Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Selinger from the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks, and then we’ll turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many as possible in the time we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Busby for his opening remarks. Please go ahead.
Mr. Busby: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining. As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said, the Biden administration is putting democracy and human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which was released yesterday, are one tool for achieving this. The Country Reports are factual and objective in nature, and cover universal human rights and freedoms in almost 200 countries and territories.
The rights and freedoms that governments have pledged to protect are not just ink on paper; they reflect the lived realities and aspirations of people around the globe. And as Secretary Blinken said yesterday, countries where human rights are respected are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, and stable. Thus, they are better partners for the United States. Therefore, we will continue to demonstrate our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms by bringing attention to concerns whenever and wherever they exist.
As President Biden has also said, we must lead by the power of our example. Democracy can be fragile. We were reminded of this fact here in the United States very recently. And it requires constant monitoring and recommitment. In the U.S., while we have many challenges, we debate and confront our shortcomings openly for the entire world to see.
To advance our democracy and human rights objectives, President Biden has pledged to host a summit for democracy early in his administration to bolster democracy worldwide by confronting authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights both at home and abroad.
As President Biden has said, the summit will, quote, “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront … nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda,” close quote. We are in the process of developing the plans for that summit now.
In addition, I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight Secretary Blinken’s recent announcement that the United States intends to seek a seat on the Human Rights Council in elections slated for October 2021. This election would be for a three-year seat beginning on January 1st, 2022. This announcement aligns with President Biden’s determination to reinvigorate American diplomacy in support of a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality.
With that, I turn the floor over to my colleague, Acting DAS Tom Selinger.
Mr. Selinger: Thank you. European nations – I’m just going to turn to the European nations that are included among the 198 countries and territories covered in the 2020 Human Rights Reports released yesterday, and I’ll just take a minute or two to highlight some of the more prominent issues.
The reports describe a serious erosion of freedoms in Belarus, the targeting of political dissidents and peaceful protestors in Russia, along with concerning extrajudicial killings and a decline in freedom of expression in several European countries.
With regard to Belarus, the Biden administration has strongly condemned the Lukashenko regime for its violent and repressive tactics against peaceful protestors, and we’ve called for a national dialogue, the release of all political prisoners, and free and fair elections.
Shifting to Russia, the United States condemns the poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny with a nerve agent, and we’re deeply concerned by Russian authorities’ subsequent decision to imprison him. We reiterate our call for the Russian Government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as end the persecution of his team and supporters who have been detained and prosecuted for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The number of political prisoners in Russia continues to grow year after year. The respected human rights group, Memorial, currently recognizes more than 370 political prisoners in the country, including almost 300 wrongfully imprisoned for exercising religious freedom.
The Department remains deeply concerned about the deplorable and deteriorating human rights situation in Chechnya, including ongoing reports of abuses against critics of Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime, LGBTQI-plus persons, and others in the region. We’re also extremely troubled by the continuing extrajudicial killings of opponents of the Kadyrov regime living in Europe.
The Human Rights Report also covers widespread abuses committed by Russia and Russia-led forces in occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The human rights situation there continues to deteriorate seven years after Russia’s aggression in Ukraine began.
Moving to the South Caucasus, during the intensive fighting between Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan from September to November, there were credible reports of unlawful killings involving summary executions of detained combatants and civilians, and civilian casualties. The Biden administration continues to urge both sides to investigate all allegations of human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law and to bring to justice those responsible. The United States also continues to urge the sides to complete the exchange process for all detainees.
As an OSCE Minsk Group co-chair country, the United States remains strongly committed to working with the sides to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on the Helsinki Final Act principles on the use or threat of force, territorial integrity, and equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
The 2020 Human Rights Report for Turkey notes continued repression of free expression, including through the imprisonment of journalists, and wide use of censorship and insult laws. Turkish authorities continue to react harshly to peaceful protestors and to silence critical voices. We urge Turkey to respect and ensure freedom of expression online and offline.
Anti-Semitism and violent anti-Semitic attacks continue to increase across Europe. We urge all countries to condemn anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it is found and to expand educational programs to combat anti-Semitism.
