and striving to do so in a way that restores good governance to liberated areas and gives IDPs, including minority groups subjected to genocide and crimes against humanity, the confidence to return home.

In Venezuela, we’ll be working with regional partners to persuade the government to listen to the will of its people by releasing political prisoners and respecting its newly elected parliament.

In Sri Lanka, we’ll be encouraging reconciliation and justice in keeping with the joint resolution its government co-sponsored with us at the UN Human Rights Council.

In China, given all of the hardships that people working for better governance there now face, we think it is especially important to stand by the lawyers being imprisoned for doing their jobs, by the religious minorities persecuted for their faith, the activists and journalists being abducted – in some cases from other countries – for speaking out. In March, we mobilized the first joint statement at the UN on China’s human rights record in over a decade. We will continue to try to forge a common front with our friends and allies on these issues.

Now, there are a lot of other efforts that I could mention. I assume you may ask me about some of them. Before I finish, I’d like to raise just one final issue that is central to everything we are trying to do to advance human rights around the world, and that is the fight against corruption. Secretary Kerry has said that there is nothing more demoralizing and disempowering to any citizen of any nation than the belief that the system is rigged against them and that people in positions of power are crooks who are stealing the future of their own people. But there is also nothing harder for dictators to justify than stealing from their own people. Corruption is at once a uniquely pernicious feature of authoritarianism and its greatest political vulnerability.

Now, we’ve heard a lot recently about how some of the world’s most powerful people have been able to evade taxes and hide their wealth, some of which may have been ill-gotten, in anonymous shell companies with the help of firms that provide financial secrecy to clients who can pay. In certain quarters, it’s been suggested that these revelations can only be some kind of American plot. Well, if the allegation is that the United States supports law enforcement agencies and civil society groups around the world that expose this kind of corruption, then we take it as a big compliment. That’s what we should be doing and we will keep on doing.

As you follow this story, one thing I’d like you to keep in mind is that for two years now the Obama Administration has been asking Congress for legislation that would require all companies registered in the United States to identify the human beings who actually own them. There are many members of Congress, as you know, who ardently support the cause of human rights and who press us every day here in the State Department to do more. I would argue the most important thing that they can do to advance human rights this year is to pass legislation to keep our legal and financial systems from being used to facilitate autocracy and corruption overseas.

With that, I would be happy to take your questions.

MR KIRBY: Okay, we’re gonna take a few questions, and ask you to please identify yourself and who you’re with when we get over to you. Said, we’ll start with you.

QUESTION: Thank you, John. Thank you, sir, for taking my question. My name Said Arikat. I’m with the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds daily newspaper. Sir, I wanted to ask you – the Secretary said that human rights was a moral obligation. Should that obligation be extended to the Palestinians under occupation? And if so, what steps have you taken to hold Israel accountable to its human rights violations such as home demolitions?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah. Well, the simple answer to your question is yes, it should and it does and it has. These issues are issues that we raise with every country around the world. We raise them with our adversaries. We raise them with our closest allies. And the Secretary has raised those issues with the Israeli Government on many, many occasions. Look, we have always argued that Israel has a right to defend itself against terror attacks. That is a human rights imperative in and of itself, whether those attacks come in the form of indiscriminate rocket fire or people stabbing civilians on the streets. But that right to defend itself, as we’ve always argued, needs to be exercised in a manner that is consistent with Israel’s obligations under human rights law and humanitarian law, whether that is in Gaza or the occupied territories or in Israel itself.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Thank you. Where would you say this accelerating trend to stifle freedoms is – has been most stark in 2015? You mentioned that – you mentioned China, Russia, I don’t know, maybe Turkey. Where would you say you’ve seen it most starkly?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah. I mentioned – I mean, you can pick a lot of countries, unfortunately. I mentioned China and Russia because they are particularly influential countries, and when we see determined efforts to legislate an end to freedom of association in a country as large and as influential as Russia or China, whether it’s through targeting of foreign funding of NGOs and the treatment of Russians campaigning against torture or for free elections as if they are somehow traitors to their country, or China’s conflation of peaceful activism and journalism with terrorism through legislation, that is of particular concern because those practices are much more likely to be copied in other countries.

So that’s why I would single them out. One can mention a lot of other examples. But then there are also – as the Secretary and I both mentioned, there are places where civil society is holding its own and fighting back, and democracy is advancing. I had one of the most moving experiences of my time in the State Department yesterday, meeting a group of newly-appointed chief ministers, i.e. governors, and government ministers from Burma who just came through Washington – people who were activists, in some cases political prisoners, for – in a country where for 25 years we were struggling alongside them to bring about democratic change, and very few people ever thought we’d make it. And there they are; for the last 10 days they have been in charge, trying to figure out how to bring services to their people. And if it can happen there, it can happen absolutely anywhere. So that kind of stuff keeps us going in the face of some of the more depressing news that we are bound to talk to you about in these reports.


