Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the State Department’s Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank all of you for joining this discussion.
Today we are pleased to be joined by Robert Destro, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, as well as his Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby, and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Alan Purcell.
Thank you. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to speak with us today, and we will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Destro and then we will turn it to you for your questions.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Destro for opening remarks.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining the call this morning. As you know, every year the State Department produces the most comprehensive and fact-based report on the state of respect for human rights around the world. Yesterday morning, Secretary Mike Pompeo unveiled the 44th such report, covering calendar year 2019. All in all, it included 199 countries and territories around the world.
Why do we do this? Commitment to respect for human rights reflects core American values and also universal principles enshrined —
Moderator: We’re terribly sorry, folks. You can probably hear this. I think we’ll need to pause for one second while we have a test of our emergency alarm.
Moderator: We apologize.
Assistant Secretary Destro: We apologize for the delay. I think where I left off was asking the question, why do we do these reports every year? And the short answer is commitment to respect for human rights reflects core American values and also universal principles enshrined in international documents such as 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 foster peace, prosperity, and security. We know that when governments respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, democratic institutions and the rule of law are 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 for their 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 – among 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,” unquote.
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 around the world to gather the most accurate information possible. We, in the United States – the United States Government is committed to using its voice and its position on the world stage to draw attention to violations and abuses of human rights no matter where or when they occur.
With that, I thank you for joining us this morning and we are happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks, Assistant Secretary Destro. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question comes to us from Nick Turse with The New York Times. Nick, please go ahead.
Question: Thanks very much for taking – yes, thanks very much for taking the time to talk today. I wondered if you could address the issue of mixed messages from different agencies of the U.S. Government. For example, in a country like Burkina Faso your report details unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances by the government, on and on during 2019, but when U.S. Africa Command’s commander went there in 2019 he didn’t call this out. Burkina continues to receive major security assistance from the United States. Doesn’t this type of thing undermine the impact of your work?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, thanks for the question. No, the Human Rights Reports reflect the official position of the United States Government, and we call things as we see them. Now, what I think you’re asking about is – a little bit more specifically is about security forces, and we take very seriously our obligations under the Leahy Law to vet individual units in security forces. So we can – while we can report generally speaking on what the security forces are doing, when we have credible evidence that they’re committing gross violations of human rights, we actually look into it very carefully.
Moderator: Thank you for that answer. Our next question comes to us from the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan, Jon Cebra, who’s hosting a listening party there with several journalists.
Question: Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary. My question is about —
Moderator: I’m sorry, could you please speak up? We can’t hear you.
Question: Yes, my question is about the summary of the – on the Human Rights Report about South Sudan, especially about the latest [inaudible] the government, and also the upcoming establishment of the new government. How would you [inaudible] government given the fact that they have former government officials who were sanctioned by the U.S. Government?
Participant: Vanessa, are you able to repeat that question for us?
Moderator: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear it. It’s very quiet. I’m sorry, sir, if you could just move a little bit closer to the speaker phone. We can’t hear you.
Question: Yes, thank you once again. I’m asking about the Human Rights Report 2019. What is your comment on this latest report and the way forward or the recommendation, and how would the U.S. Government want to see the upcoming establishment of the new government, unity government, given the fact that there are so many former government officials who were actually sanctioned by the U.S. Government? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Are you speaking – this is Assistant Secretary Destro. Are you speaking about Sudan or South Sudan?
Question: South Sudan, South Sudan.
Assistant Secretary Destro: South Sudan. Okay, very good. Well, I can tell you that the American Government is very actively involved with all of the relevant parties in South Sudan. In fact, aside from the coronavirus, I was supposed to be there myself next week, at the end of next week. And so I can tell you that we’re very much involved here trying to work with all the relevant parties. We try and work with everyone on the ground to see if we can get and keep things moving in the right direction, and we certainly welcome any advice that any of you have for things that we can do to keep that engagement going.
Moderator: Thanks for that.
Mr. Busby: Can I just jump on – this is Scott Busby. The sanctions that we’ve imposed on certain individuals in South Sudan have had the purpose of trying to ensure the unity of this government. So that’s been the purpose and we think that will continue to help achieve that goal.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
We’ll turn the next question over to the U.S. Embassy in Harare, which is also hosting a listening party there with several journalists. Please go ahead.
Question: Just to know how Zimbabwe fared in terms of respect of human rights, and also to know where the Mnangagwa government or dispensation is faring in terms of respect of human rights. Is it better compared to the previous government of Robert Mugabe? And did you do any rankings, and if so, on what number is Zimbabwe compared to other countries?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, let me start with your last question first. This is Assistant Secretary Destro. I thank you for your questions and the short answer to the first – the last question is no, we don’t do any rankings. The whole point of these reports is to try and report as accurately as possible facts on the ground in all 199 countries, and it would be inconsistent with that factual orientation of the report to start injecting opinion into the report, and that’s what a ranking would do.
