LAWFUEL – US Legal Affairs – Paula Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Barry F. Lowenkron
April 5, 2007
(10:07 a.m. EDT)
MR. GALLEGOS: Good morning. I want to thank you all for coming. Today the Department of State is releasing the Annual Report, Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record – 2006. We have opening remarks from Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paul Dobriansky. And then following her will be Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Barry Lowenkron.
UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY: Good morning. It is my pleasure to help launch the Supporting Human Rights and Democracy Report for 2006. This report highlights U.S. efforts to promote democratic governance and a culture of respect for human rights around the globe. I want to recognize Assistant Secretary Barry Lowenkron and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and as well as our embassies abroad for their hard work in preparing this report.
The report highlights that in spite of international commitments, we are witnessing a crackdown by some governments on NGOs and other civil society actors. A number of governments have passed or are selectively applying laws against NGOs and civil society groups in an attempt to restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly. The United States is committed to supporting these courageous men and women and to working with governments and civil society through programs and diplomatic initiatives to secure basic rights.
We budgeted over $1.2 billion in human rights and democracy programming in fiscal year 2006 to help defend human rights and promote free and fair elections, the right to worship freely and the right to organize as a worker. Bolstering civil society is a crucial part of those programs. The denial of women’s voices and rights remains the norm in far too many nations. The best guarantor for rights for women is freedom and democracy and all members of society, men and women, benefit as a result.
In many countries that we reported on, ensuring women have equal access to the legal system is a fundamental part of our efforts. In Africa we supported initiatives to combat sexual violence and abuse against women and improved the ability of governments to investigate and prosecute these cases. And political participation is key. In Egypt a U.S.-funded program helped thousands of women obtain national identity and voter registration cards, allowing them to participate fully in the civic and political life of their country for the first time.
We also supported efforts in many countries to prevent trafficking in persons and to help trafficking victims. Our programs have educated young people about the dangers of trafficking through public awareness campaigns, helped victims return home and provided training and technical assistance to governments and nongovernmental organizations. In India and Cambodia, U.S.-funded programs have helped rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate child victims of trafficking. We have trained law enforcement, border officials, prosecutors and judges from the Caribbean and Central America to work on investigating human trafficking and sponsored rule of law study tours to the United States to foster a greater understanding of our own efforts. These are just a few examples of the many programs the United States funds to advance freedom. Supporting these programs and their beneficiaries is crucial to developing a culture of human rights and fostering effective democracy.
Now, I will turn the podium over to Assistant Secretary Barry Lowenkron who will present formally the report and take your questions. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Thank you, Paula. Good morning. Consider this report the companion peace to the Human Rights Report that we rolled out with the Secretary of State early in March. It is mandated by Congress. It is the fifth annual Supporting Human Rights and Democracy Report. It documents the many ways the United States worked worldwide last year to foster respect for human rights and promote democratic government.
As President Bush has said, what every terrorist fears most is human freedom — societies where men and women make their own choices, answer to their own conscience and live by their hopes instead of their resentments. Our diplomatic strategies and assistance programs in support of human rights and democracy are aimed at doing exactly that: helping men and women across the globe transform their hopes into constructive programs for peaceful change.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for advancing personal and democratic freedoms across the globe. We focus our efforts on the three core components of a working democracy that must be present if human rights are to be effectively exercised and protected: one, a free and fair elections process with a level playing field to ensure genuine competition; two, good governance with representative, transparent and accountable institutions operating under the rule of law, not the rule by law, including independent legislatures and judiciaries; and three, a robust civil society and independent media that can keep government honest, keep citizens engaged and keep reforms on track.
Where these three essential elements of democracy are weak, we work to strengthen them. Where they are under siege, we work to defend them. And where they are nonexistent due to government repression, we speak out for those who live in fear yet dream of freedom.
As these reports indicate, we tailor our support for human rights and democracy to the challenges particular to each country and region. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, the principal challenge is democratic development, a challenge highlighted by President Bush during his recent trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. Here we help democracies in the region improve their capacity to deliver on the demands of their citizens for a better life.
For many countries in Africa, as the case of Sudan and the appalling situation in Darfur so grimly demonstrate, ending violence remains central to improving human rights conditions and advancing governmental reforms.
