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Remarks on the State Department's 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Jonathan Farrar, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Remarks on the State Department's 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
Washington, DC
March 11, 2008

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MR. FARRAR: Good afternoon. Let me just say a few words about the production of the reports and make some brief observations about their content. These congressionally mandated annual reports were delivered to Congress earlier today. They will be posted on our website after this briefing. Officers in our overseas posts go to great lengths to gather factual information for these reports. Here at the Department of State, we owe a special thanks to Steve Eisenbraun, who coordinated the production of the reports, and to the dozens of dedicated officers in our bureau, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as well as in bureaus throughout the Department who worked hard to ensure that the reports meet high standards of objectivity and accuracy.

The reports are based on information we receive from governments and multilateral institutions, from national and international non-governmental groups, and from academics, jurists, religious groups and the media, and have gone through a lengthy process of checking and cross-checking. Please note that the reports include a new subsection on statelessness, the plight of an estimated 15 million people around the globe.

As we present these reports, the Department of State remains mindful of international and domestic criticism of the U.S. human rights record. We take all of our human rights commitments seriously. The U.S. Government will continue to reply forthrightly to concerns about our own practices, including the actions we've taken to defend our nation from the global threat of terrorism. As part of this effort, the United States separately submits reports to international bodies in accordance with its obligations under various human rights treaties to which it is a party. These congressionally mandated reports describe the performance in 2007 of other governments and putting into practice their international commitments on human rights.

In 2007, some countries made significant advances despite formidable remaining challenges. An example is Mauritania, where last April, the inauguration of a president elected in polls deemed by the international community to be largely free and fair marked the country's first successful transition to democracy in 50 years of independence.

As Secretary Rice has noted, however, progress in human rights and democracy is not linear. Last year, many countries struggled somewhere between making incremental progress and suffering setbacks. Indeed, in 2007, the countries that captured the headlines were those that regressed in human rights and democracy. Pakistan, under the state of emergency, suspended the constitution and approximately 6,000 opposition political party workers, human rights advocates, lawyers and judges were arrested. By the end of the year, the state of emergency was rescinded and most detainees released.

Another high-profile example was Russia, where centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, corruption and selectivity and enforcement of the law, onerous NGO registration requirements, harassment of some NGOs, immediate restrictions continued to erode the government's accountability to its citizens.

In 2007, insecurity due to internal and our cross-border conflict continued to threaten and thwart progress in human rights, as was the case in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. By the same token, where there were improvements in the security situation, conditions more conducive to progress in human rights were created, as happened in Colombia, which saw a 29 percent reduction in kidnapping and a roughly 50 percent reduction in killings of trade unionists in 2007.

Countries in which power was concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers remain the most systematic human rights violators. Here we would cite North Korea, Burma, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Sudan. Some authoritarian countries that are undergoing economic reform have experienced rapid social change, but have not undertaken democratic political reform and continue to deny their citizens basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. China remains a case in point.

For progress on human rights to be made and sustained, three essential and mutually reinforcing elements must be present. One is free and fair electoral processes. Free and fair elections involve more than a clean casting and an honest counting of ballots on election day. The run-up to the voting must allow for real competition and full respect for the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Two, countries must have representative, accountable, transparent democratic institutions of government, including independent judiciaries under the rule of law to ensure that leaders who win elections democratically govern democratically. Democracy can prove fragile where institutions of government are weak or unchecked and corruption is rife. And third, vibrant independent civil societies, including NGOs and free media.

Last year in Venezuela, a democratically elected leader's -- efforts to undermine democratic institutions and intimidate civil society met with vigorous resistance. And Nigeria's fragile democracy was not defeated by widespread fraud and incidents of violence that marked the April polls for presidential, legislative and state-level positions. In tribunals established to hear petitions, contesting election results at all levels, the judiciary was able to assert its independence, leading to the nullification of a number of the results. And in response to pressure, the Nigerian Government created a committee to recommend reforms of the Independent National Electoral Commission.

For civil society and an independent media, the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are oxygen. Without these fundamental freedoms, democracy is deprived of its life's breath. Regrettably, again in 2007, some governments abused their power and misused the law against NGOs, journalists, internet bloggers, labor activists and other civil society members.

In 2006, Secretary Rice announced the creation of the Human Rights Defenders Award to be given annually to an international NGO. The past December, on International Human Rights Day, the Secretary presented the first such award to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights for fearlessly advocating democratic principles and providing legal representation to persecuted human rights and democracy defenders.

The United States' efforts to promote human rights and democratic freedoms around the world reflect the core values of the American people and also advance our core interests. Whenever human rights defenders are the targets of repression, our longstanding values and our long-term interests are best served when we and other democracies show the word -- show by word and by deed our abiding solidarity with them.

