MR PRICE: Good afternoon, again, everyone, and thanks for joining us. As you saw earlier today, Secretary Blinken rolled out the 2020 Human Rights Report. And he was joined in doing so by Lisa Peterson, the Acting Assistant Secretary in our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, or DRL.
Since these country reports cover nearly 200 countries, 198, and only a limited number of journalists were given the opportunity to be present during the on-camera press briefing, of course due to our COVID protocols, we wanted to afford an additional opportunity for media to cover the event more broadly. And so we’re expanding our press briefing virtually.
Today on this afternoon’s call we have with us once again Acting Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson, as well as Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby. Both, of course, are from DRL. Ambassador Peterson will make a statement first, then both he and Acting Assistant Secretary – then both she and Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Busby will answer your questions.
So with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Peterson. Please go ahead.
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: Thanks very much, Ned. So as Ned mentioned, earlier today Secretary Blinken released the annual Country Reports on Humans Rights Practices. These are – reports are a factual and objective description of the state of government respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in almost 200 countries and territories.
These annual reports are one way that the United States helps promote respect for human rights and accountably for human rights abusers. Our aim is always to identify human rights challenges and use our voice and position on the world stage to draw attention to abuses of human rights, no matter where or when they occur.
While our country works to strengthen respect for human rights overseas, we also work to strengthen our democracy at home. It’s an effort that continues every day, and we hope that the American experience – experiment and experience – gives hope and inspiration to those who don’t have access to the transparent institutions – independent judiciary, free media, and avenues for civic participation – that we do in the United States.
Before opening for questions, I’d like to highlight our candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in elections slated for October of this year. This election would be for a three-year seat beginning on January 1st, 2022. This effort supports President Biden’s determination to reinvigorate American diplomacy in support of a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality, and follows the Secretary’s February 8th announcement that the U.S. would immediately and robustly engage with the Human Rights Council. The United States has long been a committed advocate for human rights, and we seek to play an active role at the Human Rights Council.
With that, I am happy to take your questions. Thank you.
MR PRICE: Excellent. Operator, if you would like to offer instructions for how people can indicate they have a question, please go ahead.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question for today’s conference please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. But we do ask until your line’s been acknowledged to be open before asking your question.
MR PRICE: Great. We will start with the line of Matt Lee of the AP, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. I have a human rights question, which is related to the – what you just said about the Human Rights Council. And that is back on the 19th, and you, Assistant Secretary Peterson, delivered a joint statement on behalf of the U.S. and 149 other countries to the council in which you said that you were recalling the 20th anniversary (inaudible) program of action we are committed to working within our nation – I would read the rest of this. The penultimate paragraph of the statement – I’m sure you remember it. I am wondering that since the United States walked out of the Durban Conference in 2001 and then boycotted the next two, if this statement, which you joined and actually read, means that this administration is shifting positions on what happened at those conferences. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: Thanks very much. So I would not describe this as a shift in position. We did, indeed, lead the joint statement and we’re very pleased to see the high participation from members of the Africa group. I would simply say this reinforces that – the statement reinforces that all countries need to take steps to address racism and racial discrimination, as well as examine and eliminate practices and policies that marginalize members of ethnic and racial minority groups.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Halley Toosi with Politico.
QUESTION: I want to know, do you guys believe that the West Bank is occupied by Israel or not?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: So we have presented the section as we have stated in previous years. This Human Rights Report refers to the commonly used geographic names of the area the report covers. So Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. This is intended to delineate geographic areas and puts them in alignment with – puts these reports in alignment with the rest of the report. Those geographic indicators are not meant to convey any position on any final status issues that need to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Owen Churchill from the South China Morning Post.
OPERATOR: Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks a lot. Thanks a lot, Ned. Assistant Secretary Peterson, both you and Secretary Blinken talked earlier about the importance of upholding and promoting human rights here in the U.S. And in light of that, I wanted to get your response to Beijing’s own report into human rights in the U.S. that is released just a few days ago, and it’s kind of zeroed in on things like police brutality, on gun violence, on the pandemic response. So I just wanted to get your take to what extent you think that was a good or bad faith assessment from Beijing of the U.S., whether you take onboard any of the criticism in that report. Thanks very much.
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: We welcome constructive scrutiny of our human rights record by human rights groups, journalists, members of the media, other democratic governments, and multilateral organizations. We are mindful of and we take seriously advice from domestic and international civil society about how we can improve. The U.S. values freedom of expression and transparency, and we welcome efforts made in good faith to advocate human rights across the globe, including here in the United States. While Beijing’s report does not appear to be in good faith, Beijing has shown its confidence in our free press to rely on our independent media to disseminate Beijing’s report.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of William Lloyd, Asahi Shimbun.
QUESTION: Hello. I had a question about Xinjiang – Xinjiang. You have said that genocide is ongoing. What is your definition of the term “genocide” in the context of Xinjiang? Thank you.
MR BUSBY: Hi. This Scott Busby, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in DRL. The definition we use is – originates in the international convention against genocide, as it was then incorporated into U.S. law when we became party to the genocide treaty.
MR PRICE: Let’s go to the line of Pearl Matibe.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My question is on South Africa. Are you seeing particularly abuses regarding human trafficking, or is it corruption? Could you try to share a little bit more about what you’re seeing specifically in South Africa? I know we’ve heard some cases that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is assisting South African police on some sex predation cases, so can you share a little bit and expand about what were the main issues in South Africa? Maybe touch on maybe a couple other countries in southern Africa. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: I’m afraid we’re going to have to come back to you later with information on that one.
MR PRICE: And we’ll conclude with the line of Hiba Nasr.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me? Hello?
MR PRICE: Yes. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. My question about Iran. I don’t know if somebody asked the question before, but I joined late, so I apologize in advance. Regarding the killing in 2019, in the last report and not this one, the report said they killed around 1,500. And in this report, you said around 300. Can you explain why?
AMBASSADOR PETERSON: I’m afraid we’ll have to come back to you on that question as well.
MR PRICE: Well, thank you very much, everyone. That concludes our call. Again, this was an on-the-record call, and we look forward to discussing this more with many of you in the coming days. Thanks very much to our speakers, Acting Assistant Secretary Peterson and PDAS Busby as well. Talk to you soon.