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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary
for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

On-the-Record Briefing on the 56th Session of the UN Human Rights Commission
Released by the Office of the Spokesman, U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC, March 20, 2000
Blue Bar rule

MR. FOLEY: Good morning and welcome to the State Department. I'm pleased to introduce Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Harold Koh, who is here to talk about and answer your questions about this year's Human Rights Commission in Geneva. So without further ado, Harold.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Thanks, Jim. The UN Human Rights Commission 56th session will begin today in Geneva - or has begun in Geneva, and will run through April 28th. It will run for six weeks, and will debate a number of important issues, both with regard to thematic issues on human rights as well particular country situations.

This year the Secretary of State will appear, on Thursday, and make a presentation to the plenary session. This is the first time that a Secretary of State has spoken at the Human Rights Commission in recent memory. And she will be traveling from India and then returning to India, which is a sign of the priority that she gives to these issues -- and to this forum.

There are two basic themes, from the U.S. perspective, with regard to this year's session. The first is promoting human rights by promoting democratic values. This will be present, both in our discussion of follow-on actions with regard to the rights of democracy, as well as the resolutions that we will support with regard to particular countries.

And the second is using global mechanisms to encourage countries to play by global rules. And we do not believe that resolutions regarding particular countries in Geneva are actions that those countries should view as somehow confrontational. These are, in fact, simply asking them to abide by global rules that they have themselves acknowledged or accepted in the premier global human rights forum.

And with that introduction, let me just take any questions you might have.

QUESTION: Can you talk about China and Cuba?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: As you know, George, our Human Rights Report on China, which was issued on February 25th, chronicled what we considered to be a marked deterioration across the board in China's human rights record in 1999. There are at least five areas in which we noted a marked deterioration. First, the continued repression of political dissent; second, restrictions on freedom of religion with regard to Protestants, Catholics, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, as well as members of the Falun Gong; third, restrictions on forced and prison labor; fourth, restrictions on Internet access and other modes of freedom of expression; and fifth, decline in the situation of the rights of women; and then finally, concerns about the continuing situation in Tibet -- an enhanced patriotic education campaign against Buddhist nuns and monks.

Based on that, we decided this year, earlier than anytime in the recent past, to sponsor a resolution on China. Last year, this decision was announced on March 26th, and this year it was announced in mid-January. As in the past, we would expect China to introduce a no-action motion, to try to prevent discussion of the resolution. As we made clear, we believe that this is antithetical to the entire purpose of the Human Rights Commission. It, in effect, creates a double standard. Every other country that comes before the Commission is forced to defend its conduct by the international rules that is accepted.

China has introduced this no-action motion for a number of years. The last time that the no-action motion was defeated was 1995. Three years ago, the margin was 10. Last year, with the announcement in March, that margin was cut to five. We believe that now there is a very significant possibility that that no-action motion can be defeated and, therefore, there will be, in our expectation and hope, a vote on the merits of China's human rights conduct in late April.

Obviously, a lot will happen between now and then. We're in discussions with a number of countries about their position on the no-action motion, on the resolution itself, and on co-sponsorship of the resolution, and we'll see how that evolves.

With regard to Cuba, as you know, two years ago that resolution lost by a few votes. Last year, the Czech Republic and the Government of Poland agreed to sponsor the resolution. And in a very closely contested battle, the resolution carried by one vote.

Since then, the human rights conditions in Cuba have, by all accounts, steadily deteriorated: the arrest of more dissidents, and particularly no movement or negative movement with regard to the four most prominent dissidents. And in particular, the Ibero-American Summit was an opportunity for the Cuban government to show some movement, with regard to these four dissidents.

A number of the delegations to the Ibero-American Summit visited the dissidents and expressed their concern and, nevertheless, there was no change in their situation. We also have the case of Oscar Biscet, which is highlighted in our Human Rights Report, who was sentenced to three years for, again, essentially a speech act.

There is also new restrictive legislation, and also restrictions and harassment of journalists, restraints on the Internet and other kinds of communication.

From our perspective, the conditions have only worsened. The only real change has been a change of -- some members of the Commission are different from last year. And so we will be expecting there to be another Czech and Polish resolution, and we will be expecting to support that resolution.

QUESTION: On the China issue, you said that there was now a chance that you could defeat the no-action motion.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Let me be precise. We have the best chance since 1995 to defeat the no-action motion.

QUESTION: What countries have changed their position to make that possible?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, again, there's a change of composition. I think what has happened is that most of the countries who voted for it in the past have indicated that they are going to - at least in preliminary discussions, they see no reason to change their view. It's a matter of principle. Other countries, I think, troubled by the deteriorating human rights conditions, have expressed more receptivity to the idea of voting against the no-action motion. I can't give you the specifics at this point.

But remember the way that the timing on this is going to work, is that the resolutions will not actually be tabled until probably at the earliest April 11th. And the actual voting will not occur until April probably 19th or 20th. So we are still a good month away from the critical action.

If the resolution is put on the floor, we would then expect -- as in the past -- the Chinese will interpose the no-action motion. A vote on that motion will occur immediately; and, if the motion fails, we would move immediately to a vote on the merits of the resolution.

