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Diplomacy in Action

2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices Q&A

Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
April 8, 2011


Q: What are the major trends that you see in this year’s Human Rights Report?

A: We’ve identified three major trends in this year’s human rights report. First, there’s a continued restriction on the ability of civil society and NGO activists to organize and operate freely. More than 90 governments in the last several years have acutally imposed new restrictions on their ability to operate. The second major trend we’ve identified are new attacks against internet and new technology users. We’ve been aware for some time of the challenges posed by governments to control access to the internet. What we’re seeing increasingly, in the Middle East and elsewhere, is the governments are actually using their power to threaten activists, to invade their privacy and to interrupt their ability to communicate internally. The third trend we see is an increase in attacks against people because of their religious, ethnic, or other minority status. Vulnerable groups in societies, whether is Christians in places like Pakistan, Iraq; LGBT communities in Africa; a range of other minority groups that are vulnerable are increasingly under attack.

Q: You mentioned repression of internet and mobile technology – could you expand upon that somewhat?

A: Sure. One of the things that’s interesting in the world is governments become more aware of the power of the internet. We saw it certainly in Egypt and Tunisia. Governments are spending more and more money, literally hundreds of millions of dollars, to try to shut down activism. The Egyptians did it by shutting down the internet country-wide for four days. But more typically, governments are using their power both to go after activists, arrest bloggers, arrest internet users, but also control their ability to operate openly and confidentially. So they’re hacking into computers; when they arrest activists, they’re using their cell phone directories as a way of going after their colleagues and coworkers. We’re trying, in a range of ways here at the State Department, to address that.

Q: The Middle East has experienced significant changes in 2011. Were these changes foreshadowed in the 2010 Human Rights Report? Can the report be used to predict other changes we might see?

A: Well as we look back at 2010, there was a pattern throughout the Middle East of highly restrictive governments, authoritarian governments, that were limiting the ability of people to organize, to express themselves freely. Those trends have been going on for a long time and I don’t think any of us could have honestly predicted that the change would happen so quickly, as it has the first few months of 2011. But there was certainly an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the lack democratic participation in those countries.

Q: Does the United States report on itself through the Human Rights Report?

A: We do not include the United States in this report, but we do report on ourselves. And in fact, in the last year we have submitted the most comprehensive analysis ever to the U.N. Human Rights Council under a process call the Universal Periodic Review. This is a new review process and it was the first time the United States participated. We submitted a report based on an inter-agency process last September. We appeared there in November, and took questions from governments, and then, Harold Koh, our legal advisor, was back in March to finalize the report process by reporting on the areas where we’ve made changes reflecting the recommendations that were given to us. Another aspect of that reporting is that we did a range of meetings with civil society activists, more than 1000 of them, in cities across the country leading up to the production of the report. We took guidance from communities that are particularly concerned about immigration rights, prison rights, minority relations, etc.

Q: You came to this job from a human rights NGO, can you talk about how the State Department and NGOs cooperate in the area of human rights?

A: I think the United States, probably more than any other country in the world is overflowing with non-governmental organizations. People like to organize about every subject imaginable. In the human rights realm, there are a range of very active organizations with whom we work. But, more importantly perhaps, the State Department works with an ever expanding movement of human rights organizations all over the world. When I started working in this field, some 30 years ago, there were very few independent human rights organizations outside of North America, Western Europe, a few other countries, South Africa, Chile. But now, there’s virtually no countries in the world, a handful, places like North Korea where there are no human rights organizations. So we’re now working actively both at the embassy level and here in Washington with literally thousands of organizations that both give us information and are often the leading advocates for human rights in their own society, and that are very important interlocutors in our diplomacy.

Q: Does there seem to be pressure on NGOs and civil society from certain governments who don’t regard them as assets?

A: Well, it’s governments that are not democratic are always anxious about criticism or opposition. In an earlier era, it was relatively easy for them to isolate and control those dissident voices. The two things that I’ve mentioned: the expansion of these new communications technologies, and the organization of people into human rights and other rights related advocacy organizations, have changed the playing field. Governments are trying to figure out how they can put the genie back into the bottle. We do think they can do that. In the long–term people’s aspirations for freedom, human rights and democracy are very deep. And, as we’ve seen again in the Middle East, it’s very hard to tell people that those are things are not entitled to. We believe that these are universal rights. People are entitled to both greater participation in their governments and also dignity in the workplace and have opportunities economically and to be in a society where democracy flourishes.

Q: What does the U.S. do about human rights abuses? How do you work to ensure that people are held accountable and that human rights are respected in places with repressive governments?

A: The Human Rights Reports provide a baseline of information which then we use throughout the year in our advocacy and our diplomacy. The U.S. Government operates both bilaterally with other governments, we’ve raised these issues repeated throughout the year, both at our embassies and in bilateral dialogues, strategic dialogues that occur now with more than 30 countries around the world. We also are engaged increasingly in the multilateral fora. We’ve joined, in 2009, the UN Human Rights Council, which is the largest UN body dealing with human rights. And we’re also increasingly engaging both with the nongovernmental community to reinforce their efforts, but also with the business community because we believe there is a role for the private sector also in making sure these issues are raised across the board. We’re also very conscious, and Secretary Clinton has been great about this, in saying we have to lead by example, we have to demonstrate that we walk the walk, that we believe these things and we act on them in our own society. But also, that we do these things not just out of the State Department, or the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, but we do these across the board. The whole government approach means the people in the State Department work with the people in the Treasury and the Defense Department and the Justice Department to make sure that governments understand this is what the Obama administration across the board believes.

Q: Some nations take issue with being included in the report, particularly being criticized by the U.S. How do you respond to their concerns?

A: The Human Rights Reports for many years have been comprehensive in their scope. So we report on 194 countries, essentially all the countries in the world, except the United States, we do that in a different way. We use a single standard, there’s a fidelity to the truth and we base this on universal standards, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We invite governments, if there are facts wrong, to tell us what they are. We will stand ready to correct those facts. But simply saying they don’t like being criticized is not enough. Our view is that every government ought to stand the scrutiny of objective reporting. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re doing it to inform ourselves, inform our Congress, but also to have resource for others in the world to get an objective view of what’s happening in the world.

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