Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski on the 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (June 25)

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski

On the 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

June 25, 2015
Press Briefing Room

Washington, D.C.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  All right.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Hello, everyone.  It’s good to be here.  Before I answer your questions, let me take a few minutes to talk about the 2014 reports and highlight some of the major developments that we have documented in this past year.

As the Secretary emphasized, the Human Rights Reports demonstrate America’s commitment to human rights, and they’re a tool in their own right in the advancement of those rights.  They cover 199 countries and entities.  They strive to provide a comprehensive and factual review of conditions around the world.  They are also the most widely read document that we put out at the State Department every single year.  And I think that just reminds us that what America says about human rights around the world – just the words – matters greatly.

Now despite all the problems that the reports describe, I want to start by noting that people working for democracy and human rights around the world made many advances in the last year and in recent months.

In Burkina Faso, people stood up to uphold their constitution, part of a larger movement for term limits that is manifesting itself across Africa and in many parts of the world today.

In Ukraine, peaceful protests helped citizens reclaim their country’s traditions of freedom of speech and political choice.

In Afghanistan and Indonesia, millions people went to the polls and chose among all the candidates before them leaders with the most progressive, democratic visions of their country’s future.

This year – too late to be included in these reports – we saw two more elections in which people affirmed their right to choose and change their leaders in Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

That said, when you scan the headlines from Syria to North Korea to South Sudan, it’s clear that overall 2014 was a tough year for human rights and human rights activists.  We highlight many specific cases, of course, in the reports, and more have developed this year; for example, the disappearance of Zimbabwean civil society activist Itai Dzamara, who has been missing for over 100 days now.  The United States urges the Government of Zimbabwe to pursue a credible investigation of the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Now as the Secretary said, one of the notable trends this past year was the brutality of non-state actors.  These groups did not emerge from nothing.  Violent extremism in Nigeria was exacerbated by the actions and in some ways the inaction of the previous government there.  In Syria, Daesh’s rise was fueled by Assad’s horrific abuses.  In Iraq, Daesh took hold because many in the Sunni community felt marginalized, that their legitimate grievances were being ignored by the government in Baghdad.

As President Obama noted in the 2015 National Security Strategy, many of our biggest national security challenges come from the biggest human rights failures.  So our response to terrorist groups must be consistent with human rights too, which leads us to another troubling trend that the reports identify: the misapplication of counterterrorism laws to stifle criticism and restrict the space for civil society.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, peaceful internet activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 100 lashes by a court originally set up to try terrorists.  Egypt has used a real threat of terrorism to justify the prosecution of nonviolent opposition figures, human rights activists, and demonstrators.  Bahrain has a legitimate interest in protecting its people against violent groups, yet its government has focused much of its energy on prosecuting peaceful critics, including this year opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman.  Last year in China, Ilham Tohti, an Uighur scholar who promoted moderation and reconciliation among ethnic groups, was sentenced to life in prison.

Now we ask partner governments to make many contributions in the fight against groups like Daesh, but amongst the most important contributions that we ask for is to set an example in their own societies that grievances can be addressed through peaceful democratic politics so as not to feed into terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer.

Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine is another example of human rights crises sparking first-order challenges to our national security.  Our 2014 reports highlight the abuses associated with this conflict and the territory Russian-backed separatists control and in Crimea.  Meanwhile, even as Russia denies being involved in the conflict, it continues to detain Ukrainians on Russian soil.  Many are aware that Russia is holding Ukrainian pilot and member of parliament Nadiya Savchenko.  In fact, there may be many more cases.  All should be returned home.

The Russian Government’s efforts to abolish domestic discussion of its intervention in Ukraine is just one example of how its behavior abroad mirrors and reinforces the persecution the Russian people face at home.  Seventy-six of the country’s most respected NGOs are now listed as foreign agents, and a new law banning undesirable foreign organizations will intensify this trend.  There has been no progress in identifying those ultimately responsible for past murders of journalists, activists, and – now with the killing of Boris Nemtsov – leaders of the political opposition.

