Sat. Jul 13th, 2024
Secretary Antony J. Blinken On the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

MR MILLER:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Let me give you the – I’m going to start with – by giving you the run of show today for the release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  The Secretary will open it up with some opening comments, then take a couple of questions.  He will be followed by Ambassador Robert Gilchrist, the senior official in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, who will give additional comments and then stay to take your questions about the report.  And then I will follow up with any additional questions you have about the rest of the world.

With that, I’ll turn it over to the Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Matt.  Hey, good afternoon, everyone.

QUESTION:  Good afternoon.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I am pleased to be here to launch the 2023 Human Rights Report.  At the end of last year, we marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming the fundamental idea that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Those words 75 years ago enshrined a wide range of universal rights – civil and political, economic, social, cultural – the right to express ourselves freely, to choose our leaders, to worship as we wish, the right to education, to just labor conditions.

Standing up for freedom and human rights is simply the right thing to do.  But defending and promoting this inalienable and universal rights is also profoundly in our national interest.  Countries that respect human rights are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, stable.

The report that we’re putting out today presents a factual, systematic account of human rights records across nearly 200 countries and territories.  Each one is held to the same standard – developed and developing countries, competitors, as well as allies and partners.  While the report focuses on human rights challenges abroad, we recognize that the United States faces its own shortcomings.  The strength of democracies like ours is that we address those shortcomings, those imperfections openly, without sweeping them under the rug.

The report illustrates that there is much work to be done to uphold the rights set out in the Universal Declaration.  We once again see human rights and the rule of law under stress in more ways and in more places across the globe.  Governments continue to lock up citizens who challenge those in power and call for a better future, from Belarus to Venezuela.  Many are young.  Of the roughly 1,000 political prisoners in Cuba, the average age is just 32.

Tragically, as we saw with Aleksey Navalny’s unjust imprisonment in a Russian penal colony, incarceration can come with horrific conditions – with abuse, even death.  Governments like Russia also arbitrarily detain foreign nationals for political purposes, using human beings as bargaining chips.  Paul Whelan, Evan Gershkovich, and every unjustly held individual deserves to go free.  The United States and our many partners will keep working every day to reunite them with their families and to hold accountable governments that engage in this deplorable practice.

At the same time, the report shows that governments are extending their abuses beyond their own borders.  Nicaragua – attempting to pressure and punish exiled activists by seizing their assets.  Tajikistan – working with other countries to forcibly return human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists who’ve fled abroad.

The report documents atrocities reminiscent of humanity’s darkest moments.  In Sudan, both the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces have committed war crimes.  Rohingya in Burma, Uyghurs in Xinjiang – each victims of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The United States will continue to raise our deep concerns directly with the governments responsible.

This year’s report also captures human rights abuses against members of vulnerable communities.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban have limited work opportunities for women, shuttered institutions found educating girls, and increasing floggings for women and men accused of, quote, “immoral behavior,” end quote.  Uganda passed a draconian and discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Act, threatening LGBTQI+ individuals with life imprisonment, even death, simply for being with the person they loved.

Across countries and regions, authorities are increasingly using technology to intimidate, to censor, to surveil.  Governments are deploying artifical intelligence to spread disinformation, and even tracking people based on their DNA.  They’re cutting off and throttling internet access, as Iran did to suppress protests sparked by the death of Mahsa “Zhina” Amini.  The Assad regime and others are abusing commercial spyware to target journalists and activists.

The United States is also actively working to ensure that emerging technologies are used to bolster rights, not undermine them; to make sure that technology is used to advance equal opportunity, not to discriminate against people.

Just to cite one example, we’ve mobilized a coalition of likeminded governments to counter the proliferation and misuse of commercial spyware.  Today, as part of our government-wide effort, we’re imposing visa restrictions on more than a dozen individuals who contributed to human rights abuses by helping to develop and sell these tools.

Hamas’s horrific attacks on Israel on October 7th last year, and the devastating loss of civilian life in Gaza as Israel exercises its right to ensure that those attacks never happen again, have also raised deeply troubling human rights concerns.

We continue to work every day to bring the fighting to an end, to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas and other groups, to uphold international humanitarian law, to prevent further suffering, to create a path toward a more peaceful and secure future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

These are just a few illustrations from the many countries covered in this report.  And the report itself is just one of numerous ways that the United States is working to promote respect for rights and the dignity of all people.  We also leveraged bipartisan legislation, like the Global Magnitsky Act, and tools like the Khashoggi Ban to hold to account those who perpetrate or profit from human rights abuses.

Thanks in part to efforts like these, especially by advocates and citizens who are on the front lines, 2023 also saw some encouraging developments.  Despite the proliferation of anti-LGBTI+ laws in some parts of the world, countries from Estonia to Japan to Mauritius made important strides in advancing the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals.  Even as labor activists have been targeted, locked up, and killed, unions from South Africa to Mexico to Brazil improved working conditions and advanced workers organizing themselves – key objectives of the global labor directive that President Biden issued last November.

Jordan took steps to ensure that children with disabilities could attend school and receive the support that they need.  These bright spots are an important reminder that progress on human rights is indeed possible, as long as committed individuals in every part of the globe continue to work to uphold fundamental dignity for all people.

On that note, let me just close by thanking a remarkably dedicated team across this department – here in this building, at our posts around the world – who have spent months painstakingly compiling this report.  I also want to recognize everyone who helped document the incidents that make up this important resource – journalists, human rights defenders, citizens – often at great personal risk.  Because of each of you, we have a clearer picture of human rights conditions as they are, as well as a renewed determination to strengthen them for the future.