Now, in terms of Zimbabwe itself, once again, in – just as in the answer to the previous question, when I said we remain engaged from the embassy level all the way up to here in Washington with all the significant actors in Zimbabwe – and it’s a country, in fact, in which I have a particular interest. So no, we are – we’re very interested and we really want to encourage Zimbabweans to work together, to respect human rights. And as Acting Principal Assistant – Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby said just a minute ago, the whole point of sanctions is to get everybody’s attention and to get people moving in the right direction.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
For our next question, we’ll go back to the listening party at the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan. If the journalists could please state their name and outlet before asking the question, that would be great.
Question: All right. My question regarding the report is that how is the U.S. Government – or what mechanisms are U.S. Government doing now to make sure that accountability for all violations is achieved or is done?
Assistant Secretary Destro: This is Assistant Secretary Destro again. Well, what we do – the United States has a special representative in South Sudan and he and the chief of mission in South Sudan are going to be very actively involved with all of the relevant players on the ground. And as we say, it’s a – we respect every country’s sovereignty, but we want to work together with – in dealing with facts on the ground, we want to work together with all the players to make sure that the human rights equities of people are respected.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
For our next question, we will go to Elvis Chang with the New Tang Dynasty Asia-Pacific TV outlet.
Question: Hello, yes. China hospitals performed several lung transplant – transplants on the COVID-19 to patients, but the source of the organs are not clear enough, and in your report the China part mentioned about the forced organ harvesting from the prisoner of conscience like the Falun Gong practitioner and the Uighurs. So would you be worried about that the forced organ harvesting will happen more and more in China? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Thank you for the question. This is Assistant Secretary Destro. We do have credible reports that organ harvesting is going on. We don’t have direct evidence at this point for it. But we’ve had many a report from various sources within China, and when we do have direct evidence you can rest assured that we will be reporting on it.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
Our next question – for our next question we’ll go back to the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe. Please go ahead and please state your name and media outlet.
Question: Yeah, my name is Moses Matenga from NewsDay. Yeah, we saw statements from the U.S. especially designating two Zimbabweans for human rights abuses, human rights violations. Zim officials have engaged a lobbying firm called Ballard Partners to assist in working towards removing punitive actions of the U.S. Government. Given the violations appear to be [inaudible] of these sanctions, has the State Department had any contact with Ballard Partners vis-à-vis Zimbabwe on the subject of removing targeted sanctions on government officials?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Thank you for the question. Again, Assistant Secretary Destro. The – I cannot speak to the question about whether or not Ballard Partners has been involved. In fact, it’s actually the Treasury Department, not the State Department that imposes the sanctions.
But I do think that one of the things that comes out in the Zimbabwe sanctions is that it’s possible to get them lifted. And I would be extremely surprised if people were not engaging people in the process of trying to get the sanctions lifted.
So, but I can’t speak directly to your question about Ballard Partners. I’ve certainly had no contact with them.
Moderator: Thanks for that answer.
For our next question we’ll go back to Nick Turse with The New York Times.
Question: Yes, I just wanted to follow up on my last question, especially in regard to the Leahy vetting, which you mentioned in your answer. A lot of analysts say that governments have become adept at gaming the system, breaking up units, transferring people around to get around Leahy violations. But sticking with a country like Burkina Faso, when you have a very strong record that you put together dealing with abuses by the security forces there, Leahy vetting aside, is this the type of government that the United States should be supporting?
Mr. Busby: Nick, this is Scott Busby answering. First off, we’re not aware of any efforts by the Government of Burkina Faso to break up the units in order to facilitate the flow of security assistance.
As Assistant Secretary Destro said, where we have credible evidence that a unit of the security forces is responsible for gross violations of human rights, assistance is withheld. And if a government like Burkina Faso’s does try to circumvent the system by breaking up units and the like, that is something that we analyze. Our people on the ground are looking very closely at how the security forces in any country actually operate.
And in terms of our engagement with the government there, we are raising our concerns privately with them, and in this report and in other places we have indicated publicly our concern about these abuses. And we will continue to assess the abuses that are taking place, raise them as appropriate with the government, and if it comes to a certain situation where we think we’re having zero impact, we might make further changes to the security assistance.
But right now we’re using the Leahy law to try to ensure that our security assistance does not contribute to abuses of human rights.
Moderator: Thanks for the answer.
For our next question we’ll go back to the journalists listening in at our Embassy in South Sudan. If you could please state your name and media outlet.
Question: Okay, my name is Chan Paul Amol. I work with The Radio Community. My question is that as we know that in the South Sudan here, the peace agreement provides a mechanism for the formation of hybrid courts. How is the U.S. Government supporting this formation, having the reports that the past years there was – the government was trying to drop this kind of formation? So in – basically, I would like to know about how the U.S. Government is supporting this either technically or financially.
