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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State
For Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Press Briefing, Foreign Press Center
U.S. Department of State, December 11, 2000
Blue Bar rule

Human Rights Day Overview of U.S. Human Rights Policies

Thanks, Jeff (sp). It's always good to be here at the Press Center.

As Jeff (sp) mentioned, yesterday, December 10th, was the 52nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Last week at the White House the president held what has come to be a tradition of Human Rights Day celebrations. He presented the Eleanor Roosevelt Award to five prominent Americans who have made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of human rights at home or abroad. They were Tillie Black Bear, a strong voice for Native American and women's rights; Fred Cuny -- a posthumous award who (sic) was given to a humanitarian worker who had passed away a number of years ago, working on the issue of Chechnya; Norman Dorsen, the past president of the American Civil Liberties Union and the past president of the Lawyers' Committee for Human rights, who is a professor at NYU Law School; Elaine Jones, for almost 3 decades the legal director and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; and the Reverend Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Newark, a lifelong human rights advocate, who is also now becoming the archbishop of Washington.

The president also gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma. And facts sheets and information about that were available.

We have used this occasion, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to each year review developments in human rights and democracy, and to try to take some stock of where we are.

In our judgment, the most significant development over time has not simply been the phenomenon of globalization, which is much commented on -- the globalization of commerce, ideas, transportation -- but the globalization of human freedom. Since 1974 there are only 30 countries in the world that rated as democracies. Now some 120 countries out of some 190 profess commitment to the democratic path.

And the question is, how can the globalization of human freedom be used to try to address other global challenges? For example, the globalization of trafficking of drugs and human beings; the spread of transnational disease and HIV/AIDS; drug trafficking; the challenges of inequalities in terms of economic development.

The Clinton administration has tried over the course of the last 8 years to pursue a policy which has focused on a number of core themes:

The first and most obvious is truth telling. In our judgment, it is our commitment to speak the truth about human rights conditions around the world, including in our own country, both in our annual country reports on human rights conditions -- the next version of which will be delivered to Congress on February 26th, 2001 -- as well as our annual reports on international religious freedom.

Second, to take consistent positions with regard the past, the present, and the future. With regard to the past, our efforts to promote accountability to the extent consistent with reconciliation and democratic transition; with regard to the present, to address ongoing human rights abuses by a policy of principled, purposeful engagement, or what we call the inside-outside approach with allies and adversaries alike; and with regard to the future, efforts to forestall future human rights abuse by using preventive diplomacy to forestall abuses, through early warning systems, through diplomacy backed by force, and if necessary, as in the case of Kosovo, force backed by diplomacy.

And perhaps most important, to strengthen global democracy as a long-term cure to human rights abuse, by strengthening democratic institutions, by promoting democracy as itself a human right, and by targeting our democracy assistance priorities toward the key countries that are moving into democratic realms. And in this regard, I should mention the U.S. cosponsorship of the first international Community of Democracies Meeting in Warsaw this June. I just returned last week from the fourth international conference of New and Restored Democracies in Benin, West Africa, which was another impressive gathering of states designed to enhance dialogue among democratic countries.

We've also tried to mainstream into our foreign policy human rights policy concerns, not just with regard to those matters raised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also with regard to worker rights and international religious freedom.

I'm sure you have questions about specific matters and particular countries. I should just say that I have only 45 days or less in this position. It's been a great pleasure for me, and not the least of it has been the pleasure of dealing with all of you in the diplomatic and journalistic corps. I'm happy to answer any questions you have.

Jeff, maybe you should --

Moderator: Please identify your name and organization before asking your quest

Question: Hi. My name is from Li from Beijing Daily Newspaper. I have a question about China. Will the current U.S. government put forward a resolution condemning China's human rights record, I mean once again in the Geneva conference, before you leave the office? Have you made any decision? And by the way, since the UN.is facing the trouble of selecting the president, will this trouble have any impact on any decisions aboutthis resolution? Thank you.

