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Remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Karen Stewart, Principal Assistant Deputy Secretary of State for Human Rights and Labor, at the Release of the 2008 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

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Location: Washington, DC

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SEC. CLINTON: I apologize for being a little late. This is such an important event in the annual calendar of the State Department.

You know, human progress depends on the human spirit, and this inescapable truth has never been more apparent than it is today. The challenges of this new century require us to summon the full range of human talents to move our nation and the world forward. Guaranteeing the right of every man, woman and child to participate fully in society, and to live up to his or her God-given potential, is an ideal that has animated our nation since its founding. It is enshrined also in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was reflected in President Obama's inaugural address, when he reminded us that every generation must carry forward the belief that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Our foreign policy must also advance these timeless values, which empower people to speak, think, worship, and assemble freely to lead their work and family lives with dignity, and to know that dreams of a brighter future are within their reach.

Now, the promotion of human rights is essential to our foreign policy. But as a personal aside, I have worked for many years and in various capacities on the issues that are encompassed under the rubric "human rights." It is of profound importance to me, and has informed my views and shaped my beliefs in ways large and small. As secretary of State, I will continue to focus my own energies on human rights, and I will engage as many others as I can to join me, both through traditional and untraditional challenges. I am looking for results. I am looking for changes that actually improve the lives of the greatest numbers of people. Hopefully, we will be judged over time by successful results from these efforts.

To begin, not only will we seek to live up to our ideals on American soil, we will pursue greater respect for human rights as we engage other nations and peoples around the world. Now, some of our work will be conducted in government meetings and official dialogue. That's important to advancing our cause. But I believe strongly we must rely on more than one approach as we strive to overcome tyranny and subjugation that weakens the human spirit, limits human possibility, and undermines human progress.

We will make this a global effort that reaches beyond governments alone. I intend for us to work with nongovernmental organizations, businesses, religious leaders, schools and universities, as well as individual citizens -- all of whom can play a vital role in creating a world where human rights are accepted, respected and protected.

Our commitment to human rights is driven by our faith and our moral values, and by our belief that America must first be an exemplar of our own ideals.

But we also know that our security and prosperity and progress is enhanced when people in other places emerge from the shadows to gain the opportunities and rights that we enjoy and treasure.

It is now my pleasure to bring to the podium Karen Stewart, acting assistant director for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who will present the report and take your questions.

Karen?

Q Madame Secretary, Madame Secretary, could you answer just one question --

(Cross talk.)

SEC. CLINTON: Thank you all very much. (The secretary departs.)

MS. STEWART: Good afternoon. I am Karen Stewart, acting assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Let me say a few words here at the beginning about the production of the reports and make some brief observations about their content.

These congressionally mandated annual reports were delivered to Congress earlier today, and they will be posted on our State Department website after this briefing.

Officers at our overseas posts go to great lengths to gather factual information for these reports. Here at the Department of State, we owe special thanks to Stephen Eisenbraun, who coordinates the production of the reports in my bureau; to dozens of dedicated officers throughout my bureau of DRL; and -- well as in bureaus throughout the department, all of whom have worked hard over many weeks to ensure that these reports meet high standards of accuracy and objectivity.

The reports themselves are based on information that we have received from governments, multilateral institutions; from national and international nongovernmental groups; and from academics, jurists, religious groups and the media. They have gone through a lengthy process of checking and cross-checking.

As we present these reports, the Department of State remains mindful of the both international and domestic scrutiny of our own human rights record. President Obama has made it clear that we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community, whether by other governments or nongovernmental actors, to be interference in our internal affairs, nor should other governments regard expressions about their performance as such. We and all other sovereign nations have international obligations to respect the universal human rights and freedoms of our citizens, and it is the responsibility of others to speak out when they believe those obligations are not being fulfilled.

Since the days of our own nation's founding, we have endeavored to correct injustices and fully promote respect for fundamental freedoms for all of our citizens. These efforts have been spurred and sustained by an accountable democratic system of government, the rule of law, a vibrant free media, and most important of all, the civic activism of our citizenry.

