Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome our participants dialing in from around the world and thank you all for joining this discussion today.
We’re pleased to be joined by Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State. Thank you, Assistant Secretary Destro, for taking the time to speak with us today.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Destro, and then we will turn to your questions.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. With that, I will turn it over to Assistant Destro for opening remarks.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining us on the call, and let me tell you a little bit of background. I’ve been on the road. Actually, I’m going to be heading back to the United States tonight. And we started out in Bratislava for the meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and did some absolutely fascinating discussions. There’s actually two conferences that go on when OSCE meets. We were in the parallel conference with the civil society folks, and so we got to meet people from Ukraine, from Russia, from central – all across Central Asia. We got to visit with prisoners who were tortured. We got to meet with civil society – or civil human rights defenders. And in one respect, I’d have to say that that’s a very sobering kind of conversation in the sense that you – you find it hard to imagine that people are – that these really, really wonderful people live under such circumstances where you always have to watch what you have to say, not unlike the situation that I was in when I first – when I had my first classified briefing, and I read the material in terms of the briefing and said, well, thank God I was born in the United States.
So then we went from Bratislava, where we spent a couple of days, and went to – went over to Geneva, where we met with ambassadors from the like-minded countries, and then had a very, very – with ambassador – had a one-on-one with Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, who’s pretty new in his position, talking about ways in which we can engage the multilateral space in places on the margins either of the human rights group or, to, getting in some things like the International Labor Organization, which I can talk a little bit about later. We then had an absolutely fascinating lunch with the ambassadors of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which was very, very interesting, about things we could be doing together to reach into the Muslim world in a more effective way. Then we took off and went down to Rome and had meetings at Embassy Vatican and with some colleagues from the World Food Program about how we would piggyback on top of some of the World Food Program’s programs in places like south – like in Sudan and Ethiopia. And my view is once you take care of getting people fed, you then need to take a look in civil society and their human rights issues.
So then after that we went to Brussels for a consultation we hadn’t done for about five years between the United States and the EU, and that took a day, and then we went to Berlin for a German foreign ministry conference, where I got to opine on a panel on artificial intelligence and human rights, which was really quite fun. And we got up at 5:15 this morning and flew to London, and tonight we get to go home.
So I’m really happy to be with you on the call, and so fire away. What kinds of questions can we help you with?
Moderator: All right. Thank you for those remarks, Assistant Secretary Destro. We will now begin the question and answer —
Automated Voice: This conference is being recorded.
Moderator: We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
All right, we have a pre-submitted question about Russia and Central Asia and what’s going on in that region. Could you talk a little more about that, sir?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Sure. One of the – one of the reasons we went to the OSCE conference is to talk to all of the – as many as possible of the civil society advocates and human rights defenders who work in that whole band of – the whole band of East Europe and then into Central Asia. So we were talking with people from Armenia, from Russia, from Ukraine, from Tajikistan, from Uzbekistan, from Kyrgyzstan. I mean, it was – it was a little bit like a speed dating program because you were just kind of going through and talking to people. But the number of stories was just fascinating, and I was privileged and before I left for Bratislava to have engaged back at the State Department in bilaterals with the – with – I’m sorry, with Belarus and with Turkmenistan, and that was – that was pretty interesting as well. So it kind of rounded out the periphery of Russia and what the Russian Federation is up to with respect to the countries on – in what they often call the near abroad.
So anyway, it’s a – that’s a fascinating discussion. And I can tell you quite honestly that all of them are scared to death of their big neighbor, and it’s how do you avoid the fatal clutches of the Russian bear, and I was particularly – particularly [inaudible] in terms of the people we talked to from Belarus in light of the conversation – the bilateral discussions I had had with the deputy foreign minister from Belarus in Washington.
So anyway, so if you want to ask questions, that’s fine, but we’ll go from there.
Moderator: All right. Our next question is from Nadarajah Sethurupan from Norway News. I’ll turn it over to you.
Question: Hello. I have two questions. When you will participate in UNHRC human rights sessions? Why they are continuing, like, staying away from that system?
Also, briefly, elaborate to me about the human rights situation inside China. China is one of the countries that they don’t respect human rights, I think.
So can you briefly give me some information about China and UNHRC?
Assistant Secretary Destro: Sure. We – let’s start with your first question first, but I should preface it by saying how grateful I am to my friends in Norway. I’ve spent way more years, since at least two – probably 14 years working with your Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and very, very good friends. I’ve been to Norway many times and I have to say your work in the field of human rights is just – and peace-building is just exemplary. So let me just kind of get that on the table first.
Let’s talk about the Human Rights Commission. The United States has made its position pretty clear with respect to the Human Rights Commission. You’ve got two big problems. Actually, three. The first one is just the management of it is not what we want to see. It’s completely disorganized; it’s pretty dysfunctional; everybody recognizes that it’s dysfunctional. Even the like-minded ambassadors, who will remain nameless, think it’s dysfunctional. The question is, well, it’s dysfunctional but it’s the only Human Rights Commission we have. The United States finally said, wait a minute. We want to see some changes.