The challenges for human rights and democracy across South, Central and East Asia and the Pacific are as diverse as the countries in that vast expanse. In many cases we help democracies better address issues of governance to deepen the progress that they have made. In other cases where leaders maintain control at the expense of the rights of their citizens, we spotlight abuses and work to expose populations to the global flow of ideas and information.
We continue to cooperate with our European partners to advance universal human rights and democratic principles, not just on the European continent but globally.
And in the broader Middle East and North Africa, we respond to the growing indigenous demands for political, economic and educational reform through innovative multilateral and bilateral efforts such as the Forum for the Future and the Middle East Partnership Initiative.
As you know, Secretary of State Rice announced two important initiatives in March — excuse me, in December of last year, to support human rights and democracy defenders, a Human Rights Defenders Fund and ten guiding NGO principles regarding the treatment by governments of nongovernmental organizations. The Human Rights Defenders Fund will enable the State Department to disburse quickly small grants to human rights defenders facing extraordinary needs as a result of government repression.
We hope that our contribution of the ten NGO principles will help to rally worldwide support for embattled NGOs. The principles can be found on our State Department website. They’ve already been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Persian, French, Russian and Spanish.
Defending human dignity and supporting the growth of effective democracies across the globe is a long-term effort. It requires strong partnerships with other governments, with nongovernmental organizations and with the private sector. There will be setbacks and progress may at times come slowly, but we and our partners will persevere. Thank you. Now I’ll be happy to answer your answers.
QUESTION: On Iran. I believe they were —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Could you identify —
QUESTION: I’m sorry. George Gedda of AP. I believe Iran received or rather an appropriation was made of $75 million to support development of human rights or whatever you want to call it in Iran. Could you tell us how that money’s being spent?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Yes. It’s — the Congress appropriated roughly $66 million. Of that, a little over half went to broadcasting, about $20 million went to democracy programs, some of which my bureau administers and some of which are administered by our colleagues in the Near East bureau, $5 million went to educational and cultural exchanges and $5 million went to Persian internet services. The goal of these is to reach out to the Iranian people, to foster dialogue with the Iranian people, to ensure that they are getting the flow of information which is why, for example, the bulk of this or much of this went to the media to foster exchanges. We actually had a very successful exchange of the American wrestling team that went to Tehran. And we’ve issued invitations to reciprocate here in the United States. So I think in looking in terms of educational and cultural exchanges, in terms of looking at languages, in terms of working with nongovernmental organizations — our own and those that partner with individuals in Iran and elsewhere — to talk about issues of rule of law and to talk about the importance of a free civil society and to talk about the issues of free and fair elections I think are critical. And as I said, this is a long-term process but it was important that we demonstrate our willingness, our eagerness to work with the Iranian people on these issues.
QUESTION: Wouldn’t an NGO in Iran being seen to cooperate with a U.S.-backed program — isn’t there a certain risk involved in that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: What we do is — with our programs we work with NGOs and NGOs then establish and develop their contacts and their relationships with Iranians, whether they’re individuals or organizations. There is always an inherent risk in this. It has been there throughout the Cold War. It has been there beyond the Cold War. It’s been there wherever people stand up and say I want to live in a society free from fear and free from intimidation. And so those that volunteer, those that stand up and say I want a better future for my fellow Iranians — as would be the case in any other country — they work with organizations indigenous and foreign organizations and we help.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Those NGO principles, you say they have been translated to so many languages —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: They’re on the website.
QUESTION: I know how long — have already been any reactions in any of those countries where they’re really more targeted to or it’s too early for this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: No, I would say we’ve had a number of ambassadors who’ve actually presented the NGOs principles to government officials in the context of saying, “look at these principles, they should be guidelines in terms of how, for example, you can help develop a free and fair election process, a level playing field, that you can work in partnership with nongovernmental organizations that you could support their work.” So we have had — we have had some initial feedback. I will say that I presented the NGO principles to several commissioners when I was in Addis Ababa talking to commissioners at the African Union, and they thought that this was a very good idea. I have presented them to nongovernmental organizations who will use them. I have also presented them to officials in Khartoum when I talked about the situation in Darfur, and we have just sent them out to every one of our missions globally.