Mr. Busby: This is Scott Busby again. Yes, the U.S. continues to support the hybrid court, both technically and financially. We do think it is an important part of the peace agreement, and we will continue to encourage the government to agree to the formation of the hybrid court.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question was submitted in advance by Klubradio in Hungary. They ask: “The image of the White House is very negative among people – the people of Hungary. Do you think that there will be changes in the relationship between the two countries after your country report is released?”
Assistant Secretary Destro: This is Assistant Secretary Destro. Thank you for the question. I do not think that there will be changes in the relationship between the two countries. We’re very actively involved with the Hungarian Government on any number of issues, not just human rights.
Well, I shouldn’t say – human rights generally, not only in Hungary, but also a very cordial and cooperative relationship with Hungary on human rights issues in other parts of the world. So it’s a balanced relationship. Countries disagree with one another on any number of issues all the time, and that doesn’t mean that you still can’t have friendly relationships.
We – as you all know, we often disagree even with our closest loved ones, and we still get – and we still get along. So, I expect that the relationship will continue on a good level.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go back again to Nick Turse with The New York Times.
Question: Thanks very much. I tried to ask this one during the last question, but I just wanted to follow up. Has the U.S. Government withheld assistance to certain units in Burkina Faso due to gross violations of human rights? If so, how many and when did these take place?
Mr. Busby: Nick, Scott Busby again. I don’t know, but that is not information that we can share publicly at this time. That said, we do issue reports periodically under our laws as to units that we have withheld assistance to. So I would urge you to look at those reports when they are filed.
Moderator: Our next question comes to us from Pearl Matibe with Open Parliament in Zimbabwe.
Question: Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Destro and Deputy Assistant Secretary Busby. This is Pearl Matibe here in Washington, D.C. I very much appreciate your availability today.
I’d like to take you back to Zimbabwe. And the reason I do this is because there is much disinformation surrounding sanctions and human rights, which I’m sure you’re already aware. So can I ask you just to clarify – I know that OFAC and Treasury handle the issues regarding the two individuals who were put on the SDN list yesterday. But one of those individuals, which was Owen, he was previously last October already added and been looked into.
Can you address maybe two specific pieces of legislation, in particular the Kingpin Act and the one that he was designated for yesterday, regarding these two individuals, focusing more on the penalties when human rights violations happen? So can you just try to address the penalties that these two pieces of legislation apply in terms of these two individuals? Thank you so much.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, thanks for your question. I’m going to have to defer on this one. We’ll have to do this one offline. It’s a little bit too detailed for me this morning. I’m not familiar with the details of the Kingpin Act, and so if you wouldn’t mind submitting your question in writing, then we’ll be happy to get back to you with greater detail. We just can’t do it here. I don’t want to – I don’t want to run the risk of giving you a wrong answer.
Moderator: Yes, if anybody has questions, they can submit them to TheBrusselsHub@state.gov and we will make sure to pass them along.
We have time for one more question, and it’s going to go to the listening party at the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe. Please go ahead and please state your name and media outlet.
Question: Okay, my name is Mary Taruvinga. I’m with NewZimbabwe.com. My question is on the issue of human rights violations in Zimbabwe is reportedly worsening. Does this mean the U.S. Government intends to add more senior government officials on the sanctions list because of this?
Question: And just to add on to what Mary has just said, I’m Kumbirai Mafunda with the Legal Monitor in Zimbabwe. Is sanctioning enough a tool to compel Zimbabwean Government officials to respect [inaudible] human rights?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, thank you for both of those questions. Let me take the second question first. Is sanctioning enough? No, sanctioning is not enough. At the end of the day, the responsibility to police the boundaries of human rights rests with the Zimbabwean people themselves, and we respect their sovereignty. Our job is to be – to call the situation as we see it and to offer whatever assistance we can that is – that’s consistent with a healthy, vibrant bilateral relationship.
And with respect to the second question, we can’t really comment on sanctions in terms of any kind of a pending sanctions case. All I can tell you is that it’s a lengthy process. It’s very fact-sensitive. We try and be very fair to everybody involved. It’s not exactly a judicial process, but it’s pretty close to one. And so it’s – so all I can tell you is that if we have credible evidence that people would be eligible, we will consider it and run through the process.
Moderator: Thank you.
Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for today. Assistant Secretary Destro, do you have any closing words that you would like to offer?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Yes. I mean, thank you so much for participating this morning. We always appreciate getting your questions. As you know, the United States Government is completely committed in both word and deed to freedom of the press, and so we are thrilled to have your questions. And as I said to our colleague from Zimbabwe who asked the more technical question about pending legislation, just because we can’t answer your question today doesn’t mean we won’t answer it. We’ll just be more than happy to answer them in writing if you want to pass them along.
So thank you again and we hope you have a great afternoon if you’re over in Africa, and we’re just thrilled that you participated this morning. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you. Thanks to all of our speakers for joining us and thanks to all of our reporters on the line and to those – the embassies who hosted listening parties for your participation and your questions.