There is a lot of change, a lot of activity, very extensive discussion about this issue, both in capitals and in Geneva itself. So it is one of the prime topics of discussion.

QUESTION: On the same theme: Have you drafted a China resolution yet? If so, have you in fact lined up any sponsors for it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: A resolution text is circulating, and has been and is shown to a number of different countries, and they are considering the question of co-sponsorship. Since the resolution is not put on the table until April 11th , we will not know until close to that date how many co-sponsors we have.

QUESTION: This is the one drafted by the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Right. It is our resolution.

QUESTION: But you won't present it? The United States won't present it? Some other country will present it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: No, no. We'll present it. It's our resolution.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question?


QUESTION: What is the effect, if this resolution passes, on China?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I think what it will do is it will send, for the first time in recent memory, a strong message to China from the members of the UN Human Rights Commission that they have seen steady deterioration of China's human rights situation that's well below the international standards that the other countries of the world agree to accept and that China itself has acknowledged when it said it would sign and did sign the international covenant on civil and political rights. I think what has happened up until now is: China has been able to immunize itself by this no-action motion, which has created a sense that they are somehow exempt from these rules I think, as you have all seen from your own reporting.

In other years, we would often see some movement on the Chinese side of various kinds of measures that would be announced close to this date. And my guess is that the Chinese are extremely concerned about the real prospects that the no-action motion will fail this year. There has been very intensified diplomatic activity on their front. And my guess is that we'll be seeing both short-term and long-term developments; short-term developments before the resolution is tabled and voted. And if the resolution passes, or if the no-action motion passes, then I think the Chinese government will be aware that next year in Geneva, if their human rights situation continues to deteriorate, there will be - again -- the prospect of this resolution coming forward.

QUESTION: Would it have any practical effects on China, you know, reduction in trade or contacts or communication or - is there anything like that that applies with this resolution?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: There will be - all of these resolutions have both preambular clauses and then suggestions that matters be taken before various UN human rights bodies or mechanisms and kept under observation. And there is both the effect of spotlighting abuses that is played by the resolution, and a sense that there will be greater UN examination of their human rights conduct.

Now, different resolutions have different kinds of mechanisms attached. And so, obviously, the question comes -- with all resolutions -- what steps the government will take before the vote to indicate that they are hearing the will of the international community and trying to respond to it.

QUESTION: Can you say which countries it was that protected China the last time from the passage? Did you say there were five countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: We can make available to you a list of the votes on the no-action motion last year, which passed by five votes.

QUESTION: To what extent do you think that the cross-straits turbulence will affect the voting? For example, there're reports that China's ignoring the results of the Taiwanese election by and large and focusing its anger on the US determination to criticize China at the upcoming UN meeting.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, it's always hard to say what the effect is going to be. There is a collective diplomatic dynamic that occurs every time a group of nations gathers together this long to discuss this range of issues.

What I will say is that, when I said that one of our focuses at the Commission is promoting human rights by promoting democratic values, that means both that we are deeply concerned about the treatment of democratic dissenters in the People's Republic of China, and supportive of legitimate democratic efforts elsewhere, particularly in Taiwan. And we believe that these ought to be respected, and that should be one of the core themes of this year's Commission.

QUESTION: Could you explain the decision of the Secretary to address the Commission? Is this linked to the China issue? Or will she - is it more general than that? And while in Geneva, will she have the chance to speak to representatives of some of those marginal countries whose votes might count in this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I have always believed and, indeed one of the reasons that I took this job, is that this Secretary of State is more committed to the issues of democracy, human rights, and labor than anyone I've ever known. This is something, obviously - democracy and human rights issues -- that are extremely personal to her from her own past and she has put democracy and human rights issues front and center on everything that she has done.

All of you who travel with her -- read her speeches, hear her discussions -- understand that for her this is not something that she does as a matter of obligation but as a matter of personal commitment. And I also believe that, when her history is written -- it will be this agenda as much as her gender that will make her a first in terms of the new kind of Secretary of State that we will have in the new millennium, someone who is focused on these issues.

I think she has been looking for an opportunity to come to the Commission and make a strong statement. She attended the Commission as UN Ambassador a number of years ago, and was very pleased by that experience, and was hoping that she would have a chance to recreate it. I think the way that this Commission is shaping up, with so many core issues, it seemed to her worth it to make the trip. And I think she is very interested and excited about doing so.

As for her opportunities to meet, I think a schedule will be released in due course, but she will be having bilateral meetings both with UN officials and with a number of other officials who will be in Geneva at the time, as well as having an opportunity to meet with the heads of delegation.

QUESTION: Did she say whether she was specifically concentrating on the China issue or whether it was more general? Is the focus of her address going to be China?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: She is the leader of our team, and she is in charge of putting forward and advancing our entire Commission agenda. And our Commission agenda, although China is one of the two resolutions that we are sponsoring, China is only a piece of that overall agenda.

QUESTION: Could I follow up on that? Is she likely to specifically criticize China in her address and perhaps Cuba or --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: The purpose of the address is not to criticize, so much as it is to make comments about the two issues that I mentioned: first, promoting human rights by promoting democratic values.