Mr. Koh: Well, let me say first that the United States Constitution was structured in such a way that you could have an election in November and that the president would not be sworn in until January. And for many years there was no resolution of who the president was until shortly before the inauguration. On Inauguration Day, we expect to have a new president, and on that day I will expect to return to my previous position as a professor at Yale University. I don't see any particular cause for concern.

But it does go to your other question. It will be the next administration that makes the decision about what resolutions to support and promote in Geneva. We can certainly make recommendations to the next administration, but it's their decision. Since I don't know what that administration will be, I have no idea what they're going to do.

Question: Charles Snyder of the Hong Kong I-Mail (sp) and the Taipei Times. What would your recommendation then be? And what are the factors that you would consider that would go into that recommendation?

>Mr. Koh: Well, obviously, I can't discuss what my recommendation will be, but let me just speak to the human rights situation in China, which we have documented in our Annual Human Rights Reports over the last few years in considerable detail, as well as in our International Religious Freedom Report. And I think it's pretty clear that the conditions there, the human rights conditions there have deteriorated, in particularin a number of different areas. With respect to democracy, the restrictions placed on the China Democracy Party, with regard to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Those concerns have continued with regard to religious freedom, a crackdown on not just registered, but unregistered activists and religious adherents in the Christian religion, as well as those in the Falun Gong have been denied their right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

We have concerns about the use of prison labor, concerns about coercion of the choice of women, and we also have concerns about Internet restriction. Those concerns remain unabated. We have raised them both bilaterally, and they were the subjects of resolutions which the United States sponsored two years ago, and also this past year in Geneva.

Question: My name is Ben Banguraw (ph). I am a Washington correspondent for Guinea News.

Mr. Koh: I'm sorry?

Question: Washington correspondent for Guinea News.

Mr.Koh: Guinea News. Guinea-Conakry?

Question: Guinea-Conakry, yes. In 1991 you were the winner of -- (off mike) -- award for the presidency, the American presidency --

Mr. Koh: Oh, the award for the best book on the American presidency, written in 1990, The National Security Constitution.

Question: Right.

Mr. Koh: I'd encourage all your readers to buy it in hardback. (Laughter.)

Question: Based on your experiences from that, I was wondering if you could comment on the -- (off mike) -- regarding this U.S. presidential election. Do you see a fair election?

Mr. Koh: I see a fair, free and transparent election going on. It's taking a long time to resolve. But I think the important things to note are the things that are not happening: at no time since the election has there been any discussion of military action, there has been no civilian unrest, there has not been instability in the economy.

When I was a boy, my father said to me the difference between democracies and dictatorships is as follows: In a democracy, if you're president, then the troops obey you; in a dictatorship, if the troops obey you, then you're a president. I think it's pretty clear that whoever is sworn-in as president on January 20th, 2001 will have the absolute loyalty of all government employees, all arms of the military; will wield all of the legitimate instruments of American governmental authority. I think that the process that you've witnessed has been completely transparent. We have been able to watch on television while people have been counting ballots. The legal processes are also part of a process of trying resolve disputes according to the rule of law. It hasn't been all that much fun, and it's gone on for quite a while, but in the end, I think that the one thing that has become clear is that in American democracy we can see what's going on, and every vote counts.

Question: Hi. (Name inaudible) -- Caracol TV, Colombia. There is two questions in one. Human Rights Watch just reported again very troubling links still between the paramilitaries and some units and members from the Colombian military. And how does the State Department see it? Has it been improving? They need to improve in order to keep getting their aid or -- from Congress, from Plan Colombia. And also, the second one is this weekend there was another mistake by the military and some even -- even officials were dead because of another mistake of the military. How do you see the way the Colombian military has been working on improving themselves? Are they doing a good job?

Mr. Koh: I've been to Colombia five times in the course of my 2-plus years on this job. In April of 1999 I attended a human rights conference in Medellin, Colombia, in which I suggested that there were five areas of concern in human rights in Colombia for the United States government. The first and most obvious is the peace process. We cannot address human rights concerns until we first achieve some level of peace and, therefore, the United States supports the peace process.

The second is the counternarcotics process. The fact of the matter is that narcotics has been a source of fuel to the conflict, and that there needs to be some way into breaking the vicious cycle of drugs.