And now I would be glad to take a few questions. Please state your name and the news organization you represent.

QUESTION: Lachlan Carmichael from AFP news agency. Why was China removed from the worst offenders? They were on the list last year, but they're not there this year.

MR. FARRAR: I think if you look at the introduction to the report, the -- describes China -- that its human rights record remain poor. It describes how controls were tightened in some areas in China, particularly regarding religious freedom in Tibetan areas and in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. It also describes controls on freedom of speech in the media, including on the internet and the difficulty that petitioners in Beijing face. So I think if you look at the report, you'll see it's a comprehensive one and gives a very frank appraisal on the status of human rights.

QUESTION: Is it because China is no longer considered the – as authoritarian as it was last year or is that the reason?

MR. FARRAR: I think actually if you look at the introduction, it may – I think it’s described in exactly those terms.

Yes. In the third row.

QUESTION: My name is Zaher Imadi from Syrian TV and radio. My question is that the human rights of the Palestinian people has not been given enough attention. I wonder if this report touches on their plight under the Israeli bombing of the civilians that their rights – human rights are supposed to be guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions, which guarantees their rights under occupation as civilians. Israel has killed (inaudible) 130 civilians last week, 30 of them are infants and small children and in their schools too. I wonder what attention did you give to the Palestinian plight in your report.

MR. FARRAR: Certainly. The report on Israel and the occupied territories covers the entire spectrum of human rights. The report itself is focused on calendar year 2007 and the coverage ends there. I think if you read the report, the entire report, you'll see that it's quite comprehensive in its turn in covering practices both by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: A follow-up. You've noted in your report that recent events that happened in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the bombings in Gaza, they are also events -- I mean, when you have more than 130 civilians killed in Gaza and, you know, 30 of them are infants and babies, these are events that are worthy to be mentioned in your report.

MR. FARRAR: The reports, Pakistan as well as all the others, the Human Rights Reports that were presented to Congress today, cover the calendar year 2007. So events that happened after that will be covered in the 2008 report. Pakistan, for example, it covers the state of emergency, but it does not cover the elections that were held earlier this year.

QUESTION: But these attacks in Gaza, are they -- do you view them as violations of Palestinian human rights in Gaza?

MR. FARRAR: Again, those will be covered in the 2008 report next year, not in this year's report.

All the way in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) in past reports and in comparison to this report this year, what is the impact do you see or do you expect by mentioning some countries like Venezuela. I believe Venezuela was mentioned in the past year and again this year. What kind of impact? What kind of change do you expect would happen? Thank you.

MR. FARRAR: Sure. The reports themselves stand by themselves. So each country report stands separately. What we try and do in the introduction is to draw a few conclusions, and in the case of Venezuela, we -- the introduction highlights the tendency there towards centralization of power and restrictions on the media and the response of civil society to those efforts.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Lambros Papantonious, Eleftheros Typos Greek daily. On Turkey, any progress from the human rights point of view the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (inaudible) by the Turkish authorities against its religious freedom, its properties and church? Anything to say about the reopening of the Halki theological school?

MR. FARRAR: I think if you look at the report, the section on religious freedom, you'll see that it's covered there, and those are issues that our Embassy has raised.

QUESTION: One on Albania. Do you have anything to report about the human rights for the Greek minority in northern Epirus and Albania, which is under permanent attacks by the Albanian (inaudible) government against basic human rights, political freedom and properties, including the church?

MR. FARRAR: I refer you to the Albania report, both the sections on treatment of minorities and religious freedom.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. Quick question on -- Burma has been on the front line -- I believe they are -- including President Bush and First Lady and UN Secretary all have been speaking, but for the last almost 20 years now she has been in jail almost, house arrest or jail on and off, and still nothing has been -- so much has been going on in the press and public, but nothing has happened in reality. What’s the reason why nobody is taking any strong actions like in other countries?

MR. FARRAR: I think if you take a look at the -- both the introduction and the report on Burma itself, it describes a truly egregious record of the regime there. The -- it describes the crackdown on peaceful protestors last September and the increase in political prisoners there. Obviously, we don’t have exact numbers on detainees because there’s no access by international human rights groups or others to those detainee centers.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up. The cry of the people -- monks and peace-loving Burmese people, they are crying and they’re asking for international global help, but they’re not getting it.

MR. FARRAR: Yeah, I think the United States has been in the forefront of the international community on that effort, everyone from the President, the First Lady and on down.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Diana Molineaux, Office of Cuba Broadcasting. On Cuba, the report doesn't look very different from the previous years except for it looks to be an effort by the government to prevent people witnessing beatings and these kind of things. Do you see any difference with the change of government in the situation of human rights?