We’ve also got the pesky matter of Item 7, which is the permanent assault on Israel, and as long as there’s not going to be reasonable conversation about that topic. And then you’ve got the – you’ve got the bad actors like Venezuela and Iran and others that are scarcely paradigms of the protection of human rights, and finally we just threw up our hands and said forget it. And I think people were somewhat taken by surprise. Would the United States consider coming back in? Sure, we would, but there are certain things we want to see. Did our allies encourage us to come back in? Sure, they did. We just reiterated the position I just told you about.
But Ambassador Bremberg and I are committed to doing a lot on the margins of the HRC, so the fact that we’re not in doesn’t mean we’re going to be quiet and not involved. And then there are other multilateral organizations, in particular the ILO, and that segues nicely right into Xinjiang.
And the – what’s really interesting about – and this was Ambassador Bremberg’s observation, which I have to give him credit for. I wasn’t smart enough to come up with it on my own. But we need to take China very seriously when it says “one country, two systems.” Because Hong Kong is a signatory to some conventions that the PRC is not. And so that offers us some opportunities to go after some of China’s bad behavior. Labor is a particularly interesting one in the sense that not only do you have slave labor in Xinjiang, and worse – I mean, that’s another whole topic with the organ harvesting and that kind of stuff – but the – but they’re also undercutting labor markets in Italy, in Ethiopia. All over – all over Africa, China is actually exporting prisoners to these other countries to work, which has the effect of undercutting those workers locally, plus we don’t need to get into the resource extraction where basically China – China has become the Belgium of the 21st century in terms of that.
So it’s really – I mean, no matter where you go, and talking with our African friends and partners, they just say, look, China is everywhere. Huawei is in control of virtually everything. And so from the human rights perspective, China’s performance in Xinjiang is just – it truly dwarfs anything, even Siberia in World War II. And so if you want to say who’s the worst human rights violator of all time, it has to be the – it has to be the Communist Party in China.
Moderator: All right. We have another pre-submitted question about what the United States is doing with the OIC, the Organization of Islamic —
Assistant Secretary Destro: Cooperation.
Moderator: — Cooperation.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Okay. Well, one of the – one of the things I’ve been doing for the last 17 years, really, I’ve been involved in an ongoing – what we call an Abrahamic dialogue with Iran, which has now expanded into Iraq and Lebanon, where we really talk at great length to very senior religious, political, business and other figures across the religious landscape. And when you have the privilege of getting to know some of the leading people, including people very close to Ayatollah Sistani, key people very close to the leadership in Iran – I’ve been to Iran twice and have been to Qom twice and have met many of the – many in the religious and business and political leaders.
So I have often thought that the United States interaction with the OIC is really a question of can you speak the language. And so when we had the lunch at Ambassador Bremberg’s – at the embassy in Geneva, the conversation involved several of the countries in the organization and it was what can we do together to foster human rights, or how do we do that in a way that you’re not speaking Western human rights, you’re speaking about the kinds of justice questions that Islamic law tends to focus on. And in the – and of course, if you’re going to be dealing with the OIC, you can’t be bothered by saying, well, you don’t talk about politics or religion. You have to talk about both at the same time. And as one of the ambassadors told us, he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a lunch like this before,” where we literally put – we put women’s rights on the table, we put – we put terrorism on the table. We put all of those kinds of issues because I’m of the view that a really successful meeting means that you have agreed on what you most disagree on, and then you can assign the homework after so that you can kind of figure out where the – where you can nibble around the edges of those issues.
So, I mean, that was just a fascinating meeting. I was originally supposed to go to Abu Dhabi after this trip and participate in a big conference sponsored by the Alliance of Civilizations, where I was going to give a human rights speech. But after all this trip I thought the last thing I want to do is fly another seven hours to the Middle East and 15 going back.
So anyway, so that was that meeting. So if you have any questions about that, we can also talk about that.
Moderator: All right, that’s about all the time we have. We’ll leave it to Assistant Secretary Destro for just a final remark.
Assistant Secretary Destro: Well, thank you all for participating today. As somebody who in the United States both teaches and litigates in the First Amendment space, I can’t tell you how grateful we are to have working journalists like you asking us tough questions. That’s your job, and one of the things that really came across strongly when we were meeting with the civil society protectors and human rights defenders and journalists from Central Asia is, boy, am I glad I was born in the United States. My sister happens to be a journalist, and the thought of going to jail for something you put in a podcast or something, a tweet that you send out, is just a pretty sobering proposition.
So thank you all for doing what you do every day, and just remember that our door is open. We’re always willing to answer questions just as long as you understand that I’m the kind of person who will actually tell you, “I don’t know, I’ll have to go find out.”
So thanks, and thanks again, and have a very good day.
Moderator: All right. I want to thank you, Assistant Secretary Destro, for joining us, and thank all of the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions.
 A previous version of this transcript read: “All over – all over Africa, China is actually exporting prisoners to these other countries to work, which has the effect of undercutting those workers locally, plus we don’t need to get into the resource extraction where basically China – China has become the bedroom of the 21st century in terms of that.” The transcript was corrected upon further listening to the audio.