MR KIRBY: Elliot. We’ll go over here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Elliot Waldman with Tokyo Broadcasting System. I wanted to ask specifically about China. The report notes a marked increase over the last year in repression against a wide variety of civil society organizations, and you mentioned also the disappearances of lawyers. Can you talk a little bit about what you see as the drivers behind this trend, specifically with regard to the last year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I think it’s a universal truth that the driver of repression is insecurity. Oftentimes governments that try to project strength on the surface are actually communicating a great weakness beneath the surface. Chinese people, as you know, over the last decade in particular have become connected through the internet to all of us, to people all around the world, to information. They have become wealthier, their expectations have grown. And like people everywhere else, they want to live in a country where the rule of law is respected and there’s – corruption is punished and exposed, and environmental problems are not swept under the rug. They want the same things as people anywhere else. And the government senses that, and it feels insecure, and it cracks down.

I think that when we speak out on these issues, we are 100 percent aligned with the aspirations of most ordinary people in China. And I think that’s another thing that gives us confidence that if we continue to speak out in a consistent and principled way, aligned with our allies around the world and people in China who are working peacefully for their rights, that over time we’ll be successful.

MR KIRBY: Michel.

QUESTION: Michel Ghandour with Al Hurra Television. You’ve talked about the Middle East, especially about Syria. What is the most concerning issue regarding the human rights in the Middle East other than Syria?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: How much time do you have?

QUESTION: We have time. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah, I’ve – I tend to resist ranking things for obvious reasons. I don’t think that’s the headline that I want to encourage. Syria is by far the greatest crisis on our mind, not just in the Middle East, but I think anywhere in the world. As the Secretary said, there’s no greater blow we can strike for human rights than to end a war that has killed upwards of 200,000 people and driven millions from their homes. But there are a lot of other challenges, from supporting young democracies like Tunisia that are trying to do everything, to dealing with setbacks – for example, of the sort that we have seen in Egypt over the last couple of years.

We have a lot of shared interests with friends and partners in the Middle East, and above all, we have the shared interest of fighting terrorism in its most recent and awful manifestation of – represented by Daesh. And the message that we have sent to all of our partners in the region – we delivered this message in Bahrain; the Secretary was just there a few days ago; we delivered it in Egypt and a number of other countries – is that if you conflate peaceful opposition, peaceful demonstrations, peaceful activism, with people who are out to blow things up, you’re going to get more people blowing things up. Because you reinforce the fundamental argument of the terrorists that there’s absolutely no – that peaceful politics offers no hope of redress of grievances.

So we’ll continue to deliver that message and to express our expectations to all the governments with which we work in the region.


MR KIRBY: Tolga.

QUESTION: Thanks. Tolga Tanis with Hurriyet. Last year, the report – the country report of Turkey was 63 pages. This year it’s 74 pages. Is that an indication regarding the democracy level of Turkey, given the fact that also we have a new chapter – alongside longstanding problems like press freedom and the impartial of the judicial system, you have also inadequate protection of civilians. How do you assess the direction of the Turkish democracy?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Well first, I hope you read the words rather than counting the pages, but – (laughter) – but the words do convey serious concern. I’ll start with recognizing the overwhelming challenges that Turkey faces right now. Some of them are the consequences of the war in Syria. Turkey has borne the brunt of that war as much or more than any country in the region. It has taken a huge number of Syrian refugees, and not herded them into refugee camps but enabled them to integrate into the country. And that is something that we applaud. And it has been hit repeatedly by terrorist acts, terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of innocent Turkish citizens.

At the same time, even as we have tried to support Turkey in meeting those enormous challenges, we have always made clear to the government that the quality of Turkish democracy matters to us, and we think matters to Turkey’s future. So we have expressed concern, and you’ve heard from this podium and you see in the report a very strong concern about prosecutions of journalists, of academics, about tightening of freedom – of the space for freedom of expression in Turkey, the takeover of newspapers like Zaman.

And I would note that we spoke out about such problems when President Erdogan was in opposition. In fact, when a previous Turkish Government put him on trial, the United States embassy sent people to observe his trial. So this has been a feature of our policy towards Turkey for many, many years, and it will continue to be a feature of our policy towards Turkey.

QUESTION: A follow-up on Turkey?

MR KIRBY: I’ve got one more and it’s the last one. Going to be with you, Goyal. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. What is the difference between religious freedom and human rights? The reason I’m asking you – that yesterday, the U.S. International Religious Freedom, the – mandated by the Congress, they brought a special report at the National Press Building on Pakistan and also international religious freedom. So – and finally, how much do you rely on the press reports as far as this Human Rights Report is concerned?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: What is the difference? I’d say religious freedom is a subset of human rights. Human rights is a very broad concept that encompasses all of the different rights that we enjoy as human beings. One of them is the right to worship freely without interference from the government, and we put out, as you know, a special report on respect or lack thereof of that right around the world. But it’s a subset of human rights.

And in terms of sourcing for the reports, we rely on a wide variety of sources which we consider to be credible. Very rarely do we rely on just one source. I don’t think we would rely on a single press report if we weren’t able to corroborate it.

QUESTION: So when they were talking yesterday about – that people are being suppressed and in the name of religion, blasphemy law, and also they are not free and womans are not free in Pakistan, all that – this special report by the State Department, U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission. And also, they were talking about that these are the parts of the human rights, all these issues.

So my concern is this: How do you differentiate there? Because there were some advocates also speaking from Pakistan on these issues there yesterday.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I don’t see any differentiation, so —

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody, appreciate it, appreciate you coming. Thank you.