Secretary Antony J. Blinken on the Release of the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Good to see everyone.
Today, I once again have the privilege of introducing and welcoming Secretary Blinken back to this briefing room so that he can mark the release of the 2021 Human Rights Report. Secretary Blinken will have some opening remarks, and then he’ll take a couple of questions.
After that, I will then introduce Lisa Peterson, who’s the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Acting Assistant Secretary Peterson will have remarks of her own, and then she will stick around for a few more questions, and then we’ll proceed with our regularly scheduled programming.
So without further ado, Secretary Blinken.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Ned, thank you very much. So we got a full program for you this afternoon. I am very pleased to be here with Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Lisa Peterson to, indeed, introduce the 2021 Human Rights Report.
So this is the second time that I’ve joined the launch of this report as Secretary, because it’s important to U.S. foreign policy; it’s important to this department; it’s important to me personally. For many years running, we have seen an alarming recession of democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights in many parts of the world. In the time since releasing our previous report, that backsliding has, unfortunately, continued.
In few places have the human consequences of this decline been as stark as they are in the Russian Government’s brutal war on Ukraine. That’s especially true in recent weeks, as Russian forces have been pushed back from towns and cities they occupied or surrounded, and evidence mounts of their widespread atrocities. We see what this receding tide is leaving in its wake – the bodies, hands bound, left on streets; the theaters, train stations, apartment buildings reduced to rubble with civilians inside. We hear it in the testimonies of women and girls who’ve been raped and the besieged civilians starving and freezing to death.
In response, people and governments in every region are voicing their condemnation and calling for those responsible to be held accountable. This global outcry has been clarifying. In its disdain for human life and dignity, the Kremlin has reinvigorated a belief in people worldwide that there are human rights that everyone everywhere should enjoy, and underscored why these rights are worth defending.
At the same time, civil society, governments, and people around the world are rightly pointing out that Ukraine is, tragically, far from the only place where gross abuses are being perpetrated. They want the international community to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses wherever they’re being committed and to bring the same urgency to stopping abuses and holding perpetrators accountable.
The United States shares that goal. This report is just one of the ways that we’re working to achieve it. It contains individual chapters on nearly 200 countries and territories, each of which offers factual, objective, and thorough accounting of their records on internationally recognized human rights. Whether a country is a friend or one with which we have real differences, the measuring stick we apply is the same.
That reflects a core principle of human rights: they’re universal. People of every nationality, race, gender, disability, and age are entitled to these rights no matter what they believe, whom they love, or any other characteristics. This is especially important as a number of governments continue to claim, falsely, that human rights need to be applied based on the local context. Little coincidence that many of the same governments are among the worst abusers of human rights.
The universal nature of human rights also means that we have to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards. Even as this report looks outward to countries around the world, we’ve acknowledged from day one of this administration that we have challenges here in the United States. We take seriously our responsibility to address these shortcomings, and we know that the way to do it matters: together with citizens and communities, out in the open, transparently – not trying to pretend problems don’t exist or sweeping them under a rug.
And in fact, that’s what distinguishes democracies – our willingness, our commitment to pursue that more perfect union. And practicing what we preach at home gives us greater legitimacy when we encourage governments abroad to do the same thing.
The report also shows that the United States is concerned not only with civil and political rights, but also economic, social, cultural rights. That means, for example, affirming that promoting access to education and health services, including for reproductive health, is just as critical to advancing human rights as defending freedom of expression and assembly.
These interconnected rights are critical to ensuring individuals can reach their full potential, and they’re critical to sustaining healthy democracies.
So with that context, let me highlight some of the most alarming findings of the report, which I want to emphasize covers the events of 2021.
Governments are growing more brazen in reaching across borders to threaten and attack critics. To give just a few examples, over the last year alone, Iranian intelligence agents plotted to kidnap an Iranian American journalist from her home in Brooklyn; the Assad regime threatened Syrians who were cooperating with efforts in Germany’s courts to prosecute former officials for atrocities; the Lukashenka regime in Belarus forcibly diverted an international commercial flight to arrest an independent journalist.
Governments are locking up more critics at home. Today, more than a million political prisoners are being held in over 65 countries. They include more than 600 people unjustly imprisoned in Cuba for taking part in peaceful protests last July; countless Russian anti-corruption activists and opposition leaders, including Aleksey Navalny; opposition presidential candidates in Benin; and Egyptian advocates like human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer.
We’ve also seen a rise in governments arbitrarily detaining individuals to try to gain leverage in bilateral relationships, to use them as human pawns.
The Chinese Government continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, among other minority groups, to erode fundamental freedoms and autonomy in Hong Kong, and to carry out systematic repression in Tibet.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s takeover precipitated a humanitarian crisis, and has resulted in serious erosion of human rights, from arbitrary detentions of women, protesters, and journalists, to reprisals against security forces for the former government, to growing restrictions on where women and girls can study or work.
In Ethiopia, all parties to the country’s conflict, as well as Eritrean forces, have committed atrocities, and thousands of Ethiopians are being unjustly detained in life-threatening conditions.
We invest so much effort into documenting these and other abuses year after year, not only because it aligns our most sacred values, but also because respect for human rights is a fundamental part of upholding the international rules-based order, which is crucial to America’s enduring security and prosperity. Governments that violate human rights are almost always the same ones that flout other key parts of that order, just as – such as invading, coercing, or threatening trade rules – excuse me – threatening other countries or breaking trade rules. So our interest in standing up for human rights isn’t only principled; it is vital to our national security.