Third, our abiding concern for the problems of human rights defenders, who are under enormous threat in Colombia -- as severe as anywhere in this hemisphere -- and that there is a strong need for the Colombian government to move forward with an effective protection program.

Next, our concerns about paramilitary and military ties. As we've reported faithfully and, we think, accurately and fully in our human rights reports each year that there has been collaboration reported and unsuccessful efforts, we think, to break the ties between the military and the paramilitary. Those have been chronicled not only by our own official reports, but those of reputable NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, as well as by Anders Kompass, the head of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office. And finally, the problem of impunity; the need to hold into account governmental officials who are responsible for human rights violations. I think what we have said all along -- and I think I said this in February when we released our Annual Human Rights Report -- it is possible to be completely clear-eyed about the human rights problems in Colombia and believe that you need an integrated solution, one that attacks all different dimensions of the problem. And for that reason, we have promoted Plan Colombia, an integrated package which addresses the peace process, the counternarcotics process, the human rights process, and democracy-building in a single integrated package that has both U.S. governmental and European support.

Is the package working? Obviously, it's only just gotten on line. We are in regular contact with officials of the government. We raise with them regularly our concerns about paramilitary and military ties, incidents that occur. We seek clarification and, as you say, our own Congress has certified, or has made a condition of aid, satisfactions of certain requirements.

I think we have at this point waived the initial conditions in the last round, and there will be a question of future certifications coming up, and that will be the point at which we'd make a comprehensive assessment of the state of affairs.

Question: Hasan Hazar, Turkiye Daily. Did U.S. administration do anything specifically about the human rights relations between the Xinjiang in eastern Turkestan; in China, I mean.

Mr. Koh: Yes, we've raised these issues persistently with the government of the People's Republic. I've raised these issues myself. Our concern about the situation in Xinjiang has been chronicled and discussed from the State Department briefing room on a regular basis. It's part of our general concern about religious freedom issues in the People's Republic of China.

Question: I'm Betty Lin (sp) of the World Journal. Why did you time the release of the report February 26th instead of before January 20th?

And also, in Brunei last month, President Jiang Zemin promised -- or talked to President Clinton concerning that the human rights dialogue may be reviewed. So I'd like to know whether there was any movement after that, and also whether they still precondition the dialogue on the basis of U.S. would have to give up the UN resolution, like the Europeans did?

MR. Koh: On the first point, Betty, the deadline for the submission of the Human Rights Report is set by congressional statute. And a number of years ago, in 1999, I think for the first time it was moved to the last week of February, and that's been maintained. So there was no special change that was made this year because of the presidential inauguration, it's just part of the statutory requirement. The report is submitted as part of this legislative requirement. That's all we're doing.

I must say that it's a very lengthy report -- 6,000 pages in type script and 2,000 pages hen it's printed. And we now have a religious freedom report, plus additional reporting requirements in trafficking and other areas, with a very small staff working on the issues. So we need all the time that we can get just to get it down according to the standards that we care about.

With regard to the Chinese human rights dialogue, as you know, we had our last China-U.S. bilateral human rights dialogue in January 1999 here in Washington, D.C. It lasted for three days. There were a couple of days afterwards in which trips were taken by the Chinese delegation. Later in the year, I was planning to return to Beijing to continue the dialogue in Beijing. The Chinese then broke off the dialogue, citing a number of reasons. They cited the bombing -- accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade; they cited the U.S. decision to introduce a resolution on China's human rights record. Our position was clear; we'd be willing to continue the dialogue without preconditions.

At various points, they've suggested that if we'd be willing to forego a resolution in Geneva, they would be willing to consider a bilateral human rights dialogue. Again, our view was that was unacceptable. There must be a dialogue without conditions or without preconditions. That's exactly where it is at the moment.

In Brunei, I know, there was some discussion and the possibility raised by the Chinese Government of resuming the dialogue. We simply repeated our own position, which is, we're happy to have dialogue; we think that dialogue goes together with other kinds of human rights scrutiny. We don't think the dialogue ever should have been terminated in the in the first place, and as soon as they're ready to have an unconditional dialogue, we're ready to go forward.

