Senior Administration Official Previewing the 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
March 3, 2017


 

MODERATOR: Thank you, Tiffany, and thanks to everyone for joining us. I’d like to remind us that this is an on-background conference call. This call will be embargoed until 1 o’clock. The report itself is embargoed until 1 o’clock. For your information, not for reporting purposes, we have a senior administration official joining us today. This will be the [Senior Administration Official]. Again, that is for your information, not for reporting purposes. Our senior administration official will have a few remarks at the top regarding the release of the 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and then we’ll take your questions. So, again, the call is embargoed until 1 o’clock, as is the report.

I’m going to turn this call over to our senior administration official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator], and thanks to all of you for joining me today. I’d like to offer just a brief overview of the reports and how they have changed over the years, and then we’ll move on to your questions. This is the 41st year we’re issuing human rights reports. They began in the 1970s when hearings revealed U.S. security assistance had been provided to regimes that had perpetrated gross abuses of human rights. In response, Congress mandated that the Secretary of State provide an annual report on human rights practices in any country receiving U.S. assistance. The scope was subsequently broadened to include all member-states of the United Nations, and today’s release covers 199 countries and territories.

A former boss of mine who was already in the Foreign Service in the 1970s told me that when the reports were first mandated, there was a considerable amount of discomfit in the department about the idea of providing public, unclassified information on human rights conditions in a country where we maintain diplomatic relations. Today, however, I think quite happily, we are in a very different place. The Human Rights Reports we update annually provide factual information about current human rights conditions to inform and assist the Executive Branch, the U.S. Congress, and the courts. Human rights issues are regularly factored into our policy deliberations. Human rights advocates, lawmakers, scholars, multilateral institutions, and other governments also draw on their content.

Because of their importance and wide audience, the Department of State invests a great deal into crafting factual and accurate reports. They represent thousands of workhours. Human rights officers at U.S. missions around the world and here in Washington collect, analyze, and synthesize information from credible local and international human rights organizations, the media, government, diplomatic, and intelligence sources, all with the aim of responding to specific questions, such as whether there were credible reports of torture during 2016, whether security forces are held accountable for human rights violations, and whether there were reports of politically motivated disappearances.

Those questions are the same for each and every country and territory, whether for the UK or the DPRK. They capture facts about whether the fundamental rights described in international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and labor conventions are being respected. We include the information we get only when we consider the source and its methodology to be credible.

So that’s what they are. What they are not is an effort by the U.S. Government to judge, nor are they U.S. policy documents. There is no ranking or comparison of countries in the reports. They do not draw legal conclusions. As I indicated earlier, the Congress first sought the information contained in the Human Rights Reports in order that it could be taken into account in legislating on foreign assistance, trade preferences, and the like.

Over the years, the reports have grown significantly in size. What began in the 1970s as a scant 150-page pamphlet in its entirety rapidly evolved into an 1,100-page, two-inch-thick brick with very small print in the early ‘80s. At one point, I think in the ‘90s, we made some real progress and started delivering the reports on diskettes instead of in hard copy. Over the past several years, we have worked towards a more manageable report. We focus on illustrative examples rather than a litany of statistics readily available online in other sources. With access to all of our reports available online on the Department of State website, we now link to the International Religious Freedom and Trafficking in Persons reports rather than providing a summary version of those documents in the Human Rights Report. And now that technology permits a completely web-based report, readers can focus on specific countries or create a customized report to see trends across the world on any topic of interest we cover, whether it’s anti-Semitism, women’s rights, treatment of NGOs, LGBT rights, or other topics.

As in recent years, the 2016 reports document continued narrowing space for civil society. Both state and non-state actors have taken steps to restrict civil society activity; to limit media and internet freedom; to suppress opposition voices; and in the worst cases, kill people or drive them from their homes. In many countries, we’ve seen governments crack down on the fundamental freedoms of expression and association by the use of direct and overt means, such as controlling political activity or banning or limiting political opposition, or by using laws or burdensome bureaucratic requirements to restrict civil society functioning.

