Transcript of Remarks by
Honorable Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)
Dan Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
At a luncheon hosted by Media 21
At the U.S. Mission to the United Nations,
January 28, 2011
Ambassador Donahoe: Thank you very much and welcome to everybody. We’re very pleased to have you with us today. As you know, in our work at the Human Rights Council the U.S. places great stress on the core human right of freedom of expression, and your work as journalists is central to making that right real for others and because you are actually able to amplify the work of human rights defenders and civil society actors where you live and work.
So the first thing I want to do is to convey our deep respect for your work and mission as journalists. We are cognizant of the fact that there are many cases where journalists actually put their lives on the line to be able to report on human rights issues, so we are grateful for your courage and commitment to your work.
My understanding is that we have journalists here from Burma, Nepal, Mozambique, Niger and Rwanda, and I’m happy to say joining we have a guest from Washington, D.C., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human rights and Labor, Dan Baer, who is extremely knowledgeable about human rights conditions in your countries and around the world and will be very happy to answer questions on any topics you may want to raise and converse with you after the general comments.
We would really like to spend most of our time actually in conversation with you, so I’m going to just say a few words and then we’ll have Dan say a few words, take a couple of questions, and then we’ll move around from table to table.
The two topics I wanted to discuss are, first, the significance of human rights and the significance of U.S. membership at the Human Rights Council in the Obama administration? The second topic is what is the significance of the Universal Period Review for Human Rights generally? Does it make a difference on the ground?
On the first topic, the promotion and protection of human rights is the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. The fundamental connection between human rights, security and development is deeply appreciated by President Obama and Secretary Clinton. They both firmly believe that a more just and free world is a more secure and stable world. The responsibility to uphold the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental duty for all governments. Why is that? Simply because human rights are universal. They do not belong to any nation, region, faith or culture. And the basis of legitimacy for any government rests on its responsibility to respect and protect the human dignity of its citizens.
Further, the United States recognizes that the most effective way for the United States of America to promote our values is to live them. This is a central tenet of the President’s National Security Strategy, and we are committed to living the values we seek to promote abroad.
Turning to the issue of the significance of U.S. membership in the Human Rights Council, as you know the Human Rights Council is the lead entity within the UN system for protecting and promoting human rights, which is one of the pillars of the entire UN system. President Obama’s decision to seek membership at the Human Rights Council reflected a 180 degree turn from the previous administration’s choice to shun the Council. It reflected a judgment that the United States was more likely to influence the body from within than through criticism from the outside.
The decision also reflected President Obama’s confidence in the potential impact of U.S. leadership when we engage actively in multilateral institutions.
The Obama administration is committed to principled multilateral engagement as an essential tool for the U.S. to influence outcomes that we desire on the world stage. At each Council session we have conversations between nations, with civil society, and all of those conversations help shape the norms about human rights for the international community. So we believe if we wish to shape the results we must be part of the dialogue. That’s why we are there.
The approach [in the Human Rights Council] we have generally found as a team here at the U.S. Mission is to partner with other countries in areas where we can find common ground. That is always our starting place. A very good example of that was the initiative we undertook in the last session, the September session of the Human Rights Council, when the United States was able to find 64 co-sponsors for our initiative to establish a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Freedom of Assembly. We did not end up with that many partners simply by virtue of U.S. pressure or U.S. promises for something in return. Rather, we found that the initiative to establish a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association was something that most countries supported on the merits, based on their own experiences, traditions and values. And in many cases with full recognition that it was only because of freedom of peaceful assembly and association that their governments were in any dimension free or democratic.
We relied heavily on the words of President Obama in a speech he gave to the General Assembly last fall when he reminded his audience that it was the ability to assemble peacefully that made the Solidarity movement possible; the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to be effective; and to allow the voices of the mothers of the disappeared to be heard in Argentina.
So in our work at the Human Rights Council we always start with that premise, that human rights are universal and that we do have common ground, even if the manifestations of those rights differ from place to place.
