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Briefing on the Country Reports on Human Rights

Briefing on the Country Reports on Human Rights

Remarks
Uzra Zeya
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
February 27, 2014

________________________________________
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and good morning, 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’d be happy to answer 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 UN Commission of Inquiry compared the regime’s actions to those of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Gulags.

We document these and other human rights violations and abuses in a series of reports covering almost 200 distinct countries and territories. They chronicle those violations and 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 or international pressure.

For more details, I’d encourage members of the press 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; and in Egypt, where state security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators and the government arrested many activists who led the 2011 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 on 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 the 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 used 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 Prize 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 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 displaced during the year and at least a thousand 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, or 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 many 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 activist Eric Ohena Lembembe was tortured and murdered in his 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 the Secretary noted, 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, and 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 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 before I take your questions, I’d like to extend my thanks to dedicated colleagues around the world and Washington who make these reports possible. Thank you.

MS. HARF: Okay. I’m going to call the questions because I’m so familiar with all of you. Why don’t you --
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Oh, Thank you.

MS. HARF: Yep. Go ahead, Michael Gordon from The New York Times. We’ll have – we have time for a few questions, so --
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Right. Thanks, Marie.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you. You have – in your Country Reports, you have an extensive report on Iran. Has there been any change in the human rights situation there since President Rouhani took office in Tehran? Has that led to any changes whatsoever in restrictions on individual freedoms? And also, you also have a detailed account on Egypt. Would you say, based on your human rights assessment, that Egypt is a country that’s in the process of restoring democracy, or would you say that’s not the case? Thank you.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you. On your first question on Iran with respect to improvements or changes under the Rouhani government, I think our conclusion is that we’ve seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government. Our 2013 report documents allegations of torture, political imprisonment, executions in the absence of due process which have gone up under this government, harassment of ethnic and religious minorities, limits on free expression, and harassment of human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists. There have been some steps since the release of some political prisoners last fall, but overall I would say the situation remains poor. And I would just underscore that as Secretary Rice[1] said last December, our support of the fundamental rights and freedoms for all Iranians will continue as we’re testing the potential for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue.

With respect to Egypt and the overall rights situation, I think the report documents objectively and in detail persistent concerns in deficits over the course of the year under the previous government and the current government with respect to freedom of association, freedom of assembly, security force abuses, protection of religious minorities. So these concerns certainly continue. We’re working with the Egyptian Government and trying to offer engagement and support to help a return to civilian-elected government and inclusive democracy in Egypt.

MS. HARF: Great, thanks. Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Yes, my name is Said Arikat from Al Quds daily newspaper. I wanted to ask you about the human rights situation for the Palestinians under occupation. Coinciding with your report today, Amnesty International issued its own human rights report dedicated to the Palestinians, where it points to an alarming excessive use of force during 2013 that resulted in the deaths of twice as many in 2011 and ’12 combined, and many of them children. If you have any reaction to that?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Thank you. Well, I would say on this, we take very seriously reports of violence in the West Bank and we seek additional information from the Government of Israel about these incidents. The report on the occupied territories documents violations of human rights by Hamas in significant amounts, by the Palestinian Authority. And it also notes, in the case of Israeli authorities, documentation of excessive force and restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of movement.

I would just conclude that the United States continues to raise human rights issues at the highest level with Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors, and we raise these issues with Israel as we do with every other country globally.

MS. HARF: And if you could identify who you are and your outlet when I call on you. Go ahead, Nama.

QUESTION: Nama Abdullah with (inaudible) in Kurdistan of Iraq. You didn’t talk about Iraq in your speech, but we know the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated ever since the withdrawal of U.S. troops. What about the human rights there? Have you seen any improvement? And if you have anything to say about the Kurdistan region there? Thank you.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: All right. Thank you for your question. Our 2013 report documents severe human rights problems persisting in Iraq. We take note of politically motivated sectarian and ethnic killings, including by non-state actors such as al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, credible reports of torture and abuses by government actors and illegal armed groups, lack of government transparency – and all of this exacerbated by pervasive corruption of – within government and society. We documented increased – significant increase in terrorist violence across the country, including the indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

With respect to ethnic and religious minority communities, I would just note that our efforts are absolutely in the direction of protecting these groups and strengthening Iraqi political institutions and supporting civil society engagement in political processes.

QUESTION: Sorry, we just saw the death of a Kurdish journalist. Did you talk about that in the report?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: For that, I would have to refer you specifically to the report, but we can get back to you with some additional details.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. HARF: Go ahead over here. Yes.