I might just close here with a little bit of a personal perspective. In my own more than 25 years as a Foreign Service officer living and working overseas and in Washington, I have found that the issues we cover in these reports are the most inspiring and motivating of any that we have the privilege to work on. I have spoken to activists at home and abroad who are seeking to improve conditions in their society, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families. They draw comfort and solidarity from our efforts in these reports and more broadly to know and to shine a light on the facts on the ground and to capture them accurately for both our policymakers and the public. We, in turn, draw inspiration and resolve from their courage.

By releasing the reports on time this year, we’re getting their contents into the hands of all those who use them and do the hard work to secure progress. As Secretary Tillerson said in his confirmation hearing, U.S. leadership demands action specifically focused on improving the conditions of people the world over. The annual Human Rights Reports are a part of that endeavor.

With that, let’s turn to your questions. I’ll remind you here that we’re covering the 2016 annual Country Reports on Human Rights, and I am happy to answer any questions you have about that. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Senior Administration Official. Tiffany, if we could go to our first question, please.

OPERATOR: Absolutely. Our first question comes from Laura Koran from CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you so much for doing the call. My question is really kind of procedural. Why was the decision made not to hold an on-the-record briefing about this, which has been the precedent really going back for decades?

And secondly, I’m sure you saw Senator Rubio’s tweet yesterday and some of the other criticism that’s come out about the Secretary’s decision not to speak about this report release. Why was that decision made and sort of does the State Department still see this release as a strategic priority?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks very much for that question. Look, I mean, the report speaks for itself. We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here. Secretary Tillerson spoke quite clearly in his confirmation hearings about his views of the impact on – of human rights on and the importance to U.S. interests. He said, among other things, “Our approach to human rights begins by acknowledging that American leadership requires moral clarity. We do not face an either/or choice on defending global human rights. Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights.” He responded, “Without question,” I agree, to a query about whether creating stable, democratic, free societies around the world that support the aspirations of their people, including basic human rights, is in our long-term national security interest. “Without question,” I agree, he said. He also said America must continue to display a commitment to personal liberty, human dignity, principled action in our foreign policy.

These statements are very clear about our commitment to human rights, and the guiding principle that our values are our interests in the conduct of our foreign policy.

I might just recall, too – I just mentioned – among the main objectives of these reports is supporting the many people who are working to advance human rights globally, who deliver the fact-based – who believe the fact-based reporting that we deliver helps their own advocacy, whether with their governments and beyond. And the activists globally who find kind of solace, frankly, in the transparency of the information we present says to us that we shouldn’t wait even a day longer to get them out in the hands of policymakers and beyond to use to promote a better outcome for individuals globally.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Tiffany, if we can move to our next question.

OPERATOR: Absolutely. Our next question comes from Dave Clark from AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. I had two questions. Obviously, Secretary Tillerson didn’t want to be publicly associated with the launch of this report. Do you know if he has read it?

And also, the President of the United States has said on multiple occasions publicly that he favors the waterboarding and even worse of detainees. Which do you think sends a stronger signal to foreign governments and activists, this report released anonymously or the words of the President? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d just draw your attention to Secretary Tillerson’s preface to the Human Rights Report, which you should have available, where he articulates quite clearly both the purpose – and the purpose of the reports and the importance that we attach to these reports. “Promoting human rights and democratic governance is a core element of the U.S. foreign policy” is the opening line. So I would refer you back to have another look at that.

I also would just note that these reports for 199 countries and territories present a series of facts about conditions on the ground in those locales. And they are widely read, they are widely credible, they speak for themselves. They’re not policy documents; they’re a rendering of the facts as we understand them. I think I would be delighted to stand by America’s record for responding to criticisms that are logged at us and we will look forward to continuing that discussion.

MODERATOR: Thank you. If we can move to our next question, Tiffany.