MR. FARRAR: I think the report sets out pretty clearly that human rights, civil liberties in Cuba continue to be severely restricted; that there’s been very little change, certainly very little progress. If anything, there’s been a step back in some areas, such as restrictions on freedom of information, controls on the internet and that sort. So very, very little change, and certainly not progress.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: There’s been lots of focus on China in the lead-up to the Olympics. Can you highlight some of the key issues that you think should be highlighted?

MR. FARRAR: I think the reports highlight that generally that the human rights record remain poor; that there were, as I mentioned earlier, efforts to tighten controls in some areas, including on religious freedom and on the internet; the increasing difficulties of some human rights dissidents in China. And in general, you know, the human rights record remain poor.

QUESTION: Well, can I follow up on that?


QUESTION: Elise Labott with CNN. It also seems that the Chinese Government is forcibly relocating people to make way for Olympic projects. So do you think that in kind of tandem with their physical clearing of the neighborhoods for these Olympic projects, do you think that China is making a concerted effort to get rid of anybody from the Beijing area where the Olympics are going to be that it deems kind of unsuitable as the Olympics approach? Is that of greater concern now as the Olympics approach?

MR. FARRAR: I think if you look at the report, it does describe how -- the increasing difficulties for petitioners in Beijing, which I think covers that area.

Yes. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yes. (Inaudible) from Radio Free Asia. I don’t think there is any big difference from -- between last year’s report on North Korea and the current version of (inaudible) report. And what is the general assessment of the human rights situation in North Korea? Is it deteriorating or improving this year?

MR. FARRAR: Yeah, I think the report on North Korea shows that, you know, they fail to protect basic human rights there. There’s -- there are, you know, extreme restrictions on freedom of religion. The introduction describes, you know, that it’s essentially a repressive regime. And you’re correct; there is little change from last year.

QUESTION: Another on North Korea?

QUESTION: A follow-up, a follow-up.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) with the USA Journal. It is reported that so many North Korean defectors killed by North Korean Government last week. What is the U.S. policy to try to improve North Korean human rights right now?

MR. FARRAR: Obviously, the reports from last week would not be in this year’s Human Rights Report. It would be covered in next year’s.

I think -- I think the Human Rights Reports themselves are an effective tool to raise international awareness of the violations of human rights in North Korea and the extreme difficulties there, both issuing the reports themselves and using them as a tool to raise awareness.

QUESTION: So this year, maybe you have a policy toward North Korean human rights issue and link it with the six-party talks however it’s a new possibility?

MR. FARRAR: I don’t think that that has changed. We’ve always said that human rights are part of a comprehensive agenda with North Korea and discussion of human rights will be part of any future normalization process.

QUESTION: Still on North Korea?

MR. FARRAR: I didn’t see (inaudible). Sorry.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if you could comment on an item in the Post last week that detailed the deliberations between various bureaus about the language that would be used on the North Korea report. And when the report was released today, it seemed that you ended up reverting to the harsher language. I’m wondering how the Secretary’s priority on the six-party process did influence what the type of language that ended up being used and why you reverted to the language you used.

MR. FARRAR: Yeah, I’m not going to comment on press reports from last week. But I would say in general that the North Korea report, like any other report, reflects the back-and-forth between or among our bureau, regional bureaus and the bureaus of the State Department, drafts that go back and forth, and all in an effort to get it right, to make sure that we prepare a fair and accurate and comprehensive assessment. And in the case of North Korea, that’s particularly challenging. And if you look at the North Korea report, you’ll see that again this year, as in previous years, we include a footnote there on the difficulties we have in gathering information in North Korea. And that’s the only such footnote we have in the entire report.

Somebody who hasn’t asked already, perhaps in the back.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) with BBC Arabic Service. During her recent trip to Egypt, Secretary Rice has announced while in a press conference with the Egyptian Foreign Minister that she has used her right to exercise the waiver and waive a set of congressional restrictions on U.S. aid to the Egyptian military. At the same time last month, the nominee to become the ambassador of Egypt in a testimony for Congress said, and I quote, “The government’s respect for human rights remains poor and serious abuses continue.” If you can please just explain the sort of discrepancies between the two, the action and the statement, and clarify your view on Egypt’s human rights record.

MR. FARRAR: You know, I think if you look at the report on Egypt, you would see that it also says that the status of human – protection of human rights in Egypt remain poor. I think the Human Rights Report doesn’t pull any punches in that regard. Human rights remains an important component of our bilateral relationship. The Secretary, late last month, exercised a national security waiver to waive those provisions. And that’s completely consistent with what we have in the Human Rights Report.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about the former Soviet states. In what country did you find the best condition on human rights? And also, could you give us some more details about Georgia?