So with that, let me take a few questions, and then I’ll turn it back over to Bob and to Matt.

MR MILLER:  Humeyra.

QUESTION:  Hello, Mr. Secretary.  I have two questions; one is about the report, but let me quickly go to your phone calls last night.  You had two important phone calls with Israel’s Benny Gantz and Yoav Gallant, who both strongly objected to upcoming punitive action from U.S. on specific Israeli military unit over human rights allegations.  Have those phone calls changed your mind?  When will you announce the action?

And then coming back to the report again, in this report you have a sentence saying Israelis operating in Gaza took no publicly visible steps to identify and punish officials accused of committing rights abuses.  The accusations about IDF’s military conduct in Gaza have piled up; they include using food as a weapon, targeting civilian infrastructure, indiscriminate bombing – something even the President has said is taking place.  So I’m wondering, we know you’ve got ongoing processes about this, but could you tell us why is it taking so long to make a definitive assessment about these?  And the fact that it’s taken so long triggers, like – leads a lot of people suggesting that U.S. has a double standard when it comes to applying the law with Israel.  Does the U.S. have a double standard?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Great.  Thanks, Humeyra.  Let me start with the last part of the question:  Do we have a double standard?  The answer is no.  As this report makes clear, in general, as we’re looking at human rights and the condition of human rights around the world, we apply the same standard to everyone, and that doesn’t change whether the country in question is an adversary, a competitor, a friend, or an ally.  And that’s hugely important.

With regard to the Leahy Law report that I think you were referring to at the outset, this is a – I think a good example of a process that is very deliberate, that seeks to get the facts, to get all the information, that has to be done carefully, and that’s exactly how we proceeded, as we proceed with any country that is the recipient of military assistance from the United States.  And again, the same standard applies.

I don’t have more to say about it today, but I think you’ll see in the days ahead that we will have more to say, so please stay tuned on that.

On Gaza itself, a few things.  First, from day one, we’ve been working to do everything we can to try to increase protection for civilians as well as to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance for the Gazans who so desperately need it.  When it comes to allegations of incidents of – whether it’s violations of international humanitarian law, rights abuses, you name it, we have processes within the department that are looking at incidents that have been raised.  Those processes are ongoing.  And here, again, it’s important that we take the time to do our best to get the facts, to get the information, to do the analysis.  It’s very challenging to do this in real time.  And most – as you’ll see if you look back at other places where we’ve made determinations ourselves, it usually takes time to do that to get the – to get the information.

QUESTION:  Can you at least provide a timeline for any of that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I’m not going to give you a timeline except to say that these efforts are ongoing.  And when we feel that we’ve made the – that we have the facts, we’ve been able to do the analysis, we’ll make known the findings.  Similarly, though, when we see reports of incidents, we also take these directly to – in this case – the Israeli Government and ask for an explanation, information about what did or didn’t happen.  That too is an ongoing process, and it’s, I think, very important to make sure that countries know that we’re watching this very, very carefully.  But as I say on the Leahy piece of this, more to come in the coming days.

MR MILLER:  Kylie.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this, Secretary.  I have a question on the report as well with regard to what it says about Gaza, and it says that war crimes have been committed by Israel and Hamas.  And I wonder if this building is actually looking into those allegations to determine their validity, like you guys looked into allegations of war crimes in Ukraine; and if there isn’t an assessment happening in this building, who the U.S. Government is relying on for that assessment to be made.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah, so Kylie, as I said, we are looking into reports, incidents that are brought to our attention, and we have a process to do that, particularly if there are questions about whether U.S. arms have been involved, and that is ongoing.  And we are continuing to be focused on that.

Every situation, every country is different.  For example, the case of Ukraine, where we have made certain determinations, totally different situation than in Gaza.  The Ukrainians, first of all, themselves were not in any way a legitimate target the way, of course, Hamas is in Gaza.  They were also not embedding themselves with civilians, hiding in and under apartment buildings, mosques, hospitals, you name it.  And in addition, in the case of Ukraine, when Russian forces, for example, withdrew from Bucha, we were able to see, the world was able to see very plainly what had happened, and we were able to get the evidence.

So each of these situations is different, and we have to do our best to collect the facts and follow the facts, and that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION:  So ultimately, just to be clear, this building will make its own determination if war crimes are being committed by Israel or Hamas or any of those other groups?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We will – we make our own determinations, and of course there may be other bodies that do the same, but we make our own determinations.  But importantly in the case of Israel, Israel has and has demonstrated the capacity also to look at itself.  And again, this is what separates democracies from other countries – the ability, the willingness, the determination to look at themselves.  It’s my understanding that they have many open investigations based on reports that have been – that have come forward with allegations about abuses of human rights or abuse of international humanitarian law, laws of war, et cetera.

So in the first instance, I think that’s the most important thing, that any of our democracies have to make sure that we’re policing ourselves, holding ourselves to the standards that we’re asking of others.  I believe Israel is in the process of doing that based, on knowledge of open investigations that they have.  And as I said, when incidents are brought to our attention, we look at them, and particularly if there’s a possibility that U.S. arms were used in those incidents.


MR MILLER:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, does the Geneva Convention apply to Gaza?  Reporters have been asking this for months and not gotten an answer.

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS