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  • This year marks the 44th anniversary of the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The reports cover internationally recognized individual, civil, and political, rights in almost 200 countries and territories, including all countries receiving U.S. assistance and all United Nations member states.


WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11, 2020, 2:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR:  Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center.  A quick welcome to those journalists who are watching this event online.

As you are aware, Secretary Pompeo delivered remarks this morning on the release of the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and we are pleased to be able to follow up with a briefing here at the Foreign Press Center.

Our speakers today are Assistant Secretary Robert Destro and Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby.  Both are with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  They will provide some opening remarks and then we will take your questions.

So with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Destro.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.  Thanks for coming this afternoon.  As you know, the State Department produces a very comprehensive and fact-based report on the state of human rights around the world.  Earlier this morning, Secretary Pompeo released the 44th in the series of such reports, and it covers the calendar year 2019.

Now, why do we do this?  Well, the short answer is that our commitment to respect for human rights reflects core American values and also universal principles enshrined in international documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We highlight with our reports the central importance of respect for human rights to a government’s ability to follow – to foster peace, prosperity, and security.

We know that when governments respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic institutions and the rule of law are far more stable and secure.  And so promoting human rights is a key component of our strategy to counter resurgent authoritarian power and malign influence to deprive extremists of examples, with recruitment narratives, and to defeat terrorism.

As Secretary Pompeo has said, quote, “This administration has been very vocal when we see human rights violations wherever we find them – friends, foes, adversaries, [and] allies…it’s a deep, important tradition of the United States of America, and the Trump administration will continue to do that as well,” end quote.

Secretary Pompeo gave some examples from the 2019 report in his message this morning.  Let me highlight several situations of concern from the report.

China is spreading features of its authoritarian system to the world, such as restrictions on civil society and freedom of expression, and the use of invasive high-tech surveillance to track and monitor citizens.  The absence of an independent judiciary and the government’s tight controls on information increasingly make it difficult for lawyers and activists to defend the rights of the Chinese people.  We remain deeply concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal campaign of repression in Xinjiang, including mass detentions in internment camps, pervasive high-tech surveillance, draconian controls on expressions of cultural and religious identity, and coercion of individuals to return from abroad to an often-perilous fate.

In Burma, extreme repression and systematic discrimination against members of the minority Rohingya population, who are predominantly Muslim, continued in Rakhine State.  The international community has stood together to firmly condemn the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya.  The United States has repeatedly expressed our deep concern about the widespread violence committed by elements of the Burmese military, security forces, and local vigilantes and matched this concern with action, including sanctioning the commander-in-chief and other top military officials for their roles in serious human rights abuses.  Preventing further atrocities, addressing the needs of victims, and ensuring accountability for those responsible are essential to resolving this crisis and advancing Burma’s transition to a peaceful democratic state.

We’ve not seen any human rights improvements in Venezuela.  There were continued reports of police abuse and involvement in crime, particularly in the activities of illegally armed groups as well as illegal and arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, and the excessive use of force.  Disdain for democracy and human rights under the dangerous authoritarian leadership of Nicolas Maduro has dramatically worsened the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis facing the country.  The once-prosperous nation now faces severe shortages of food and medicine, and suffers from soaring inflation that has forced millions of Venezuelans to flee to neighboring countries.  We support Interim President Juan Guaido’s call for a return to the rule of law and adherence to the Venezuelan constitution.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega continues to consolidate his power and erode democracy and respect for human rights in the country.  The regime cracks down brutally on all dissent.  Hundreds of government critics, including journalists, students, and farmers, have been detained without due process and remain in prison under squalor conditions.  We call on the Ortega regime to release its political prisoners and to restore democracy in Nicaragua.

These are but a few of the state of human rights reports that you will find in this year’s version.  These reports are the world’s most comprehensive, objective, and factual account of the global state of respect for human rights and reflect the concerted efforts of our embassies and consulates and our staff here at DRL to gather the most accurate information possible.  We’re committed to using the voice of the United States and its position on the world stage to draw attention to violation and abuses of human rights no matter where or when they occur.