Let me turn briefly to the UPR process, which is I believe the reason most of you traveled here to Geneva, to observe the UPR process for your home countries.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is recognized as the most important new tool created along with the Human Rights Council to protect and promote human rights. The question “Why does the UPR have this reputation?” and “What is it about it that makes it such a valuable new tool?” have a very simple answer. It is because the UPR is universal. That fact alone makes it an especially important tool because there is no other mechanism in the international arena that makes scrutiny of the human rights record of every country in the UN system possible, and in fact requires it.
I would say the UPR is identified as the single most important improvement from the HRC’s predecessor organization, the Commission on Human Rights, which failed. The Universal Periodic Review was the crowning achievement of the entire process of creating the Human Rights Council.
In addition, the UPR process provides a valuable opportunity for self-reflection, peer review, as well as critiques by civil society. And when countries actually choose to use the process constructively, there are real lessons that can be learned and improvements can in fact be made on the ground.
We recognize the UPR process is not perfect. Those of you who have observed the process in the chamber will know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes states fail to engage in the process honestly or transparently. In some cases regional and allied blocks support members of their regions and do that to mute honest criticism.
The success of the process very much depends on independent journalists, such as yourselves, to call out countries when they are in fact not engaging honestly in terms of the facts on the ground in their own countries. That is a big part of your job.
We are also heartened to see that in many cases countries do engage honestly, and when that happens it ends up creating a new dialogue at home with activists, civil society actors. New engagement is actually possible on the ground because countries come here, they hear criticism, journalists report on it, and then new dialogues are possible.
Let me just stop there and call up Dan Baer because I think we’ll both answer questions, but Dan was very involved in the United States Universal Periodic Review Process. There are a lot of parts of the process that we are very proud of, so let’s hear from Dan.
DAS Baer: Thank you very much, Ambassador Donahoe, both for the introduction and for your remarks. Thank you all for being here today. I want to follow up on what Ambassador Donahoe said in terms of the U.S. process and how we see that in our broader goals for the UPR process.
The United States wants to see the UPR develop over the course of the coming years in a way that it increasingly serves as an authoritative place to establish facts, to establish concrete recommendations for progress, and to bring together the various parties who are involved in that process of progress including both civil society, journalists like yourselves, civil society, government officials, and officials from other governments who make the recommendations in the formal setting on the Council floor.
In an effort to contribute to the development of a productive UPR institution, if you will, the U.S. took very seriously our own report, and the last time I was in Geneva was in November for the presentation of our report. But we actually started a year in advance of that. We held 12 consultations with civil society groups, hosted by civil society groups, at various places around the United States, including for example one where we focused in particular on discrimination against Arab-Americans, which was held outside of Detroit, Michigan where there’s a large Arab-American community. And one was held on a Native American reservation in Arizona where we had a lot of discussions about the particular human rights challenges in Indian country across America. I have a little brother who is Native American, so that was of particular interest to me. And then there were other cities around the country we had civil society gatherings. I attended one in New York City where we talked a lot about housing issues in the informal sector, for example.
This series of consultations served as the raw material for what we covered in our limited space of 20 pages in our report. In that sense it was a productive and important part of generating our own report to the Council. But it also generated in more ways than we expected what Ambassador Donahoe referred to as an opportunity for ongoing engagement.
We’ve continued even past the production of our report to engage with these people. We have held several conference calls since the report was finalized to engage with civil society actors to get their feedback on what they felt was important for us to say in the presentation, and then after our presentation we have engaged with them to try to identify their priorities. We do that because we will come back to the HRC in March and respond to the recommendations that were made in November, and understanding civil society’s priorities will help us respond to the over 200 recommendations we received, all of which of course will not be accepted and achievable in a short time span.
We’ve continued the conversation with the people who helped us generate the report, and we expect that to continue not only until March, but also in the years to come. This is a cyclical process and we want this to be the start of an ongoing conversation, and we expect that four years from now we will have a story to tell that marks the progress that we’ve made since our first report. We hope that too becomes the norm for other countries.
One of the things that we did that I’ll call out in particular here in Geneva in November was we had our formal session where we presented our report in the morning, and then in the afternoon we had a townhall for civil society where we invited civil society to come and we gave them an opportunity to ask question of our delegation in the same way that countries did.
With all due respect to the country representatives, it certainly was the case that the civil society townhall was the more interactive and the more rigorous examination of our record and one that we welcomed the chance to engage on. We hope that other countries will see the value in having an event like that and perhaps do likewise when it comes time to present their own reports.
I had a chance to look at the schedule that you all have for this week, and I look forward over lunch to hearing about how the other parts of your agenda have gone. And let me reiterate on behalf of Ambassador Donahoe and the terrific team here at the Mission that, while those of us back in Washington do our best to help out, the real work happens here, and we certainly appreciate the ongoing engagement. So thank you all for being here and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today, and I look forward to conversations over lunch.
I know that we have time for a few questions.
Question: Thank you for giving me the occasion to ask this question. I think I asked it yesterday, but there is no occasion to respond. It was about Rwanda. I’m from Rwanda, so I’d like to know more details about the recommendation you made on [inaudible] report about freedom of press and the interference of politicians in the judicial system. Thank you.
DAS Baer: Thank you very much for that question.
Obviously, the United States has long had a very strong relationship with the Rwandan government, and we cooperate on many measures, most prominently on regional security issues. But we like others have been concerned with a series of events that indicate that freedom of expression is constrained in Rwanda. As we look at what we see as critical obstacles to a long term productive partnership, we see the constraints on public space and on freedom of expression to be very prominent concerns for us.
In terms of the judiciary in Rwanda as elsewhere, we think the independence of the judiciary is crucial. Rwanda has, as we all know, made tremendous progress in the wake of tragedy over the last 15 years, and we’re grateful for that progress. We support it. We have taken a number of steps to support and encourage it. But today we look to the future and are laying the groundwork for the institutions that can support truly democratic progress, where there is real political competition. We see that as in the best interest of the Rwandan people and the Rwandan government. We will continue to call out incidents where we see freedom of expression constrained and journalists punished for what they say, and we’ll continue to work with the Rwandan government to make our views known and to encourage them to take steps to decriminalize acts of expression and to protect journalists and the political opposition and give them space to operate.
Question: Recently ASEAN demanded Western countries to lift the sanctions after showing some indication of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and elections, and so would you have any comment on this statement from ASEAN regarding this session?
Ambassador Donahoe: Thanks for your question. Sanctions have been a part of U.S. policy toward Burma for a while now, and we continue to see those as targeted at those who stand in the way of a democratic and peaceful Burma. I don’t expect that will change. That said, we’re continuing to explore opportunities within the context of U.S. policy to engage the leadership there and to make clear that the most promising, the most attractive path forward is one of political reconciliation and democratic transition. So I expect that will continue.
Question: I felt that the process of UPR that some states make their comments trying to give an opportunity. I mean after the report is presented by a minister, I felt that some states make lobbies so they can have good comments. Mozambique, for instance, can bring the report and after the report, some states they can make some comments but because they, I felt there were some lobbyists before that so they can speak well about any country. I don’t know what you feel about that. Do you have the same feeling?
Also I’d like to know about the situation of Mozambique. Our reports say that the situation of human rights are becoming very bad. The United States, what do you feel? The United States is the biggest financial of the country. Sorry for the language. Thank you.
Ambassador Donahoe: If I understood the first part of your question correctly, I believe you were saying that after countries speak sometimes other countries get up and make statements in support, to somewhat protect the government in their presentation of what is actually going on on the ground. Yes, that is absolutely a part of the exercise. Sometimes it’s extremely frustrating. But I am a firm believer in the power of speech, and even when a government tries to convey a version of the facts that is not accurate, and then other governments support them, I believe everybody knows what’s really going on. That’s why it’s important for the rest of us to tell our version of the facts. Ultimately the truth will out.
I can tell you that I’ve been in that room on many occasions when people are speaking, and I see ambassadors rolling their eyes. People know what’s going on. I don’t think the truth is hidden. I think it’s important for all of us not to lose faith in the process itself, and to let time tell. When you as journalists and we as a government with a different perspective have a chance to tell our version of the facts, at some point it influences what actually happens on the ground.