Another prominent trend was the use of technology to control the flow of information.  Last year, Gmail saw its traffic in China reduced to zero when Chinese authorities prevent mainland users from accessing it.  In Turkey, government authorities blocked YouTube and Twitter for several days in the lead-up to elections.  And in Cuba, while the government has publicly committed to expanding internet access, access remains restricted for the vast majority of the population – something that we will be working with U.S. service providers to help change.

Access to information is also critical to fighting corruption, and the Secretary highlighted that as another major theme of the reports this year: the connection between corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarian governments.  This is evident in many, many places.  Venezuela is one country that we highlighted in this context in this report.

In China, while the government cracked down on corruption, it also convicted civil society activists associated with the New Citizens Movement in retribution for their public campaign to expose official corruption, including Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong.  China has now introduced draft laws on foreign NGOs, national security, and counterterrorism which appear to call into question its commitment to the path of opening to the world that has supported its transformation over the past three decades.  We expressed our very serious concerns about these draft laws at the Strategic & Economic Dialogue this week and we will continue to do so.

Now these are all very tough issues.  There is no single approach or remedy, and change sometimes takes a long time.  But we must and do press for change because our hopes for peace and security and prosperity depend on respect for human rights.  These reports make clear that this is the standard towards which we must strive and to which we will be held.  And in that spirit, I welcome your questions.

MR KIRBY:  Okay.  We’ve got time for just a few of them.  I’ll moderate.  Please, Matt.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I just want to – one, and I’ll be very brief:  Why was the report so late this year?  I mean, the conspiracy theories are fast and furious out there.  I’ve heard three myself.  I’ll just mention them quickly:  It had something to do with Trade Promotion Authority, or it had to do with the Strategic & Economic Dialogue which was just completed yesterday and offending China, or the Iran talks.

And then just secondly, I’m just wondering if you – your office – has any problem or sees any disparity between what the reports say about Iran and Cuba and the Administration’s engagements with both of them that are presumably coming to fruition pretty soon.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Got it, thanks.  So first, on the delay:  At the outset of this process, we decided – the Secretary and I decided that we wanted to release the reports at a time when we would both be here to do it.  And that is admittedly not a requirement, but it’s something that we felt was important to demonstrate our commitment, his commitment to this issue.  So what happened was with that in mind, we scheduled it for a date, first back in March.  His travel schedule changed.  We scheduled it for another date; it changed.  At one point, I canceled a date that we had because I decided I wanted to go to Burundi to deal with the crisis there.  And each time, it was, “Well, no big deal, because we’ll do it next week, we’ll do it next week.”  And then the Secretary had his injury, which also obviously affected his ability to come down here and to do it.

The result was a delay that was far longer than any of us wanted.  None of us were happy with it, but it – I think it’s fairly clear given what’s happening this week and where the Secretary is going next week that it had nothing to do with some of the issues that you mentioned.  And if you want an alternative conspiracy theory, I will suggest that it was actually a devious plot to build interest and anticipation in the report so that you all will cover it.  And Matt, I think you promised us wall-to-wall coverage.

QUESTION:  Well, I didn’t – I promised that we would —


QUESTION:  I promised that everyone would have wall-to-wall coverage, not just us.


QUESTION:  And then on Cuba and Iran —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  But on Cuba and Iran, look, one of our sayings here is that engagement is not the same thing as endorsement.  And with respect to Cuba, I think that is – that should be crystal-clear, that our opening to Cuba – and I’ve spoken about this many times – was designed because we felt that the new policy is better suited to promoting human rights in Cuba than the old policy.  And as you well know, the opening was associated very closely with the release of over 50 political prisoners in Cuba.  The situation needs to get far better before any of us can say that we are where we want to be, but we feel that what we have done is to take the Cuban Government’s – take away the Cuban Government’s ability to say that the problems on the island are the fault of the United States and the embargo, and to put the focus where it belongs – on their actions and on their policies.

QUESTION:  What about Iran, Tom?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  On Iran – look, I mean, the nuclear talks – the purpose of the nuclear talks, as we have explained many, many times, is to deal with the nuclear issue.  It is not to deal with the human rights issue.  It’s a separate concern.  But we have made it absolutely clear that we – regardless of the outcome of the Iran talks, we are going to continue to speak up and stand out and stand up for human rights in Iran; that if any sanctions are lifted as a result of a nuclear deal, the human rights-related sanctions will remain in place.