Now I would point out that both China and Cuba have suppressed human rights and also have done it by suppressing democratic dissent. So speaking up for democracy may require her to make comments about these particular country situations as well.

I think the second part of our theme, which is using this mechanism to get nations to play by global rules that they themselves have acknowledged or accepted, may also give her an opportunity to point out countries who are not playing by those global rules.

QUESTION: We've been talking mostly about China and Cuba, but there are some countries which indisputably have worse human rights records than those two, and just to name two, North Korea and Iraq. Can you say how the Commission will deal with these countries?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, with Iraq, there has been a resolution for most of the last five years -- I think every year for the last five years. It has been tabled by the EU, and the United States has supported it. My guess is that there will be a resolution again this year, although obviously that's a subject of continuing discussion.

On North Korea, one of the difficulties there is simply a matter of chronicling what's going on inside. I think we have a pretty good sense of it. But whether there will be a resolution this year, I don't know.

QUESTION: I was going to ask your thoughts on how this squares with the strategy, or what the strategy is for going after this resolution so aggressively at the same time going for WTO with Congress. And do you think if this resolution passes, how is the domestic - how is it going to impact, you know, discussion on trade status for China?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, I think it's perfectly consistent, and the two go hand-in-hand. Let me go back to the two themes. Promoting human rights by promoting democracy, which means opening up the country. I think that bringing China into the World Trade Organization, opening up their economic system, bringing China into the world through a strategy of principled engagement ought to be good for human rights as well as for democracy.

The other strategy, which is getting countries to play by global rules by using global mechanisms, calls for China to be brought into the international system and to play by these international rules -- whether that's at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva or the WTO in Geneva. I don't think on either front we think the world is well served or the human rights objective is well served by China staying outside the system.

One of the critical things for the human rights perspective has been that China has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For that reason, China does not appear regularly before any UN human rights body to defend its conduct, except for the Human Rights Commission. And there, they counter-pose this no-action motion.

Our view is: They ought to appear in this forum in Geneva and defend their conduct by international human rights rules, and they ought to appear in the Trade Forum in Geneva and defend their trade conduct by international trade rules. We believe that to be a consistent strategy, and part of an overall plan of principled and purposeful engagement on all issues.

QUESTION: Just a very quick technical one. When you talk about these votes, how many members are there in the Commission? Is it all the members of the United Nations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: No. There are 53 members of the Commission. Some nations are regularly elected and others serve three-year terms and then go off and on. They are organized by various regional groupings. The largest grouping this year is the African group, which has 15 members and a number of new members who have not been on the Commission in some time: Swaziland, Nigeria, Burundi, Zambia.

The votes are done with an option of abstaining. So, often, important votes will have as many as 10 to 20 abstentions. And any nation that is a UN member can co-sponsor as a way of selling support for a resolution, even if it is not a Commission member this year.

QUESTION: But they can't vote.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: They can't vote. Non-members cannot vote. They can sponsor.

QUESTION: They can sponsor.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: They can co-sponsor, but they cannot vote if they are a non-member this year.

QUESTION: Can they participate in any way? In the debates and so on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Yes, they can appear, put their name on, and speak up.

QUESTION: The Colombian Defense Minister is going to be in the building this afternoon. Will you be sitting in on any of his meetings? And could you briefly summarize the human rights situation in Colombia as you see it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, the summary is basically stated in our country report. We said that the government's human rights record in 1999 was poor. We included within the government all different parts of the government, not just the executive branch but the military, the police, the judges, the legislature.

We said that the Pastrana administration initiated important steps towards structural reform. There was improvement in some areas, but serious problems remain. I think that is a good summary of where we are.

The issue which has gotten the greatest amount of attention in recent weeks is a number of reports regarding the continuation of ties between the military and the paramilitaries. That's something that was reported in our report, as well as a Human Rights Watch Report a number of weeks ago. The Colombian government has, in a number of ways, acknowledged this as a continuing problem, and is coming forward with various steps to try to address those problems.

Last year, in August, President Pastrana both announced a human rights plan and initiated a number of steps toward implementing that plan. We have applauded those steps. He has discharged four generals and a number of non-commissioned officers, a large number of military cases were referred to civil jurisdiction. We have been watching and urging swift implementation and enactment - or enactment and implementation of two important laws: the law against forced disappearances and the implementing legislation for the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Now, Defense Minister Ramirez has been a very important participant in all of these discussions. On February 25th, for example, he announced that there would be a decree granting to General Tapias, the head of the general's staff, greater authority to clean house and to discharge or to discipline officers who are engaged in abuses, including but not limited to continuing ties with the paramilitaries. He has also been active, both in meetings with the Secretary in Cartagena in mid-January and with Tom Pickering in February. He has shown a lot of initiative, a lot of commitment on these human rights questions. And we are hoping to have a good and continuing dialogue with him.

QUESTION: Will you be departing today?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: That's my plan. Thank you.

(The briefing concluded at 10:50 A.M.)

[end of document]

Blue Bar rule

56th Commission on Human Rights | Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor | Secretary of State |
Department of State