Here are some of the other ways that we’re working to support human rights. When senior members of the State Department travel abroad, we meet with human rights advocates, with journalists, and other frontline defenders, as do our ambassadors at every post, even when foreign governments make it clear that they wish we would not.
We work with the Treasury Department to apply sanctions and impose visa restrictions on human rights abusers and those who enable and profit from them through the Global Magnitsky Act, the Khashoggi Ban, and other tools.
We methodically collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of atrocities and make this information available to the appropriate bodies. Indeed, it was the department’s rigorous documentation, which included our own fact finding and reports by a range of independent, impartial sources, including human rights organizations, that provided a basis for my determination last month that Burma’s military committed genocide and crimes against humanities against Rohingya.
We work with business to foster greater respect for human rights, both by encouraging compliance with labor standards and discouraging exports to governments and other entities that may use those goods or services to commit abuses.
We’re fully engaged in multilateral institutions, even flawed ones. After regaining a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, we just led a successful effort to suspend Russia from that body, because a country that’s perpetrating gross and systematic violations of human rights shouldn’t sit on a body whose job it is to protect those rights.
And we’re working to strengthen democracy, human rights, and the fight against corruption through the Summit for Democracy. Last December, President Biden convened 100 world leaders, as well as representatives from civil society and the private sector, for the first summit. That kicked off a year of action that we’re in the midst of pursuing. We’re focused on delivering progress, not just pronouncements, by encouraging countries to make concrete commitments to advance human rights and democracy. And we’re holding one another to our pledges.
Before turning to questions, let me just thank everyone who’s had a hand in producing this report. This is an enterprise that cuts across the entire State Department. We have local staff and career officers in posts around the world as well as here in Washington whose determination and rigor are shining a bright light on these issues every single day, and the brave human rights defenders, journalists, and others documenting those abuses from up close, frequently at grave risk to themselves and their loved ones. This is your report too, and we thank you for it.
So we’re approaching the 15-month mark since this administration took office. We still don’t have a confirmed assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Outstanding career officers have stepped up to lead a devoted DRL team that carries this mission forward, and I want to thank you, Lisa, in particular for exceptional service and stewardship at this time.
But for the United States to be the best possible advocate of human rights and democracy worldwide, we need a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary. We have a highly qualified nominee for this position, Sarah Margon. I urge the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to allow her nomination to move forward soon.
With that, I’m happy to start taking some questions, and then I’ll turn it over to Lisa.
MR PRICE: Missy.
QUESTION: Well, (inaudible) again. Could you talk about how you think about the tension between the desire to elevate human rights as part of American foreign policy and the desire to halt this recession that you mentioned with the need to shore up alliances that are seen as crucial to American interests with some countries that have problematic human rights records? I’m thinking of Egypt and its relationship with Palestinian authorities, or Saudi Arabia and its oil supplies. How do you think about that tension? And how do you respond to the criticism that the United States is implicitly condoning abuses by those governments?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So this not a new tension. In some ways, it’s an age-old one. And administrations that in the past and now ours that are putting human rights and democracy front and center in their foreign policy have to confront it, and we work through it every single day. It’s different from country to country, partner to partner, circumstance to circumstance.
But I think what we’re doing is to just be very forthright in what we stand for, what we look for, and we try to work with countries to make progress. And again, this varies from place to place, but we’re not holding back in what we’re saying. We’re not holding back in what we’re trying to do, but we also are looking carefully to determine how we think we can be most effective in advancing the ball. And whether that is focusing in public on some of the concerns, shortcomings, problems that we’re seeing, whether that’s pushing people in private, we have to make that judgment in each and every case.
Having said that, this report, a public report, is very clear about the issues, challenges, concerns we have across the world with nearly 200 countries. And as I said before, it doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe. We apply the same standard everywhere. We do it publicly as in this report. We do it publicly often when I have an opportunity to speak, including in the countries that we’re visiting where we have concerns.
But again, part of this is making determinations on how we think we can be most effective. And in most cases, this is a process. It’s not flipping a switch. We don’t expect that things will change from one day to the other. It’s the result of sustained engagement and trying to move partners along.
Finally, I’d just say that I think we have in a way added credibility, precisely because when it comes to our own shortcomings at home we’re not dodging them, we’re not ignoring them, we’re not denying them. We’re confronting them directly, and in so doing we strengthen our position, we strengthen our voice in advancing rights. But again, this is a process. It’s not something that happens from one day to the next. We’re engaged in it. Let’s see where we are over the coming years and the progress that we make in individual places..
MR PRICE: Francesco.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you were mentioning the situation in Ukraine. Have you made an assessment of any alleged use of chemical agents or weapons in Ukraine? And how credible would you say the reports coming from the Mariupol area are, or do you have any intelligence about an imminent use of chemical weapons?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So when it comes to the reports you’re referring to, we’re not in a position to confirm anything. I don’t think the Ukrainians are either. But let me say this: We had credible information that Russian forces may use a variety of riot-control agents, including tear gas, mixed with chemical agents, that would cause stronger symptoms to weaken and incapacitate entrenched Ukrainian fighters and civilians as part of the aggressive campaign to take Mariupol. We shared that information with Ukraine as well as with other partners, and we’re in direct conversation with partners to try to determine what actually has happened.
So this is a real concern. It’s a concern that we had from before the aggression started. I think I’ve pointed to the possibility that these kinds of weapons would be used, and it’s something that we’re very, very focused on.
MR PRICE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: All right. Lisa, over to you. Thanks, folks. See you later.