QUESTION: And this Defenders Fund is already set up or is in the process of being set up?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: It is in the process of being set up. We have already set aside up to $1.5 million for this year and this fund will be replenished as we draw down on it.
QUESTION: So this is going to be just an American fund; there’s not going to be an international project?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: No, this is — we are open to other organizations and other countries who want to have such funds. In fact, some other countries do provide such assistance. We thought it was important to set aside some funds when you have organizations and individuals who, for example, run into difficulties and require urgent medical care, legal care, if something happens in their office and they require replacement of equipment, and we will work with NGOs and our embassies overseas to do that.
QUESTION: Yeah but if you take a country like Cuba, for instance, where there is practically no — there is very little possibility to do anything, we have an interests section there but it’s not much more. How do you help with this fund there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: The Human Rights Defenders Fund is one of several elements in our — in, shall we say, our democracy and human rights toolkit. In some countries it will be more difficult to use it than in others. In the case of Cuba, for example, the funding goes into broadcasting. It goes into providing books and literature and material. It goes into helping develop sinews in relationship among the activists within Cuba.
QUESTION: You mentioned Cuba. What about the other countries in the Western Hemisphere mentioned? I’m sorry, I’m Bruno Garcez from BBC Brazil. What about the other countries mentioned in the report of the Western Hemisphere? You allude to Bolivia, Colombia, if I’m not mistaken. Is Venezuela included as well? And — naturally. So what concrete measures are you taking in those countries?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Well, first let me say what I should have said at the outset is, unlike the Human Rights Report, this is a selective list. It doesn’t cover all the countries. But the ones that you mentioned are in the report.
It is again to support NGOs. When NGOs cannot operate, it is to support broadcasting. It is to try to foster exchanges. It is to find all means possible in order to do the one critical thing that we need to do no matter how hard the case is, and that is to send a clear message that those individuals are not alone.
QUESTION: Yeah, can I go to — I just want to go to Zimbabwe for a second. In this it says that the United States sponsored public events in Zimbabwe that presented economic and social analyses, discrediting the government’s excuses for its failed policies. It also says that the United States continued to support the efforts of political opposition, the media, civil society, to create and defend democratic space and to support — the last bit — to support persons who criticize the government.
Now, granted, I’ve just given a cursory reading to the Zimbabwe and other — the reports on other countries with which the United States has full diplomatic relations. The ones I looked at were Belarus, Syria, Vietnam and Eritrea. There may be more. Cuba, obviously, without full diplomatic relations, doesn’t count.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Sure.
QUESTION: My question is this: It doesn’t appear that this kind of — that these kind of things, i.e., discrediting the government’s excuses for failed policies and support — overt support for people who are critical of the government, happened, at least is being reported for these other countries. And my question is this: President Mugabe has often talked about how he thinks the West, the United States and Britain in particular, are trying to — are trying for regime change in Zimbabwe, and this is exactly what this appears to look like, what you’ve acknowledged doing through your programs in Zimbabwe. And I’m just wondering, is it the United States — does the United States believe that it’s its responsibility to discredit the government’s excuses — the government and to openly support people who criticize the government? And if it is, which is what you’re saying, why is Mugabe wrong when he says that you’re trying for regime change?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Well, first of all, I would say that your analysis of the report is a bit cursory because the fact of the matter is, whether it’s Eritrea — we’ve spoken out about the problems in Eritrea and the deteriorating human rights situation in Eritrea — we are very clear, very public in terms of what was happening in Belarus. So it is not a matter of the West or the United States or several countries deciding to single out Mugabe and what’s happening in Zimbabwe.
What I would like for the Zimbabwean people is something very, very simple: Give them a level playing field — let them compete openly, let them compete fairly, let them compete transparently, let them compete freely — so President Mugabe could stand there and say these are my policies and let the people of Zimbabwe decide on whether or not those are the policies that they want.
