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Transcript: Press Briefing by Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
March 2, 2010


Press Briefing


Maria Otero

Under Secretary of State

Monday, March 1, 2010

Geneva, Switzerland

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you very much.  I’m very pleased to be able to have had the opportunity to address the Council and to discuss some of the priorities that the United States has for this Council, and to be able to reiterate the importance that we give to promoting and helping the Council operate in a more effective way, in a way that is based and rooted on human rights principles and focuses on those places and the needs to be able to address abuses where they happen.

As you know, the United States is new to the Council, but clearly we’re not new to the struggle of universal human rights.  I think our effort in the Council is to not only participate but to also be able to have our voice be heard clearly on some of the issues that we consider crucial.  Clearly, we understand that the way the United States can lead is initially by example, and we don’t have, as President Obama has often said, a perfect human rights record.  We are not exempt from the standards that we are asking the Human Rights Council to set forth for all countries, and that we’re trying to defend here in Geneva.

We’ll be looking and addressing this more as we conduct our own universal periodic review which, as you know, is part of the process that’s going on for every country.  We’ve already started consultations with civil society inside the United States, speaking with a wide variety of different groups, different American citizens, to address the questions of human rights in the United States.  So we are in the process right now of listening, of taking note, of incorporating those ideas as we prepare our own UPR as part of this work.
We think that this is the type of model that would serve countries well.  The idea, as countries prepare their own universal periodic reviews, is that they also take similar efforts to record the concerns of their own people, to record what their own civil societies are discussing.
These concerns, these voices, these are the sorts of approaches  that we think Council members needs to be able to take.

I will list the four things that we think are enormously important as we move forward and that we will be pushing for in the Council.

The first is strong and unbiased country mandates.  The second is an end to the disproportionate attention to Israel.  Third  is independent special raporteurs who can operate with not only independence but with full access to information.  And finally,  thoughtful and a thorough planning of the 2011 Human Rights Council review process.  These are some of the things that we will be taking on and moving forward.
Question: The question is about the elections of new members to the Human Rights Council in May.  Among the countries running for a seat on the Council are Iran and Libya.  I’m wondering how do you see their running for the seats?  And can the U.S. imagine sitting on the same Council as those two countries that are known for widespread human rights abuses?
Under Secretary Otero: We think we need to go back to the principles as we’re looking at this question. As we consider any country we need to look very carefully at their human rights records and at the way in which they are carrying out their own response to human rights abuses in their own countries.  So I think that’s a way to address that question.  I think that has to be front and center in the way that we approach it.
Question: I’m surprised in the four things you listed you didn’t mention freedom of expression.  Isn’t that a primary concern also to the United States, especially at this session where it’s going to come up again?
Under Secretary Otero: Absolutely.  The areas that I mentioned are action areas.  But if we really go back to the way in which we are framing everything that we do in the Human Rights Council, freedom of expression is really at the core of it.  When we look at our work in the Council or anywhere else we really go back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where the freedoms that prevail in that underlie the work that we do anywhere, so freedom from expression is clearly one of the most important ways in which our engagement will be manifested, whether we’re talking about religious intolerance or any other issue.
Question: Can I follow up on that?  Doesn’t the U.S. Constitution and the way it has an absolute interpretation of what freedom of expression means make your task more difficult when you deal with even European countries?  Let alone other nations who want to see hate speech banned, for example?
Under Secretary Otero: We absolutely firmly maintain the concept of freedom of expression as it’s manifested, both in our Constitution and in all the work that we do.