With that, my colleague, DRL Acting Assistant Principal Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby and I are happy to answer your questions.  And I promise you, I’ll get your title right the next time, but – (laughter) —

MR BUSBY:  No, it’s a mouthful. 


QUESTION:  Thank you very much for doing this, and it’s great to see you a second time today.  Ambassador, the report paints a pretty grim picture on human rights violations in Azerbaijan, over all the south Caucasus – I cover Azerbaijan.  When you look at the wider region, who are the worst human rights violators?  You have Azerbaijan, you have Armenia, you have Georgia in the region.

My second question:  Do you feel that it’s getting harder for the United States to push back the human rights violations in the countries such as Azerbaijan?  As far as I know, there hasn’t been any dialogue between Azerbaijan Government and your office, and some international NGOs have raised their concerns over not having access to the country.  So what – do you have any leverage in this case, particularly given the report as it has been released?  Will that help you to move the needle?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Okay.  Well, let me deal with the first question first, which is:  How do you rank the countries in the region?  The one thing I need to make really clear is these reports don’t do any ranking.  We – basically, the whole point of the reports is simply to report on facts on the ground.  If you want to see what the trendline looks like in any specific country, you’re welcome to look back year over year to see how things have changed.  Other organizations do that.  So we feel that if we were to start doing that, it would violate the rule we’re not supposed to be – we’re not supposed to be expressing opinions here; we’re supposed to be reporting on facts.

Now the second question, could you repeat it for me?

QUESTION:  Yes, (inaudible) —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Yeah, and also let’s get —

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) international NGOs have raised their concerns over not being able to access the country.  So my question is:  Will this report or any other leverage that will allow you to move the needle in the region?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, what we try and do, we try and maintain as much contact – I mean, we – we’re always engaged with the government in Azerbaijan not only through directly, through bilateral, but also through OSCE and the OSCE organs.  We have met – we meet with the centers.  I mean, we’ve met with civil society organizations.  And so we’re very, very engaged with Azerbaijani human rights defenders, and we intend to maintain that engagement.

QUESTION: Thank you.  Thank you, sir.  This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan.  Sir, for the last many months, the human rights organizations are talking about human rights violations in India.  First it was only Kashmir, but now their own citizens, like in capital New Delhi people are facing worst-ever human rights abuses for talking about the controversial citizenship bill.  So what those events are part of the latest human rights report, and would you like to say something about that?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, you’re asking specifically about recent events in India, right, or —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Yeah.  We – this report only covers 2019.  So anything that’s recent is not going to be covered by this report.  Those will be fed in through the same process through the embassies and consulates up to us for inclusion in next year’s report.

QUESTION:  Is Kashmir a part of the report?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  No, no, the – Kashmir is a part of the – the events that took place in Kashmir in 2019 are certainly in this year’s report.  And that’s – and I’ve actually testified on the Hill about the events in Kashmir.  I mean, we’re waiting to see how the situation plays out.  We’ve expressed our concern to the Government of India.  But India is, by its own admission, the largest democracy in the world, and so we look forward to continuing our engagement with the Indian Government, and we don’t hesitate to make our position clear.  We didn’t like the idea that they shut down the internet, and we made that clear.  I made it clear in the hearings.  And so beyond that, the things that happened this year, this – in 2020, we’ll have to see how those work out in next year’s report.  Thank you.


QUESTION:  Thank you.  So I’m – my name is Hang, and I’m from Radio Free Asia, the Vietnamese service.  So I have a couple questions regarding Vietnam.  So what is the current progress regarding human rights practice with Vietnam?  And while the economic relation between the U.S. and Vietnam has improved over years, the human rights practice in the country hasn’t.  So what can be done to push this forward, and how to balance the diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the U.S. in economy and human rights?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Thanks for your question.  I’m going to turn to my acting principal deputy assistant secretary – (laughter) – Scott Busby, who really has been very, very much engaged in the bilateral Vietnam-U.S. relationship.  And I think he’s the better person to answer this question for you.