The U.S. government will continue to hear and reply forthrightly to concerns about our own practices. We will continue to submit reports to international bodies, in accordance with our obligations under various human rights treaties to which we are a party.

Now, in the introduction to these reporters, readers will find overviews highlighting key trends in each geographic region. Each of the regional overviews is followed by thumbnail sketches of selected countries, ordered alphabetically, that were chosen for notable developments, positive, negative or mixed, that were chronicled during calendar year 2008. For the more comprehensive, detailed information, we refer you to each of the individual country reports.

I wish to emphasize that the country-specific reports cover calendar year 2008 only. Relevant developments that have taken place since December 31, 2008, will be covered in next year's reports.

Each country's report speaks for itself. However, some broad cross-cutting observations can be drawn.

One, in 2008, pushback against demands for greater personal and political freedom continued in many countries across the globe. A disturbing number of countries leveled burdensome, restrictive or repressive laws and regulations against nongovernmental organizations and the media, including the Internet.

Many courageous human rights defenders who peacefully pressed for their own rights and those of their fellow countrymen and women were harassed, threatened, arrested and imprisoned, killed or subjected to violent other extradicial means of reprisal.

Two, human rights abuses remain a symptom of deeper dysfunctions within political systems. The most serious human rights abuses tended to occur in countries where unaccountable rulers wielded unchecked power, or there was government failure or collapse, often exacerbated or caused by internal or external conflict.

And three, healthy political systems are far more likely to respect human rights. Countries in which human rights were most protected and respected were characterized by the following electoral, institutional and societal elements: free and fair electoral processes that include not only a clean casting and honest counting of ballots on election day, but also a run-up to the voting that allows real competition and full respect for the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association; representative, accountable, transparent democratic institutions of government, including independent judiciaries under the rule of law, to ensure that leaders who win elections democratically also govern democratically and are responsive to the will and needs of the people; and vibrant societies, including independent, non-governmental organizations and free media.

While governments bear the ultimate responsibility for living up to their commitments under international law, the work of individuals, civil society groups and independent media in advancing human rights is vital to the expansion of freedom.

To be sure, even in countries where these elements are present, human rights abuses at times occurred. Democratic elections can be marred with irregularities. There can be abuses of power and miscarriages of justice. States having weak institutions of democratic government and struggling economies can fall far short of meeting the needs and expectations of their people for a better life. Corruption can undermine public trust. And long marginalized segments of populations of some countries have yet to enjoy full participation in the life of their nations. Insecurity due to internal and/or cross-border conflict can hinder respect for and retard progress in human rights.

But when the electoral, institutional and societal elements described above obtain, the prospects are far greater for problems to be addressed, for correctives to be applied and improvements to be made.

Taken together, the three trends we noted -- the growing worldwide demand for greater personal and political freedom, governmental efforts to push back on those freedoms and further confirmation that human rights flourish best in participatory democracies with vibrant civil societies -- confirm the continuing need for vigorous United States diplomacy to speak out and act against human-rights abuses at the same time that our country carefully reviews its own performance. These trends further confirm the need to combine diplomacy with creative strategies that can help to develop healthy political systems and support civil society.

December 10th of 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. In the decades since the declaration's adoption, there have been remarkable gains on every continent for the rights it enumerates. Still, 60 years later, hundreds of millions of people are denied fundamental freedoms by their governments.

The United States is a country founded on human rights and the rule of law. In publishing these reports, we seek to be a source of information, hope and help to people everywhere who are oppressed, silenced and marginalized. We are committed to working on all levels, national, regional and global, to ensure that the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are protected and respected.

And now I'll be happy to take your questions. Please state your name and the news organization you represent.

Q Uh --

MS. STEWART: Ma'am?

Q Excuse me -- let's --

Q Thank you for -- (off mike) -- with us.

Q I'm Matthew Lee with AP.

Q June Malloy (ph/off mike) from CNN.

Q Hold on a second.

MS. STEWART: Sorry.

Q There's a -- a procedure we go through here.

Q Oh, sorry.

MS. STEWART: Sorry. I'm a little --

Q Yeah. I'm -- it's unfortunate the secretary left before taking any questions, but -- this is really probably a question better directed to her, but since you're the one who's up here, I'm wondering if you can square some things, especially about China.