Advancing and protecting universal human rights and fundamental freedoms has long been and remains the policy of the United States. Governments should respect and uphold these rights and freedoms for all people, including LGBTQI-plus persons. The reports describe an increase in anti-LGBTQI-plus rhetoric and discrimination, including in Poland and Hungary.
With that, I thank you for coming and we’re happy to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you for those remarks. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. Our first question comes to us from Danila Galperovich of Voice of America.
Question: Thank you very much indeed for doing this and, Andrea, thank you very much. It’s very good to hear you.
My question is about Alexey Navalny and his persecution. Should we expect more sanctions or other actions for persecutions of Navalny and his supporters? Because for now, all Western efforts are ignored by Moscow and it seems that his regime is only harshening because of the sanctions.
And second question: What levers United States has for Belarus? Is there any chance to influence the situation there? Thank you very much.
Mr. Selinger: Thank you for those questions. It’s Tom Selinger here. First, let me start with Mr. Navalny, and this gives me a chance to say again how deeply troubled we are by Russia’s treatment of Alexey Navalny. We’ve strongly condemned his poisoning and we’ve called on Russia to fully cooperate with an international investigation. We’ve spoken out against the decision of Russian authorities to imprison him, and we join with our likeminded allies in calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Navalny and his allies and all of those wrongfully detained, as well as an end to the persecution of his supporters.
Russia’s actions are clearly politically motivated, and the arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Navalny makes a mockery of Russia’s justice system. These are just the Kremlin’s latest attempts to silence Mr. Navalny. Like every Russia citizen, he is entitled to the rights provided in the Russian constitution.
As far as sanctions are concerned, we cannot preview potential future sanctions actions, but I can note that we are actively reviewing cases and we apply these authorities globally. I can also note our – that we’re aware of the connection between corruption and human rights abuses. It’s corruption that fuels repression and actions against civil society and the free media, and we reaffirm our commitment, as President Biden has said – our commitment to prevent and combat corruption globally.
Moving on to Belarus, we’re deeply troubled by the situation there. We’ve strongly condemned the Lukashenko regime for its violent and repressive tactics against peaceful protestors. We’ve called for an end to the crackdown, the release of all political prisoners, and the conduct of free and fair elections.
We’ve been inspired by the Belarussian people, especially Belarussian women peacefully demonstrating for the right to have a role in Belarus’s future, and we’ll stand up for the people of Belarus and those around the world who face tremendous brutality as they exercise their democratic freedoms.
We’re working closely with likeminded allies and partners on next steps, and we’re supporting international efforts to independently look into Belarus’s flawed election. We supported the OSCE’s Moscow mechanism report. And again, with sanctions, we can’t preview future sanctions but we are constantly reviewing that policy. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. And our next question comes to us from Thomas Nehls from ARD/Radio, Germany.
Question: Yes, hello from Berlin. Let me switch to another country that no longer belongs to the EU – to the UK. Does the treatment of an international prisoner over there, Mr. Assange – some call him a political prisoner too – comply with American human rights standards? And if not, what does your administration do? Or better to ask: Is your administration urging the British Government to be or to stay committed to these standards?
Mr. Busby: Hi, this is Scott Busby. Mr. Assange’s case is being treated consistent with U.S. and UK law, which is consistent with international human rights standards, and I’ll leave it at that.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Our next question comes from Gideon Kouts from IPBC Israel.
Question: Yes, thank you very much for doing this. My question is about the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which adopted last week not less than four anti-Israeli resolutions and the – and United States is going to join this Human Rights Council again. What it will – what – the question is, of course, if by joining it, the United States thinks to change a little bit that situation?
Maybe one more question about the new formulation and of – by Biden administration of the term of occupied territories on which the previous administration renounced dealing with the Palestinian territories. What is the meaning – is there any special meaning of that concerning human rights or any other political issue? Thank you very much.
Mr. Busby: Thank you for that question. This is Scott Busby again. The United States continues to oppose the Human Rights Council’s one-sided and biased approach towards Israel through its standalone, Israel-specific agenda Item Seven. During the most recent Human Rights Council session, two resolutions were merged under Item Two, leaving only three resolutions under Item Seven. The number of nations speaking against Israel during the item seven debate also decreased.