When you have a country which is now at 1600 percent inflation and rising, when you have in which economic policy consists of, “I hereby declare inflation illegal,” when you have a country where when two people want to get together and have a discussion that’s called a civil — that’s called a meeting and they had to have prior approval for, when you have a country in which individuals are protesting peacefully and they’re clubbed, one almost to death, then I think it’s the responsibility not only of the United States, but all countries, including southern Africa, including the African Union and including those international organizations, to stand up and ask how much longer are we going to sit passively by and allow this to continue? This gets back to my previous point which is people in Zimbabwe need to know that there are people outside Zimbabwe that care about their future.
QUESTION: Right. But the other countries that you — okay, let’s talk about Eritrea and Belarus — does not say that the United States sponsored events at which the government was — that attempted to discredit the government and does not say that they supported people — overtly supported people who criticize the government. That may be because there aren’t any opposition figures around in Belarus that you can support or in Eritrea. And if that’s the case, which I assume it is, doesn’t the fact that there are people to support in Zimbabwe show that there is some kind of — that the situation may be not as bad as what you’re saying? And believe me, I’m not trying to defend Mugabe, I just find it very interesting that this report says that the U.S. is openly sponsoring events at which it tries to discredit the government.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: I’m a little puzzled by your question. I think the implication is that things are better in Zimbabwe than in Eritrea —
QUESTION: No —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: — or in Belarus.
QUESTION: No, no, no. There’s no implication. It’s just that there appear to be people in Zimbabwe who you can support, who you — people who criticize the government who can be supported. I would suggest — I think that in Eritrea there isn’t anyone out there that you can in Eritrea who can —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Yeah. Many of their organizations have been thrown out and many of them have been repressed. It’s the same thing in Belarus. But the fact of the matter is just like there’s not one size that fits all in terms of how do you advance democracy, there’s not one size fits all in terms of saying these are all bad.
QUESTION: Well, okay.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: The issue that the way that we treat these countries and my conversations with the Secretary is, “tell me where the trajectory is.” The trajectory in Belarus has been bad for a while. And when I say we, we and our European allies have been trying our best to try to maintain that sliver of civil society and that sliver of openness within Belarus. I don’t think anybody can debate that the situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating significantly and rapidly.
QUESTION: Well, is it the — are these things mentioned in here part of a U.S. policy to try and encourage or promote regime change in Zimbabwe?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: U.S. policy in Zimbabwe is to promote a level playing field and support fundamental human rights. Let the people decide the future of Zimbabwe. The future of Zimbabwe is not going to be decided in any program that I run or anybody else in the United States runs.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Al Jazeera. Mr. Lowenkron, there’s a wide consensus among the international community and human rights organization that Guantanamo Bay detention center exists in defiance of the international law and human rights standards. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised some concerns. And as you may know, Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Haj has been detained there for over five years now with no charges. So my question is, first, do you think that the whole issue of Guantanamo Bay undermines your efforts highlighted in this report to support human rights abroad? And from your own perspective, do you think that the detention of Sami Haj for so long with no charges violates his human rights?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Let me say in the context of Guantanamo because I do address this. And if you take a look at the preface to this year’s annual human rights report which we rolled out last month, we acknowledged at the outset that there are questions around the globe about our own human rights record. When I have talked about the promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights, what I’ve said is when people have said you think that democracy is the perfect system for all of these and my answer has always been, the strength of democracy, it’s not that it is infallible but that it is that it is accountable. And then I highlight the issue of the press, I highlight the issue of the Congress and legislation. I highlight the issue of the courts, the independence of the courts. These are the essential elements that make democracy what it is. These are called self-corrective mechanisms.
I can tell you that in all of my travels and all the people that I’ve talked to and the people that we’ve tried to help, the issue of Guantanamo, the issue of the American standing in the world does not come up. The issue always comes up in the context of what can you do to help us, in terms of this crisis, what can you do in the context of Darfur, for example. What can you do in the context of Burma.
On the other issues related to Guantanamo, I would ask you to refer your questions to our legal counselor, John Bellinger as well as to the Defense Department.
QUESTION: Yeah, but I have a follow-up on the question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Which is?