We believe that in order to move forward in addressing issues, for example religious intolerance, we don’t need to attack freedom of expression in order to do so.  There are many other ways in which we can put that forth and clearly some of the ways in which we can address religious intolerance.  One of the ways we are suggesting is that countries enact anti-discrimination laws, that they carry out specific activities that could engage people of different religions to interact together, that they be able to provide a series of different ways of addressing the issue.  One that doesn’t restrain or restrict freedom of expression.
Question: One of the things Madame Pelai said this morning was that basically the Council suffers a problem of friends supporting each other and not dealing with the actual issue.  The violation of human rights.
We have seen in the last couple of weeks Latin America and Brazil supporting first Iran and then Cuba now in the latest incident that happened there.  How do you see the region regarding this pattern of behavior?
Under Secretary Otero: As I mentioned in the speech this morning, one of the important ways in which we are addressing our work is to engage constructively in all the areas of change that are needed, and what we are looking for are partnerships in this work that transcend the traditional geographic groupings, or that transcend the sub-groupings that can form in the Council.
Our effort is to consistently apply international human rights law to all countries.  That’s the message that we are trying to work and to operate.  The idea that all countries from one region should work together is in fact something that we’re trying to expand so that we can move toward broader partnerships among different regions.
Question: In this regard, for example, the position of Brazil in Iran and Brazil in regard to Cuba, how is that seen by the U.S. administration?
Under Secretary Otero: We don’t think that we can really tell countries how to operate and how to move forward, but what we do think is important, and we hope they do, too,  is to  hold up the principles behind the Human Rights Council, which are certainly the principles that we believe are so important.  The concept of principled engagement underlies underlies what I am saying.  So is the application of international human rights law to everyone and to every country without exception.  And then fidelity to the truth.  These are the three tenets that underlie our work.  And that is the way we will approach everything that we are doing.


Question: Madame Secretary, you’ve just given a very diplomatic answer about Iran, but could I push you a little further, because your seat will be occupied in just over an hour by the Iranian Foreign Minister who is going to tell us —


Question: Who is going to tell us that Iran is being discriminated against.  But does the United States intend to take a stronger position about Iran?  It is to many people shocking that a country with that reputation should be anywhere near the Council.  And will you be using the weapon of threatened sanctions in this context?  Thank you.
Under Secretary Otero: We certainly think that it’s very important for the Council to be able to keep a focus on the human rights abuses that are taking place in Iran, and to be able to make sure that focus on these abuses is maintained and addressed.
There are a variety of different ways to respond to this, and I don’t think that it’s important at this point to lay out specifically, that we should do it this way or that way.  What is more important is for the Human Rights Council to be able to address, to be able to put the spotlight on these issues and to maintain them front and center as abuses that are being carried out in a country.  That is precisely what the Human Rights Council should be addressing when it is looking at membership.
Question: I just wanted to ask you, you mentioned this issue about disproportionate attention to Israel.  Can you define what would be appropriate attention to the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories given the administration doesn’t seem to be giving much attention to the issue?
Under Secretary Otero: We think is important to point out that the majority of the resolutions that come out of the Council and resolutions that come out in every session have to do with Israel.  Israel is always an agenda item.  And while we believe that it’s very important to be able to have country mandates and that we should be able to address different country issues, we should be able to do that as a Council according to the human rights abuses that the Council observes and needs to address.  So with Israel it’s really developing a greater perspective and ensuring that it doesn’t dominate to the degree that it does the undertakings, the proceedings as well as the resolutions of the HRC.


Question: If I can just follow up, given that the issue is going to be discussed in this Council session.  Does the United States believe that there are serious human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories?  Or is this something that simply should be removed entirely from the Council’s agenda in your opinion?


Under Secretary Otero: No.  Absolutely — What we are seeing emerge right now is what we would propose we enable to continue is both Israel and the Palestinians taking on their own individual internal investigations and reviews of the allegations that have been made in the Goldstone Report.  And as you know, Israel has already submitted a report.  The Palestinians have created an independent commission.  Clearly, the abuses that have or may have taken place have to be addressed, and the best way to do that is for the countries to take those on and to give them attention and to be able to carry those out.
That is in the process of being developed right now.  From our perspective the Human Rights Council should support that effort and move it forward rather than truncate it or minimize it by developing its own position that doesn’t take these efforts into consideration.


Question:  Will you meet Mr. Mottaki here in Geneva also for bilateral talks?  And if yes, what will be the issues?  Thank you.

Voice: I had a hard time understanding your question.  Could you repeat it, maybe a little slower and a little louder?


Under Secretary Otero: We couldn’t hear so well.


Question: I’m sorry.  I was wondering if you will meet Mr. Mottaki here in Geneva for bilateral talks?  And if yes, what will be the issues?


Under Secretary Otero: No, I will not be meeting with him.
Thank you very much.