OPERATOR: Absolutely. Our next question comes from Conor Finnegan from ABC News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. As our senior administration official said, Secretary Tillerson was quite clear in his hearings, but he also hedged a little bit when he was asked in particular about Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Russia’s actions in Syria. Is he now comfortable, either having read this report or being in the administration for about a month now, saying that there are human rights violations in those countries and by those countries elsewhere? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you for that question. Two points. First of all, the Secretary was, as you noted as well, quite clear during his hearing. He did note that – I’m paraphrasing, not quoting – that foreign right – excuse me, that human rights is always a consideration in our foreign policy. It is never the single consideration. America has a broad range of issues and, from time to time, perhaps it’s going to be our national security that may have to take the priority, but that doesn’t mean our values are deprioritized. With regard to the content of the report, I think the reports on Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and the 197 other reports really speak to themselves.

And with that, I will take the next question.

MODERATOR: Tiffany, if you could queue the next one, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Josh Lederman from AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks for doing the call. You keep pointing back to the Secretary’s comments in his confirmation hearing. Of course, at the time, he was not the Secretary of State, but a private citizen, as evidence of his deep concern about this issue. I’m wondering, should we expect that those comments from when he was being considered for this position to stand as his public remarks on this, or is there any expectation that the Secretary will talk publicly about human rights, do any kind of public diplomacy about this during his tenure as Secretary of State?

And then secondly, if you could just point us to maybe a couple examples from the report, since there are 199 countries, of the places where things have changed the most since the previous report – particular areas of concern that you’d like to draw our attention to. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Again, I’d just refer you back to the Secretary’s preface, which he did approve personally, which draws extensively from his comments. So I think the distinction between private citizen and Secretary is not relevant in that regard.

I might just note that we operate a foreign assistance bond that defends civil society under threat globally. I think last year, we provided assistance to activists in 99 different countries, so that’s about half the globe – actually slightly, I guess – slightly under half of our – you can’t split a country – 199 reports. There are obviously broad-spread trends that you see throughout. When I would – when I went through kind of the top conclusions for each of these 199 countries and territories, there were persistent themes: ability to choose government or lack thereof, security forces abuses – in particular, torture, extrajudicial killing, corruption, discriminatory treatment of minorities – especially migrants – pervasive gender discrimination, sexual and domestic abuse of women, state disregard for safety of citizens and so on.

They’re really very, very comprehensive. I think that the top-line conclusion that I would just offer you is that space does continue to close for civil society and that there continues to be a negative trend in terms of fundamental freedom of association and expression globally.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Tiffany, if we can move to our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Absolutely, and just as a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. If you wish to remove yourself from queue at any time, press the # key.

Our next question comes from Felicia Schwartz with Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call. I was wondering, just to kind of follow up on Josh’s question, if you could point to some of the specific countries, say Cuba and Iran for example, where the Obama Administration had increased contacts over the years. Have you noticed any significant changes there?

And then also you mentioned some of the foreign assistance that you provide based on – to human rights advocates around the world. Can you talk about how this report might inform some of the guidance that you would offer to the Secretary as he’s considering a, I think, almost 40 percent budget cut to the building? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. First, on Cuba, although the reports don’t really draw comparisons across countries because they’re focused on the facts in a situation in any given country or territory, the – kind of the top three conclusions on Cuba that we documented were the abridgement of the ability of their citizens to choose their government, the use of government threats including physical assault, intimidation, and violent counter-protests against peaceful dissent, and harassment and detention to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly. So there is obviously, as is there is with every single one of the other 198 reports, kind of a fact-based accounting of what the situation is on the ground there.

I would go back to a statement that the Secretary made during his confirmation hearing. He stated very clearly that he looks forward to working with our congressional partners to ensure that we’re not relaxing the pressure on Cuba to reform its oppressive regime, and we continue that effort. And --

STAFF: Budget question.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On our foreign assistance and – we do use – in the interagency kind of policy formulating community, so to speak, we do use these reports to look at what the situation is on the ground and where there are either the most dramatic instances of need where we might be able to helpfully effect change, et cetera. So the 2016 report will certainly inform how we prioritize and rack and stack, so to speak, the locations of greatest need. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Tiffany, if we could have our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Guy Taylor with Washington Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I think you already answered this to a degree, but I’m hoping you might go a little further into it or over it again. Regarding the Secretary’s preface, last year Secretary Kerry’s preface pretty forthrightly said that human – the human rights situation was worsening worldwide, or at least that was the perception presented. And I think the reason he said was that was a crisis of governance.