QUESTION:  Tom, just to follow on that – on that answer and to ask you to elaborate a little bit, this is – this report’s a one-year snapshot, but it’s issued every year.  So I’d just like you to explain what you see the trends are in Cuba and in Iran.  Since President Rouhani became president in Iran in 2013, do you see any discernable improvement in Iran’s human rights record?  And since the Obama Administration began its opening to Cuba, has there been any improvement in the human rights situation there, or is it pretty much as it was a year prior?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Sure.  With respect to Iran, I can’t say that we have seen any meaningful improvement in the human rights situation in Iran, and if you read the reports and compare them to previous years’ reports, you will find the details of what we are concerned about.  And it involves, obviously, widespread reports of torture; political imprisonment; repression against ethnic and religious minority communities; government harassment of journalists, bloggers, activists, and so forth.

With respect to Cuba, I think we did see a fairly dramatic decision by the Cuban Government to release the vast majority of political prisoners who we had been raising concern about for some time.  We have not yet seen a letup in the kind of day-to-day harassment that civil society activists face in Cuba.  Short-term arrests, unfortunately, have continued.  I am not particularly surprised about that.  We, in fact, I think, expected that precisely because the Cuban Government would be nervous about the implications of the opening, that in the short term they might actually intensify a crackdown.  We very firmly believe that in the long run, for the reasons I mentioned in response to Matt’s question, this is going to put us in a much stronger position to promote human rights and to stand by civil society on the island.

MR KIRBY:  Lesley?

QUESTION:  Tom, can I just follow up on that?  How many are those short-term detentions?  You gave Congress a figure recently of since the – since Obama and Castro announced this agreement.  Have we seen the numbers of prisoners increase or decrease?  And what are they currently?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Well, there’s a distinction here between —

QUESTION:  Short-term —

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  — prisoners who have been convicted, right, who are —


ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  — in for months or years.  Short term, we’re talking about people who were picked up for a day or two to prevent them —


ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  — from having a meeting or a rally or doing other things.  What I mentioned to Congress – and we factually report the numbers as we get them – was a significant decline earlier this year.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  I was very cautious in not suggesting that we thought that this was necessarily a trend; it was simply a fact at that time.  In the last few months we’ve seen an increase from those low numbers.  And so as I just mentioned, this is a problem that continues.

MR KIRBY:  Said.

QUESTION:  Thank you, John.  Thank you, sir.  My name’s Said Arikat.  I just want to talk about the section that pertains to Israel and the West Bank.  Now, you cite figures that are really consistent with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry.  My first question is:  Why do you reject – if it’s so consistent, why do you reject the commission’s – the United Nations Commission of Inquiry?  And second, you also cite improvement by both Israel and the West – and the Palestinian Authority.  Could you share with us some of those improvements?  Thank you, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  For those details, I would refer you to the report on the commission of inquiry.  Look, we – during the conflict, we made clear from this podium, the Secretary and others, that we supported Israel’s right to self-defense.  At the same time, we were deeply concerned about the welfare of civilians and urged all parties to do all they could to protect civilians, particularly given the high civilian death toll in Gaza.

Now, with that said, it is important to look back.  It is important to understand what happened, to learn the lessons, to apply those lessons.  It’s also important to do it in a balanced way.  And it’s no secret that we have long felt that that balanced approach has not been a hallmark of the Human Rights Council’s approach to Israel.  And so our concerns about the report and the process we’ve made clear for that reason.  Thanks.

MR KIRBY:  You had a question?