QUESTION: But do you think that your efforts to promote human rights will be better off if you closed Guantanamo or it doesn’t matter actually?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Well —
QUESTION: Because what you said about meetings with officials abroad that the Guantanamo issue is not raised. Well, we watch Arabic media and the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf. It’s raised on a daily basis.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Well, let me tell you something, I was in the Dead Sea with Secretary of State Rice for the third meeting of the Forum for the Future. And I met with quite a few NGO representatives from a diverse number of countries, none of them raised it. What they wanted to know was not when is Guantanamo going to close. What they wanted to know is: Are you still going to be supporting the freedom agenda in the Middle East? In terms of the future of Guantanamo, the President has said that publicly he would like to see it closed.
QUESTION: Kirit Radia with ABC News. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about Cuba and how your efforts to promote democracy and human rights there may have changed in the past year, given the situation with Fidel Castro and the transition.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Well, in the context of what’s happening in Cuba now, we have an interagency, senior interagency team, that laid out last summer publicly what this Administration is prepared to do in the context of offering, offering assistance to the Cuban people. But offering assistance, we made it clear, not in the context of a transition but in the context of a transformation.
QUESTION: And could you speak what you may have already done in the past year? Has anything changed? I’m just wondering if anything has changed in the past year since developments have happened on the island.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: There’s been efforts in the context of the media to find ways to get the message out to the Cuban people that are not being — messages that are not being blocked by the Cuban Government. There are greater efforts in terms of providing literature, greater efforts in terms of reaching out to people in Cuba that want to engage with us.
QUESTION: Following up on that —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: One second, has anybody else not had a chance to ask a question?
QUESTION: If I could just follow up, I mean, could you just give me any specifics really on — I mean, you said that you have greater efforts to reach out to the media and push your message. Could you just give us any specific —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: If you like, we can have a follow on conversation later and get into specifics on the programming.
QUESTION: On that — you mentioned one of the goals in the Western Hemisphere is enhance independent broadcasting. Specifically in Venezuela, I mean how can the U.S. do that if President Hugo Chavez has already shut down a network and is reportedly assuming control of the media there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Well, let me — can I just rephrase what you just asked. And I’ll tell you why — it’s not going to be the rephrasing media but what can the U.S. do. I would say what can Venezuela’s neighbors do and what can the other countries in Central America and Latin America do, the ones who have signed and want to implement the Democratic Charter that was unveiled in September of 2001. The fact that there was a crackdown on the media in Venezuela, just as there’s been a terrible crackdown in terms of NGOs and the notion of a level playing field is all but being obliterated, does not obviate the need for us to continue to speak out and to continue to work with our partners in the region to say that this type of behavior runs against the grain of what the OAS itself has committed to six years ago. And so it’s a matter of just highlighting these abuses.
QUESTION: Do you think there has been somewhat a certain deal of omission on the part of the neighbors, say Brazil or Argentina?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: I don’t see that. I don’t see that. Oftentimes people mistake a lack of continuous public statements from countries as acquiescence in terms of what happens in Venezuela or what will happen in any other country that is under the situation. But there certainly is great concern in the hemisphere in terms of the direction of Venezuela.
I guess you get the last one.
QUESTION: Okay, the timing of the reports. Several years ago, one of the first iterations of this report that it was delayed ostensibly for technical reasons, but it was also right around the time of this controversy over Abu Ghraib, so the timing was perceived by some to be an issue. Today’s report is being released about 20 minutes after the Secretary meets in a private session with the ICRC chief and a discussion that is almost certainly going to include the Guantanamo Bay issue and the treatment of people there. Is this an unfortunate coincident for you, simply coincidence or do you have anything to say about the timing of that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY LOWENKRON: Sure. We are bound by law to present this report 30 days after we present the Human Rights Report. I would love to get some legislative relief on that schedule because we are also bound by law to produce the Human Rights Report by the end of February, so essentially we slip both by a week. I have a very, very, very tired staff up in my bureau, so it is sheer coincidence. I will tell you this, as we were walking downstairs, I talked to the Under Secretary who was sitting at that meeting. And we just had a brief chat about the situation in Darfur because the ICRC was in Darfur. I was there several weeks earlier. The situation still remains grim. But, no, it’s coincidence. I would love to be able to stand before you all next year and say, 90 days after the Human Rights Report, but that’s legislative relief.
That’s it. Okay, thank you.