Given the comparatively watered-down version of Secretary Tillerson’s preface this year, can you comment overall? Has there been an overall improvement compared to last year, or is the situation the same? Is the conclusion the same that there’s still this crisis of governance with abuses generally on the rise around the world? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. I disagree with your assessment or your characterization. The overall human rights situation globally is mixed. In some places there are improvements. When you look at where there has been progress in establishing a democracy in various countries in the world, that’s a positive sign and we look to that as an encouraging signal. There are also places where there has been either backsliding or, for a variety of different reasons, the situation has worsened. So I don’t think that the situation globally is ever static year over year, and that would certainly be the case this year.

MODERATOR: Thank you. So, Tiffany, if we can move to our next call.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Kylie Atwood with CBS News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing this call. I have a question specifically on the Philippines, and I’m wondering if you could detail a little bit about what the report says in regards to the killings that have been conducted by the president’s war on drugs in the country. And then also, based on the fact that during his confirmation hearing, the Secretary would not agree that these were human rights violations, what does the report say on that front, and are we expected to hold his comments during the hearing as his on the record in regard to that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. The Philippines’ report does, as you note, document killings allegedly undertaken by vigilantes, security forces, and insurgents as the principal human rights abuse documented this year. And it also chronicles apparent governmental disregard for human rights and due process and a very weak and overburdened criminal justice system which is contributing to this overall situation because of its slow court procedures and just generally weak functioning.

So my recollection – and I’m not looking at this in front of me – but my recollection of Secretary Tilllerson’s comments on this point during his confirmation hearing was much more that he was not fully familiar with all of the facts at that particular point. I would not agree that he characterized this as – or dismissed this concern.

I will just note that we obviously have a very strong and longstanding alliance with the Philippines, and our efforts to promote human rights there are vital to that long-term alliance. And at the – in the course of the conduct of our foreign policy with them, the Secretary will, for example, continue to review each arms transfer notification for the Philippine police and armed forces on a case-by-case basis to ensure that we are, number one, fully complying with our statutory obligations; but number two, because it’s the right thing not to provide arms to units that are undermining those – the value of human life.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’re going to have time for two more questions, if we can move to our next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Anar Virji from Al Jazeera. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, just to follow up on a few of the questions, because I don’t think that this point was made clear: Are there any plans for Secretary Tillerson to speak about this report on the record other than the preface to the report, given what he said in the confirmation hearings about the importance of human rights and policy making?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. This is, in fact, the Secretary’s report to the Congress. He transmits it – maybe not physically. His staff does. But it is the Secretary’s report. He is on the record both in the preface and in the context of his confirmation speaking at length about these issues.

MODERATOR: Thanks. Tiffany, if we could take our last question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Claudia Trevisan from O Estado de. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. What will be the impact of the cuts on foreign assistance on the work the State Department makes on the defense of human rights in other countries?

MODERATOR: I’m sorry. Tiffany, if I could have you have that question repeated. We broke up.

QUESTION: Okay. What will be the impact of the cuts in foreign assistance on the work that the State Department does in the defense of human rights in other countries?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that. I’m not going to get ahead of where this budget discussion is ultimately going to end up. My crystal ball is a little bit foggy on that point, and so I would just refer you back to the content of the reports and underscore to you the way in which we will utilize those to both staff and prioritize where there is greatest need, where we can effectively help promote the fundamental freedoms in whatever environment. So we will continue to use these in the crafting of our foreign policy.

MODERATOR: Thank you. I want to thank all the reporters who were able to join us today as well as thank our senior administration official for her time on the call, as well as the countless people in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and in our embassies around the world who have contributed to this year’s report. As a reminder, this call is embargoed until 1 o’clock, as the report is. The report will go online at 1 o’clock, and feel free to report that then. Once again, thank you for joining us. The call was on background. Have a great day.