QUESTION: Yeah. My name is Wen Ha, Radio Free Asia. About the (inaudible) situation in Vietnam, especially I heard the Secretary and you yourself mention about Hanoi and Vietnam and about the social society in Vietnam. But after the UPR in Geneva, this meant so the restriction, like the harassment against the dissident and civil society in Vietnam, become alarming. So my question is: What did you think – according to you, what did you think that the U.S. authority could do and to helping Vietnam to improve the rights situation there to respect the human rights of their people?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Okay. Well, I would underscore that we continue to call on the Government of Vietnam at the highest levels to make progress to comply with its international human rights obligations and commitment, and we’ve made clear that doing so will allow us to further the bilateral relationship. Part of these – our concerns include what you mentioned, the inability of Vietnamese civil society activists to travel to Geneva for side events with respect to Vietnam’s universal periodic review.

We’ve also underscored our deep concerns on cases of political prisoners like Le Quoc Quan. And we are continuing to engage on all of these issues. We were very concerned and noted in the report the November conviction of 13 Roman Catholic bloggers with prison terms ranging from three to 13 years. And I would underscore this point: Restrictions on freedom of expression, especially online expression, imprisonment of dissidents using vague national security legislation, harassment of activists – we saw the reports this week of the assault of dissident Nguyen Bac Truyen just earlier – just on Monday. These are all part of our core human rights concerns and core bilateral concerns with Vietnam.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. HARF: Yes. Tolga, you’ve had your hand up for a while. Go ahead. Yes, Tolga, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Tolga Tanis with Hurriyet. Thank you for this report, and I had a quick question regarding the statement on Turkey. You – for example, you’re characterizing the events after December 17 graft probe in your report as scandal. And you are emphasizing very clearly that law enforcement and the judiciary were subject to the – to executive branch influence. So my question is: When Marie, for example, is in podium, she’s not using those remarks as a talking point. What is the --
MS. HARF: Tolga.

QUESTION: What – yeah, but I’m questioning the role of this report. What is the influence of this report on the Administration policy toward other countries?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I would say that these reports are – have a singular importance with respect to a public and objective assessment of the human rights situation in all the countries in the world, including some of our closest partners. So we base the criteria in the report on principles within the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This year’s reports do have more detailed information than previous years on issues pertaining to corruption and accountability. That’s with respect to all of the reports. And with respect to what you mentioned on Turkey, I would say the report reflects our concerns about due process, effective access to justice, and the importance of independent judicial processes in investigations for rule of law.

Human rights are part of our broader engagement with Turkey, obviously on a very wide range of issues of strategic and mutual interest, and these rights concerns relate to issues like freedom of expression, the state of minorities in vulnerable populations, and due process and rule of law.

MS. HARF: Thank you. Let’s go all the way in the back. Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Bryant Harris with Inter Press Service. I was wondering if the report references at all the repression of pro-democracy advocates in Bahrain.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Certainly. We have a very detailed report on Bahrain that notes a number of human rights concerns – the continued restriction and detentions of protestors, reports and documentation of mistreatment of detainees, lack of due process in trials, political – in trials of individuals arrested for political activity or human rights activity. In response to this – this is part of our ongoing engagement with the Bahraini Government where we have urged them to take the necessary steps in advancing and protecting human rights, to foster an environment that allows for dialogue and political reconciliation. Some of the specific areas where we’ve encouraged progress is in releasing prisoners who have been imprisoned on charges related to freedom of expression, encouraging confidence-building measures towards reform and reconciliation, and encouraging accountability for allegations of security force excesses. But I would underscore that throughout all of this, we unequivocally reject violence on all sides, and we want to encourage a positive evolution in Bahrain.

Maybe one more?

MS. HARF: Yep. Well, I think we’ve only got time for one more. Yes, right here.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Deana Casaneda from NTN 24. And about Venezuela, the report says that the threat continues in this country against freedom of expression. And our news network has been shut down in Venezuela, and now the President Maduro is opening a new conference about peace. What are your comments about it?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Well, on more specific Venezuela-related developments, I think I’d have to give the floor to Marie. But with respect to our Human Rights Report, we certainly identified a number of key concerns in developments in 2013. The passage of presidential decree powers increase the concentration of power in the executive branch. We documented harassment, intimidation, legal actions against privately owned TV stations, media outlets, and journalists. And we also documented use of the judiciary to intimidate and selectively prosecute political union, business, and civil society leaders who criticize the government.

I would just reiterate the concerns that the Secretary stressed at the outset and remind you of his statement last week when he called on the Venezuelan Government to step back from its efforts to stifle dissent through force and respect basic human rights.

MS. HARF: Great. Thank you all for coming. Jen will be briefing today, so we encourage you to keep looking at the report, send questions our way, send them our way in the briefing, and we’re happy to, as you look through it, answer some initial questions.

Thank you all.


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