We have found that in the past, U.S. engagement in the Human Rights Council has decreased the number of resolutions taken against Israel and the number of interventions taken against Israel. So our belief is that our engagement in the Human Rights Council diminishes the attention on Israel. At the same time, we continue to deplore the disproportionate treatment accorded Israel at the Human Rights Council, and we will do everything to change that.
Sorry, your second question was? Ah, about the —
Question: The nomenclature.
Mr. Busby: Yeah, the naming of the reports on Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Those – the names of those reports were changed consistent with our general policy of nomenclature in the reports. That nomenclature is simply to designate the geographical character of various countries and territories. It is not intended to speak to the issues that will be resolved and we hope will be resolved in final status negotiations. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. And our next question comes from Irina Dorosheva from Interfax Russia.
Question: Yes, thank you. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can.
Question: Okay. And my question is: Will you consider the possibility of prisoner exchange, particularly those Americans in Russian prisons on Russians in American ones? Thank you.
Mr. Selinger: Thank you for that question. This is Tom Selinger. I can’t speak to that kind of policy question; it’s a bit beyond the scope of the Human Rights Reports. But I can note that we’re in a constant dialogue with Russian authorities, and we’ll continue to raise the cases of those unjustly detained. We’re seriously concerned about the treatment of particular U.S. citizens who’ve been – who traveled to Russia as tourists and were arrested and then convicted without any credible evidence. So we’re hoping that Russia will do the right thing – authorize their immediate release and return them to their families in the United States. They’ve been deprived of their freedom for far too long. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’d now like to turn to one of – a question that was pre-submitted by Dan Alexe from Radio Free Europe. The question is: “How would you define the difference, if any, between the Trump administration and the Biden administration in tackling the situation of human rights and respect for the rule of law in non-EU Eastern European states, such as Moldova and Ukraine? What changes and support will the Biden administration provide them, given their permanent fear of an increasingly aggressive Russia?”
Mr. Selinger: Thank you for that question. This is Tom Selinger again. I think I’d start by just noting that the Biden administration recognizes the universality of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we will call attention to violations of human rights wherever and whenever they happen, including in EU states, non-EU states, across the globe.
We definitely are in constant dialogue with the governments in Moldova and Ukraine, and we stand with them in their efforts to combat Russian aggression. We’ve made clear in the case of Ukraine, for instance, that Crimea is Ukraine, and the United States does not, nor will we ever, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
So we’re fully committed to working with these countries in confronting Russian aggression and in continuing to strengthen their democratic systems. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have time for one more question, and it will go to Robert Lupitu from Calea Europeana.
Question: Thank you so much. Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes, we can hear you.
Question: So I would like to know how Eastern and Central European countries, including Romania, are dealing with their democracy standards when it comes to human rights, even though President Biden has envisaged competition between democracies and autocracies. And what can you say about Romania’s rule of law and fight against corruption? Thank you so much.
Mr. Selinger: Thank you for that question. This is Tom Selinger again. I can – I guess a good place to start would be with President Biden and Secretary Blinken’s comments about the differences between democracies and autocracies. And the big difference is that in democracies we deal with our missteps and our issues out in the open and don’t sweep them under the rug. And so that is what we’re doing with the Eastern and Central European countries like Romania, and we’re in a – engaged in a fulsome dialogue with these countries about their democratic standards and their human rights issues.
I can tell you that the Human Rights Report points to human rights violations in Romania such as cruel treatment by the government of detainees, official corruption, crimes targeting persons with disabilities or members of ethnic minority groups. And all of these issues we’re working together to develop rights-respecting ways to deal with these issues. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for. Speakers, do you have any closing words you’d like to offer?
Mr. Selinger: Thank you. This is Tom Selinger. Just thanks very much for your interest. We’re glad to be continuing in our work of promoting democracy and human rights. All of the Human Rights Reports are available on state.gov, and thank you very much for your attention.
Moderator: I’d like to thank our speakers for joining us and thank all of the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions.