January 28, 2011
Honorable Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Ambassador Donahoe: Let me start by saying how pleased we are that you’re all here. It’s so important to have journalists participating at the Council, but also specifically in the UPR process because you can really make a difference in amplifying the message that comes out of the UPR process for your own country. I think that is particularly important in the case of Burma. As you observed yesterday in the presentation by the Burmese authorities there was a particular narrative that they would like to have everybody believe that does not necessarily reflect what’s happening on the ground. But more importantly, because of the two specific things that have happened in recent months — namely the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and then the November 7th election exercise — folks who genuinely care about human rights might be led to believe mistakenly that the human rights situation on the ground has actually changed significantly and that those are good indicators of the direction the government’s going in.
The value of having you here cannot be overstated. You need to look behind the superficial indicators and press the authorities to answer deeper questions about the treatment of citizens at home in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of association, treatment of political opposition, treatment of ethnic minorities, et cetera. We hope that you take your responsibilities seriously, and you can help the United States amplify our perspective on what the real narrative should be about the circumstances in Burma.
I’ll leave it there. Dan is the substantive representative from the United States on Human Rights.
DAS Baer: Thanks very much, Ambassador Donahoe, and let the record show that Ambassador Donahoe always impresses on substance. I know that you all will probably have questions. She introduced quite well the set of issues that we see as a government in terms of our ongoing concerns with human rights on the ground in Burma. I would be happy to entertain questions that you might have. My bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor oversees the U.S. government efforts to integrate human rights and democracy concerns in our broader foreign policy, and in my capacity I oversee the Office for Asia Affairs within that bureau. So I’d look forward to discussing any questions you might have about the UPR process in particular or more generally.
Press: Although we’ve been here for UPR process and we’ve been talking to a lot of people, in part UN workers, I keep asking about so what after these UPR sessions? What should the people of Burma expect the result from the UPR, from the full process? We didn’t receive some good answer.
Ambassador Donahoe: We probably have multiple things to say. I think it’s important to comment on two things there. The first thing is your role. Your job is to go back and make known that this process has happened and to accurately describe the dynamics in that chamber and the differences between the narrative that came out of the Burmese government and the perspective of others, and the perspective that you think is more accurate. So that’s job number one, report on that.
Second, the government will have to come back to the Council in June and publicly declare which of the recommendations they will have accepted and what they’re going to do about them. If they’re not going to accept certain recommendations, they will have to say why. Your job is to push them to say why. So I want to alert you to the fact that your job is not done.
The third thing I would emphasize is there are conversations ongoing about the next round of things we could do at the Council. I will say the United States definitely would like to take further steps to hold the government of Burma accountable for past human rights abuses, and our job is to convince others that it’s the right time and place to do that.
DAS Baer: Ambassador Donahoe puts it quite well. Your question about “So, then what, and what happens.”
The UPR process as a whole is in its infancy where we are still going through the first round of country experiences. One of the interests in the United States government in participating in the UPR is not only in particular cases to make our concerns known, but also more generally as this process develops to contribute to the development of habits and customs around the process that give it weight and give it impact. We think it has promise as a place to establish facts and to lay down facts that should guide actions. We think it’s an important forum for discussion and it forces a conversation that might not otherwise happen. That conversation includes not only the formal interactive session within the Council, but obviously the kind of conversations that we’re having here today and the kind of conversations that goes on in side events, et cetera. In that respect it consolidates the variety of opinions and creates a powerful force of public opinion with which countries including our own have to reckon.
Finally, our hope is that over time the UPR process really does become a forum in which concrete goals for the improvement of human rights conditions on the ground are established, and that those goals have weight because of the power of the international community lining up behind them.
So do we expect that things will change tomorrow? No. But this is an important precedent. It’s the first time that Burma has presented. It won’t be the last. We’ll have another chance to evaluate four years from now, and we see this as part of a broader process and it’s an important step.
Press: I want to ask a question, is there any possibility to form our [inaudible] or inquiries on human rights abuses from Burma? What is the barriers of this [inaudible]? I think we have already enough documented human rights abuses. A long time goes, and also carry on daily business. People want something to make someone or [inaudible] to change. Even some cases government already they recognize some of the [inaudible] like [inaudible]. I know 2007 they have a resolution, the [inaudible]. They kill some people often. So [inaudible], the actual punishments, no case go trial. Some of the cases they already recognize the [inaudible], they already admit to the public. So we bring this to the case, who we take this kind of issue.
So only two questions. Any possibility to found a commission of inquiry right away? What kind of punishment to the perpetrators of the [inaudible] that already know [inaudible], already have committed by the government.
Ambassador Donahoe: As you probably are aware, Secretary Clinton has come out publicly to say that the United States certainly supports accountability for past human rights abuses by the Burmese authorities, regime, and we are actively in conversation with partners to see if we can successfully move forward on a Commission of Inquiry (COI).
What will get it to happen? Advocacy. We have to convince other countries that it is the right next step to take and that it will have the right effect in Burma. If you listened to the conversation yesterday at the Burma UPR and the various perspectives, I have to admit it’s an up-hill battle. I see this as competing narratives about these two data points of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the November election. Many are seeing those as a juncture to say, “Okay, let’s turn the page and move on and give the perpetrators a clean slate to continue in their role, authoritative roles in government.”
We are firmly behind the view that accountability is essential, and our job is to convince others that now is the right time and place, and we are in conversations about that.
DAS Baer: As the Ambassador said, Secretary Clinton has said that we are interested in pursuing a Commission of Inquiry. And in that respect I think one of the cases that needs to be made is that no matter whom you’re talking about, the way forward for a peaceful, stable, democratic Burma that respects human rights is going to require reconciliation, it’s going to require political dialogue, and those things require facts. Just as one of the values of the UPR process is to establish some facts on the ground, the fact-finding mission or purpose of a COI is really fundamental. It’s fundamental obviously for those who are strong advocates for accountability, but it’s also fundamental to those who are looking at the forward-looking political reconciliation that we all have to support as a path forward, a necessary path forward. So in that respect our commitment to pursuing a COI is within that context as well.
In terms of punishment, obviously a lack of accountability for human rights abuses anywhere weakens the protections of human rights everywhere. So in Burma as elsewhere around the world, we think that to the extent that where human rights abuses have occurred they should be investigated, they should be aired, and they should be under a process of law prosecuted.
Again, there’s a first step which is establishing facts. Establishing facts is a first step for many things, so I think that’s the context in which we see the COI.
Ambassador Donahoe: I’m going to add one more point, just in the spirit of more conversation and openness. This is a really delicate question, the one of punishment. I have seen some statements by Aung San Suu Kyi that reflect the idea that she is in favor of a COI at least to the extent that it is accountability, fact finding, and leads to reconciliation. The subject of punishment is an additional question. As in the case of South Africa, truth and reconciliation as opposed to truth and prosecution, there is a debate about which is more likely to lead to peace and democracy and the betterment of the situation for the people of Burma. I think that’s a legitimate question. But I think everyone should agree that fact finding and accountability are essential even if it’s solely for reconciliation, and we jointly decide that the punishment phase is not necessarily the most helpful thing. The need for accountability and the truth is essential.
Press: I’d just like to take the opportunity also to thank you. From the start, we (the Democratic Voice of Burma) started in 1992 as a way to stage in Oslo, and from the beginning we kept receiving funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). And it’s been coming the last almost 20 years. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you as well.
My question is last year in February I had the opportunity to interview Assistant State Secretary [inaudible] Campbell in Washington. And he started this process of engagement at the end of 2008, sort of a dialogue with the Burmese delegation in New York, then he has been to Burma a few times recently. In the interview he was talking about we’re trying to find a way to engage with the Burmese regime, have a dialogue, see how things improve. Now it’s been more than a year and I just want to ask what is the status now in this kind of a finding for some kind of engagement, dialogue? Do you see any kind of a change, opportunity, for the future ahead?
DAS Baer: Our engagement with Burma has been in the context of the Obama administration’s broader policy of principled engagement around the world. I would put an emphasis on the principled part of that engagement which is to say yes, we’re making attempts to reach out and to try to encourage positive forward action in Burma and in other places with the understanding that things will be difficult.
Obviously our position is that Aung San Suu Kyi should have never been in prison in the first place, and therefore her release, while welcome, is not necessarily a sign of great progress, as the Ambassador said. But I think the regime, despite the elections which were neither free nor fair, as the new government gets formed, has an opportunity. There’s an opportunity here to chart a more positive path and we will continue to engage to try to encourage and offer support for that. Part of engagement is making clear our perspective that political prisoners need to be released, that the National League for Democracy (NLD) needs to be allowed to register, and Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be given the space to operate. Those things need to happen. Being honest about those shortcomings, but also being supportive of forward movement that is consistent with movement toward a democratic and free Burma where human rights are broadly respected.
So I expect that our policy of engagement will not change, but obviously times change and the topics on which we engage can change and we’ll continue to do everything we can in our engagement to pursue speedy movement toward progress.