QUESTION:  You mentioned Venezuela as a country that you highlight in the report.  Could you go over the specifics?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  I mentioned Venezuela first of all in the context of corruption.  And I think that is deliberate.  Well, I guess everything we say is deliberate.  But the reason I mention that is that there is – we often hear from the Government of Venezuela very strong propaganda directed to the United States and American interference and blaming the United States for problems in the country.  And yet we have also found that not only are there very high levels of corruption in Venezuela, but they often involve people who are part of the government, supporters of the government, and then enjoying the proceeds of their corruption in the United States.  And that’s one reason why we took action earlier this year in imposing a visa ban not just against human rights violators, but against those responsible for high-level official acts of corruption in Venezuela.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  My name’s Elliot Waldman with Tokyo Broadcasting System.  I was wondering if I could ask you – yesterday at the end of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue, Chinese officials, with regard to the NGO laws, said that it was a matter of strengthening rule of law within China, and that they had done it with consultations in – with other countries; that essentially there was nothing to worry about.  I guess I’m wondering, when you raise the kinds of concerns that you just mentioned to us to Chinese officials, do you feel there is any kind of – do you feel they’re being receptive at all to it, or do you kind of feel like they’re – you’re repeating the same thing over and over again and it’s just falling on deaf ears?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  We’ll see.  In my diplomatic career, I don’t think I’ve ever had a meeting in which people on the other side respond to a brilliant point that I’ve made by saying, “You know?  You’re right, and we’re wrong, and we’ll change what we’re doing.”  I think that the Chinese side received a very, very strong and unified message at the S&ED not just from me or the Secretary of State but from people from every agency on the dangers of this NGO law.  And the reason why it was a unified message was that this affects everybody who does business in China.  It potentially affects foundations.  It potentially affects businesses.  Potentially affects cultural exchange, student and educational exchange, in addition to people who are working on issues like rule of law and human rights.

And whatever China does, I think it is going to find that moving in this direction will result in a very concerted and unified push from quarters that it doesn’t necessarily – that it isn’t necessarily used to hearing from.  And so we will see what happens.  We’re very concerned about the implications of it and about the rhetoric of fear of cultural infiltration that the Chinese Government is using to justify this law domestically and what that says about China’s future development.

MR KIRBY:  Take just a couple more.

Right here.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this briefing.  Two things:  You mentioned at the top of the briefing that this is the most read document that the State Department issues.  Could you give us the numbers, quantify that somehow?  And secondly, in the section on Iran, I notice that you don’t refer to any American citizens by name.  You just call them dual citizens, and I’m wondering why that is.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Yeah.  On the first – I’ll have to get you the numbers.  I don’t —


ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  I don’t know them off the top of my head.  But it has long been so, and it continues to be the most widely read document.

On the dual citizens, we generally – and there’s not an absolute rule on this but we generally don’t mention American citizens by name when we mention them in this report.  We followed this year the same practice with respect to Amir Hekmati, to Pastor Abedini, and to Jason Rezaian – we followed the same practice as last year with the exception that Jason’s case is new this year – in the sense that we describe them; it’s absolutely clear that these are the cases that we describe, but we didn’t name them.

I think one reason for that is that the report cannot be a comprehensive listing of people, of individuals who are detained around the world under these circumstances.  So what we tried to do is to us the stories of the cases to illustrate a larger human rights problems.  And so that really is the main point of naming them in the first place, to talk about the pattern in Iran or others in other countries of detaining people unjustly for reporting stories or the peaceful exercise of their opinions.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR KIRBY:  Janne.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you, Tom.  Concerning on the human rights situation in North Korea, what is the United States destination for the improvement of human rights in North Korea currently?


QUESTION:  Destinations.



ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Well, our destination still appears quite off – far off, that our destination is that the people of North Korea should enjoy the same rights and freedoms as the people of South Korea and the people of every country in the world who are able to speak their minds and elect their leaders and to travel where they want, and not to be, for goodness sakes, placed in labor camps because of something they’ve said or thought or because of who their relatives are.

Now that, as I mentioned, destination seems very difficult to achieve, but I think it is very, very interesting that in the last several years we have seen inside North Korea far greater awareness among the population of what their rights are and of how people outside of North Korea live.  What has sustained this regime over many, many years is – has been its ability to deny people that knowledge.  And its ability to do that has eroded considerably in the last few years and we are doing everything we can to try to get knowledge and information to the people of North Korea so that this trend continues.