This report is highly critical of China, or at least it notes that there were some -- there were severe and substantial human-rights abuses in China last year.

There are 44 pages of pretty damning accounts of these abuses. And I'm wondering how you can -- how you square this with Secretary Clinton's comments, last week, that the human rights dialogue with China cannot -- cannot be allowed to interfere with cooperation in other areas, broader areas like the financial crisis and climate change.

MS. STEWART: Well, the China report certainly concludes that China's human rights reports remained -- human rights record remained poor in 2008. And it worsened in some areas. I think though you should look at all the remarks the secretary made and what she did when she was out in China.

As she says, human rights are a fundamental aspect of our foreign policy. In all bilateral relations, we work to achieve all of our goals and national interests.

Human rights problems were raised, have been raised in the past, were raised by the secretary in China, will continue to be raised. And we will continue to express our concern, for specific cases and for the overall issues that we would like to see improvements in.

Q So you're not worried about a disconnect or that this report, in singling -- in raising these abuses that were committed, by the Chinese authorities, will in any way hurt the dialogue in these other areas that the secretary spoke of.

MS. STEWART: I don't think there's a disconnect. We put out, in these reports, as factual and objective report as we can, of what we saw happening in 2008.

Q And you're not concerned about any negative reaction or any unwillingness, based on this report, of the Chinese, to cooperate in the other areas.

MS. STEWART: I think we will have a full dialogue with the Chinese on all areas.

Q Thank you.

(Cross talk.)

Q There was a lack of clarity during that trip. The impression, whether it was right or wrong, that was given was that the U.S. was going to downplay or was downplaying human rights.

Now, what we're hearing from the secretary today says, I want results. I'm looking for results and I want to reach beyond governments alone.

What exactly is she saying?

MS. STEWART: Well, I think, we've always wanted results. And she's underlining that that is still our policy, to see results in human rights, but also that we are looking, as we have a new administration, we are looking at most -- at all of our policies and at creative ways to approach human rights.

She mentioned going -- it's not just what you say government to government. It's building networks with NGOs. It's reaching out to the media. It's reaching out to people and trying to approach human rights issues in all the different aspects that you can.

There's also the fact that we work with other partners, with other countries. We work in multilateral organizations. To my way of thinking, it's just making clear that we are going to try this from all different approaches.

Q But is it downplaying the government to government? In other words, you're doing an end run around the government, so to speak.

MS. STEWART: I don't think it's downplaying. I think it's adding to it.

Q Talking about government to government, what about cases like Iran? The report states that the human rights situation got worse throughout the last, you know, 2008.

Is there going to be any -- are you going to reach out to Iranian officials regarding this situation?

MS. STEWART: Well, our policy towards Iran remains under review. And until that review is completed, I'm not able to get into the detail of that. I would just repeat that in general, as we've said, promoting human rights is going to be, is and remains a central tenet of our foreign policy.

We will continue to encourage Iran to abide by its international commitments, to respect human rights. And in this report, we call attention to where we see the problem areas.

Yes, ma'am?

Q Yes, Diana Molineaux, Radio Marti. Concerning Cuba, in this year have you seen any improvement with the changing government in Cuba on human rights?

MS. STEWART: There were some very minor improvements in Raul allowing, I think, some cell phones and such, but nothing that really significantly affected the lives of the people. Still very concerned -- there were, I guess, the number of political prisoners also reduced by a few, but we're still very concerned, and call for the release of the 200-plus political prisoners still there, and for generally allowing the Cuban people the freedom to -- all the basic freedoms of press and association and expression which they still do not have.

Back there in the back?

Q Edith Cho (sp) with the Voice of America. Is North Korea again one of the worst violators of human rights in 2008? And how does the State Department plan to address the human rights issue? Will you be prioritizing the denuclearization process over human rights dialogue?

MS. STEWART: Well, we don't -- you know, I don't compare one country to the other, so I'm not doing rankings or worst in that sense. But North Korea certainly falls in that category that I discussed in the general trends of a country where you have a very authoritarian leadership, and human rights, I have to say, are really, when you look at the whole situation and read the report from North Korea, abysmal in that case.