MR. FARRAR: Sure. We try not to – I’ll start out by saying we try not to compare one country against another. As I mentioned before, every report stands on its own. The report for Georgia does cover the crisis there last fall and the sort of regression on human rights, on protection of freedom of speech and assembly that came out of that crisis. It does not cover the presidential election in January because again, that fell outside of the scope of this year’s Human Rights reports.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: On Colombia, could you please extend a little bit – like, be more specific about Colombia and how do you expect that this improves – it affects the operation of the (inaudible) with Colombia and United States in the Congress? Do you have an expectation about that?

MR. FARRAR: Yeah, I would just say that if you – you should read both the introduction where we mention Colombia and also, the Colombia report itself. And I think you’ll find that it’s a comprehensive look at where there have been advances over the past year and also, where progress remains to be made. In addition to what was in the introduction, I would note that last year, the Minister of Defense in Colombia issued several decrees which are quite important, aiming at reducing the number of extrajudicial killings in Colombia. What’s important, of course, is follow-through on those decrees. And there were also several important longstanding human rights cases in which verdicts were rendered last year.

QUESTION: And do you expect that this report affect, in a positive way, the operation of the (inaudible) in the Congress? Does it have any impact in the Congress?

MR. FARRAR: The reports are meant to be an objective look at the status of human rights, how governments meet their – the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And that’s all they’re meant to be; they’re not meant to be a policy document.

QUESTION: Also on Saudi Arabia, have you seen any marked improvements there this year?

MR. FARRAR: Yeah, the report would say, you know, that there are significant human rights problems in Saudi Arabia. The restrictions on civil liberties, on the rights of women remain the same as last year.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I just wanted to go to China for a moment because it – I mean, I didn’t feel like you answered the previous question, which was, yes, we’ve seen the report, I’ve seen the preface or the introduction and all these things about China. At the same time, there is a list of systematic abusers of human rights, the worst of them, and China is not on that list and it was last year. So was that a gesture to the Chinese? Does it have anything to do with the Olympics? Can you please explain it?

MR. FARRAR: Sure. I think if you look at the introduction, you’ll see that what we say about China – I could even flip to it if you give me a second.

QUESTION: No, I’ve read it.

MR. FARRAR: Is exact – is exactly accurate.

QUESTION: Actually, there’s a discrepancy. That’s exactly why I’m asking because the report says many things about China, but it’s not on that list of the worst offenders and it was last year. Why is it not on the list? That’s my question.

MR. FARRAR: I would say China is listed under a section dealing with authoritarian countries undergoing economic reform where the democratic political reform has not kept pace. And that is a completely accurate assessment.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: The Government Accountability Office has said that one of the challenges that are facing the Iraqi Government is that it’s rampant with corruption. And the DOD Inspector General has (inaudible) reports of U.S. weapons going to insurgency. Don’t you think this attributes to the worsening human situation in Iraq? I mean, do you still view Iraq, after all this information, as a special case?

MR. FARRAR: I think the report on Iraq does cover areas such as corruption that you mentioned and some of the – it covers human rights situation, abuses committed not just by Iraqi forces, but also by insurgents and militias and so on. I think it describes pretty clearly the challenges there.

Yes, sir.

MR. CASEY: I think we’ve got time for just a couple more here, so we’ll go to the gentleman again and if there’s anyone else --

MR. FARRAR: Okay, sure.

QUESTION: Daniel Ryntjes, Feature Story News. You mentioned Zimbabwe as one of the top offenders in human rights. Can you outline exactly why?

MR. FARRAR: Yeah. I think I highlighted Zimbabwe because of the tremendous pressure that nongovernmental organizations and human rights defenders are into there, a situation where the pressure clearly increased during 2007 to such an extent that, as I mentioned, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights received a Human Rights Defenders Fund award last year. They were one of, I believe, 17 or 18 nominees from around the world, but they stood out among all the others.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Could you touch on the prisoners – the 10,000 prisoners from – Palestinian prisoners and Israel and also Syrian prisoners from the Golan Heights? And the Israelis are trying to strip them from their citizenship. This violates the Geneva Convention. I wonder if the – if you all, when you are putting that report, you look at these matters at all?

MR. FARRAR: Yeah. The reports clearly cover detainees, the conditions within detention centers and so on. The specific question, I’d have to get back to you on regarding Syrian detainees and citizenship.

QUESTION: Thank you.


MR. CASEY: Thank you, everyone.


Released on March 11, 2008

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