I think one lesson we’ve learned from changes in many other countries is that change takes time, but when it comes it often surprises us and goes very quickly.  And I think that day will come when we see that happen in North Korea.

QUESTION:  Do you feel that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un bring into ICC – International Criminal Court – in the near future?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  I think that the leadership of North Korea is under more pressure on human rights today than it has been at any point in its history, and that is partly, frankly, because of the efforts of this Administration and our allies and partners in Japan and South Korea and all over the world to support this commission of inquiry and its recommendations and to bring this issue to greater public attention.  And it is interesting how the North Koreans have responded.  People used to think they didn’t care what we think about their human rights record.  That is clearly not true.

QUESTION:  Thanks.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)  Thank you, honorable assistant secretary, and thanks to Secretary Kerry for this report.  This is Mushfiqul Fazal.  On Bangladesh, do you think this – the human rights situation of Bangladesh is satisfactory, as Bangladesh is facing many challenges on democracy, human rights, and people rights?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Again, for the details – I’m sure you’ll read the chapter – but I can say that since the one-year anniversary of the flawed 2014 elections in Bangladesh, we have been in regular contact with political leaders, with civil society, to urge a peaceful resolution to the political impasse there, to end the violence that has disrupted daily life and killed and wounded innocent victims.  We’ve condemned in very strong terms the use of violence for political objectives, but also emphasized the government’s responsibility to allow peaceful political activity and to use appropriate levels of force in dealing with threats to law and order.

MR KIRBY:  You’re the last one, Elise.

QUESTION:  The Secretary mentioned countries that the U.S. is friendly with might have a problem with this report.  But I’m just wondering on the opposite of that.  I mean, when you look at a country like Egypt, clearly the death sentence of Mohamed Morsy and some of the other things that you’ve had problems with happened this year.  But clearly last year there was a massive crackdown on not just people who had committed crimes, but also just in general members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And there has been a criticism that the U.S. has not been as forceful as it could be because of its important relationship with the new Sisi government.  And I’m wondering – if you look back on the last year, you had some problems in Bahrain, clearly Egypt is another issue where you have a close ally.  And I’m wondering if those – if you could reflect a little bit about the past year and how – whether these political, important national security relationships make it difficult for you to be able to advance human rights in the way that a human rights defender, such as yourself, looks at these issues.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI:  Sure.  These are difficult issues and they require difficult choices.  If it was easy, I wouldn’t be interested in having this job.  It would be really boring.

People – even people who are deeply committed to the defense of human rights around the world often disagree about the best way to do it.  But as you mentioned, I’ve been here for a year now, and I’ve been in all the discussions and conversations and involved in virtually all the decisions that we’ve made on those issues.  And I can tell you that the objective of defending human rights, the objectives that the Secretary very eloquently just spoke about, have been front and center in everything that we have tried to do.

I mean, look at how we launched our campaign against ISIL – by first and foremost seeking a more inclusive government in Iraq and then launching an effort to protect the Yezidi people from a potential genocide.  Look at how we’ve leveraged TPP to try to get improvements in labor rights and human rights in Vietnam, or how we used the Cuba opening in the way that I just discussed, or prioritize the democratic transition in Sri Lanka before re-engaging there.  So I – time and time again, I think we have made decisions with that objective in mind, often getting results, including some of the ones that I mentioned.  And then sometimes it’s very difficult because this is not the only interest that we have in the world.  It is an interest.  It is intimately related to our national security and our prosperity, but it is not the only one.  And it would not be – it would be childish and unrealistic to suggest that it can be or should be the only one.

With respect to Egypt and Bahrain, two countries that are in the middle of a region in turmoil where we have very important interest in partnering with governments in the fight against terrorism, among other things, we have still kept this issue front and center.  We have not gone back to exactly the same military relationship that we had with Egypt before all of this started.  We encouraged, as you know, very strongly the release of Mohamed Soltan and we were very happy to see that happen.  And we will continue to press for the release of all of the other activists, opposition – non-violent opposition figures who remain in prison, and the Egyptian Government knows that.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)

MR KIRBY:  Thanks, everybody.  We’re going to have to call it there.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.