Human rights, we have always said and we -- will be a part of our overall normalization dialogue when -- negotiations, relations with North Korea. So again, I'm not prioritizing. It's a part. You have a broad relationship you have to work on. When we get to the point of being able to have something like -- move towards more talks with North Korea. And it's a part of that.

Q Could I follow up to that? Are you going to actually follow through and appoint a full-time envoy for human rights to North Korea, as was congressionally mandated?

MS. STEWART: You know, we -- we will certainly -- I -- I'll start over again. Yes, congressionally mandated and following the law, we will in time, at the appropriate time. But appointments are very early on still in process.

Yes, sir?

Q Yes, in Burma and Vietnam, the report seems to point to downward trends, or to indications of things getting worse. Could you say something about those two countries? And what is U.S. policy going to aim at in terms of improving that?

MS. STEWART: Well, Burma, I think, certainly hasn't gotten any better.

They continue -- they -- in fact, indeed, in 2008, the report notes the continued, again, political prisoners; numerous democracy activists were given quite draconian prison sentences in 2008. And so, yes, quite a significant increase in the number of prisoners there and generally government continuing to control all the governmental organs.

We've -- we are -- we will be conducting a review of our U.S. Burma policy and, again, with the notion of looking for -- are there any other ways that we haven't tried? Are there more creative ways that we might try to add to our approach to push for greater respect for human rights in Burma?

And we continue to urge the regime to heed the calls of the U.N. Security Council, which is to release all the political prisoners and to begin a genuine dialogue with the democratic opposition and the ethnic minority leaders.

On Vietnam -- remind me what it says on Vietnam -- again, a case of continuing restrictions so that, you know, we saw some cracking down on dissent, greater than before. We saw some tightening control on press, speech, assembly, association. We're still concerned about the level of trafficking in persons. So although I think if you read the report you'll get more details of where some steps were positive and others were not, overall, we find the situation is still unsatisfactory.

STAFF: Ambassador, you have time for one more question.

Q Madame --

MS. STEWART: Let me get a -- let me get a couple of these men in the front, right there.

Q Thank you. Raghubir Goyal, from India Globe & Asia today. Two questions, please, quickly. One, Tibetans are crying for human rights. And when secretary was in China this issue came up or not or if they knew about this report on the --

MS. STEWART: Well, I know some things are happening in Tibet or, you know, events even today. But yes, we continue to press the need -- our concern that their -- that that's one of the areas in which China's human rights record worsened this year, was in the treatment and the social, cultural and religious restrictions on Tibet and on the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Q And second, international -- (inaudible) -- recalling that when this Pakistani delegation is here in the State Department and the -- (inaudible) -- saying that hundreds or thousands of Baluchs are being disappeared, and they want to know that -- if the secretary can press this issue as far as human rights in Baluchistan and Pakistan.

MS. STEWART: Well, generally, I -- again, I'm not aware myself of the details of the Baluchs, but we have seen some improvements in human -- in human-rights records in Pakistan. But we've also -- find that there's a lot of it that's still poor. And we -- the government has said it's committed to more reforms, and we're going to continue to press them and encourage them to fulfill those commitments.

I -- you're my last one. (Chuckles.)

Q With the new emphasis of President Obama on the human rights now, I wonder how much -- how you're going to try to reconcile your principles when it comes to human rights with your alliances with, you know -- close alliances with some countries like Israel. Now, the Israelis' government -- the Israeli government has tried to inform the -- or inform the Palestinians of Jerusalem, 1500 families, that they have to leave their land, their homes in the city. And this goes against the Geneva Convention. Now, how forthcoming are you going to be when it comes to human rights of these Palestinians, beside the children of Gaza and the civilians in there that have been bombed?

MS. STEWART: Well, I think you should look, as I say, at our reports, to see -- see our take on what happened in 2008, and to be assured that we continue to press the government and the authorities and -- to respect, on all sides -- on both -- on -- throughout the region -- to respect the human rights, to protect civilians and to fulfill their international commitments.

Q Thank you.

MS. STEWART: Thank you.

Q Thank you, Madame.

Q Thank you, Madame.

END.


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