MR BUSBY:  As you probably know, we have an ongoing human rights dialogue with Vietnam that happens on an annual basis.  In fact, I was in Vietnam last year for the latest iteration of the dialogue, where we discussed a range of human rights issues.

There have been some areas where there has been some progress.  On the rights of disabled persons, Vietnam is doing better.  On respect for the rights of LGBTI persons, they’ve made some progress.  And when it comes to labor reform and religious freedom, we’ve also seen some progress.

That said, we still remain very concerned about the trend in Vietnam of arresting people who freely express their opinion, people who criticize the government.  And we raised those concerns at the dialogue, including calling for the release of individual cases.

QUESTION:  What – so what was the Government of Vietnam’s response to your request for the imprisonment of the political activists?

MR BUSBY:  Well, for the most part, they claim that these people have committed crimes under their law and have been justly convicted and sentenced under their law.  We don’t agree with these convictions and these sentences.  We feel that many of Vietnam’s laws are vague and arbitrarily applied, and that’s the point we made.

As a consequence of my visit to Vietnam this past time for the dialogue, we did succeed in releasing one prominent dissident from jail who I visited when I was there, and she is now safely in the United States.  We were sad at the fact that she had to leave her country in order to become free, but we are happy that she’s now free.

QUESTION:  Great.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I’m Tsuyoshi Nagasawa from Nikkei newspaper of Japan.  Thank you for doing this.  I would like to ask about the China especially, so Uighur issues.  So could you tell me that – what is the next additional step to stop Chinese Communist Party from repressing the human rights against Uighur citizens?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, the United States has spoken out repeatedly about the situation with China’s Uighur population, and we will continue to do so.  In fact, my very first official presentation when I joined the State Department back in September was about the Uighurs.  Now, the – much of what we actually do is just like – and it shows up here in the Human Rights Reports – is fact gathering.  And so we’re always engaged in a very concerted effort to find out what’s happening on the ground, and not only, by the way, in China but also when they ship people overseas; and we have forced labor problems where China is shipping people out of the country, and I’m in the middle of pursuing an investigation on one of those allegations as of the other day.

So I can’t tell you what our next step is going to be, but as soon as we nail down what the facts are you can guarantee that we’ll let everybody know about it.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  One more question.  Alex Raufoglu with the Turan News Agency.  The Secretary this morning made a statement and he urged the civil societies, citizens of the countries that are being highlighted, to hold their countries accountable.  What does the report have to say to the communities in the countries such as Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, who don’t feel like that they’re getting White House attention otherwise?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Well, if I understand your question correctly, it’s like how do we encourage people inside the country, right, to speak up.  And as I said in my prior response, we remain engaged with civil society organizations.  When I was at the OSCE meetings in Bratislava in December, we met with civil society organizations, and one of the things that I think was perhaps one of the most impressive things for me is the degree to which the engagement of the United States and OSCE with these activists, with the citizen reporters, with civil society organizations, is so deeply appreciated.  I mean, they – we’ve met with prisoners and the – it’s – so what we try and do is just remain engaged.

And – but as I just said to your colleague here, we really need to be realistic about the situation that we find on the ground, and the last thing that I would want to do as a human rights advocate is put somebody in danger.

So I’m not going to encourage people to do things that are going to get them arrested.  It’s difficult enough to be a human rights advocate in many places, and to have some – somebody like me say, “Well, why don’t you take this next step,” that’s not a good idea.  What we try and do is work, and work closely with people, and stay engaged.

MODERATOR:  Did we have any questions from our journalists in the back?  Any final questions?

Well, with that, I’d like to thank our briefers for coming over to speak with us today, and we will conclude this briefing.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO:  Thank you for coming.  Thanks for coming.

U.S. Department of State

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