I’ll let Dan speak to the specific case of Mozambique.
DAS Baer: I concur, and part of what Ambassador Donahoe says goes back to what I was saying about our efforts as a government to establish cultures and traditions around the UPR institution where governments are expected to speak the truth when they make their interventions. And you’re right, there is lobbying that goes on, and some governments do not speak the truth in their interventions. Over time it’s our hope that that will increasingly become something that is frowned upon and something that governments don’t do. Obviously you all play a role in calling out the farces when the farces happen.
In terms of Mozambique in particular, I had the pleasure of addressing the law faculty at your university in May this year. I gave a speech there. Mozambique has been for the last decade a golden country in Africa in terms of economic growth, et cetera and is a big recipient of U.S. aid. I know that from talking to Ambassador Rowe and from my visit there. But we do have significant concerns, and they’re concerns that we have, as I said, elsewhere in terms of political space and political competition, increasing problems with certain kinds of crime, including trafficking in persons and drugs. And those things cause instability which hampers protections for human rights and the security of everyone. As you know, the increase in crime has been something that’s been of chief concern.
I think that as we go forward we will continue to work to encourage the government of Mozambique to take steps to maintain the open political space where there can be real political competition. When I was there I met with the Justice Minister in the wake of reports of torture in some prisons. We talked about the steps being taken to investigate that and to take steps to remedy and make sure that that doesn’t happen.
So it will be an ongoing project and we’ll continue to engage there. Our ambassador there is terrific. She has certainly her focus on that. We have had a strong relationship with Mozambique for many years and we certainly look forward to continuing that and to making sure that the disappointing events of the recent few months, and over the last couple of years, that we can turn that around and continue on the path to prosperity that Mozambique has been on for the last decade.
Question: My question is on West Africa, particularly the situation in Cote d’Ivoire. As Ambassador Donahoe said, the Obama administration showed a very strong position for the first time openly and officially about the situation of the violation of human rights in Africa. And I would like to know how far the United States is ready to go in order to support the African Union in the position to try to push out former President
Gbagbo and help out the elected President Ouattara knowing that the situation is very tough, particularly for the people, because the economic sanctions have been taken. As usual, it is the people who are suffering. Thank you.
DAS Baer: Obviously we continue to be seized of the situation in Cote d’Ivoire, and our focus is on getting President Ouattara to be able to take over as the democratically elected leader and getting Gbagbo to do what he ought to do in terms of stepping down.
We continue to engage more than daily, obviously, with the African Union (AU) and others who are trying to bring an end to the crisis there. I can’t go into too many details about what our contingency plans are, but I can tell you that we continue to stand by the position that we’ve taken at the outset, which is that this is a case where a leader has been democratically elected and the previous leader needs to step down and move aside. That is in the interest of West Africa more generally. Obviously there are security issues. Security issues in Cote d’Ivoire obviously have cross-border effects. It’s certainly in the interest of the people of Cote d’Ivoire.
In terms of sanctions, obviously there are a variety of ways that sanctions can be imposed, and our intent is always not to negatively impact the innocent people and instead to use sanctions as a lever to encourage right action on the part of, in this case, Gbagbo.
I will say that in addition to all of that is going on in the political situation, civilian protection continues to be an urgent concern in Cote d’Ivoire, and we are in constant touch with the UN and others to try to identify the risks. As you said, human rights abuses have taken place, and our concern for preventing any future abuses remains front and center. We’re looking at ways that we can make sure that those on the ground who are engaged in civilian protection efforts can be as empowered as possible to carry out that important work.
Ambassador Donahoe: One really quick follow-up. As you probably know, the Council was able to hold a special session on the crisis around the election and the violence that transpired. We intend to have some type of follow-up action inside the Council, and we are encouraging other actors, particularly in the African group, to move forward with that action here.
I heard a very interesting suggestion this morning when I was speaking with the Human Rights Group, which is for all of us to encourage President Ouattara to show up the first week of March at the high level segment of the Human Rights Council session and to assert his authority as the President and to challenge the Council to keep focus on this situation as a human rights matter.
So I would encourage you all to do that.