Obviously, there's no time left to do that in this administration, unless something very extraordinary were to happen in the next few weeks. And so I think this will be another issue that goes to the next administration.

Moderator: (Off mike) -- in the back yet.

Question: Yes. Jesus Esquivel from the Mexican News Agency. I have two questions. One is a follow-up on my colleague's question.

Colombia. The Clinton administration now seems to support the idea that the paramilitary groups will have a place in the peace talks. My question is, do you support that? What is exactly the view of the State Department about it?

And the second is on Mexico. This administration, since the problem in Chiapas came up, were kind of pressuring the former Mexican government of President Zedillo, but from January to this point was kind of quiet position from Washington. Now the State Department is applauding or clapping on President Fox -- his position on Chiapas. My question is, what is your suggestion for or ideas to the Fox administration to follow up or solve the problem in Chiapas?

Mr. Koh: Well, on the first question, I'm not sure where you get the impression that the U.S. government believes that the paramilitaries ought to have a role in the peace talks. That has never been the U.S. Government position --

Question: (Off mike) -- has been mentioned, not in -- in Colombia.

Mr. Koh: Well, if you heard Undersecretary Pickering's briefing -- I think you were there -- the other day, when we came back from Colombia, he made absolutely clear what our position is: no contact, no dialogue. Our view is that the paramilitaries are engaged in illegal activities and that they not only should not be part of any peace process; they should be punished for these illegal activities, and ties between the militaries and paramilitaries ought to be cut off. To the extent that any statement by an American official is being construed as suggesting otherwise -- what I've just stated is the U.S. government position.

With regard to Mexico, as you know, Secretary Albright went to President Fox's inauguration and had a good discussion with him there.

We have had a bilateral human rights dialogue with the Mexican Government of President Zedillo, which has been run by my office. It has been held for the last two years. This year, because of the presidential election, we decided to postpone it, on both sides, until the new administrations should come into office. And I think that that dialogue will continue sometime next year. And I think it's probably premature for me to talk about the results of the dialogue that is going to happen between two new governments very shortly.

Question: (Off mike) -- position on Chiapas has been changed since the Fox administration -- (off mike)?

Mr. Koh: I don't know that I'd say that it's been changed. I think we're saying that we're hopeful that the new government, which we expect to be moving strongly on democracy and human rights on all fronts, will be able to move strongly in that area as well.

Moderator: Next question up here.

Question: My name is Jiang Shing Wei (sp), a correspondent for a Chinese newspaper, China Youth Daily.

Mr. Koh: Sorry; China -- ?

Question: China Youth.

Mr. Koh: China Youth --

Question: China Youth Daily.

Recently, several human rights, religious freedom and labor affairs groups have put in public their recommendations. One of these recommendations says the U.S. government should use every diplomatic influence to oppose China host the Olympic Games in 2008 unless the Chinese human rights situation has been improved significantly. Now my question is, what's your comment about the relations between Olympic Games and human rights? Do you think the American government should do to oppose these from happening in China? Thank you.

Mr. Koh: Well, I think as you know, a decision like that is taken at the very highest level. And we're in the last days of this administration, and so I don't purport to speak for the next administration. You'll have to pose that answer -- that question to them as soon as they take office.

Question: (Name inaudible) -- for Anatolia News Agency in Turkey. Could you comment on the latest human rights developments in Turkey regarding the new amnesty law which was approved by Turkish parliament, and ongoing hunger strike by some prisoners who are against the Turkish government's plan to restrict some conditions in prisons?

Mr. Koh: Well, as you know, we've been deeply engaged in the human rights situation in Turkey and have had bilateral dialogues with the government, particularly with the government of Prime Minister Ecevit. And then since President Sezer has come in, we've had discussions on that side, as well. I personally traveled to Turkey a number of times. In August '99, I sent there for 10 days, including four or five days in the southeast of Turkey, and I made a statement there, I think, which still states our general view with regard to the human rights issues there. The president also spoke about these issues when he went to Istanbul for the OSCE summit in the fall of 1999. We have been talking, not just through our new ambassador, Ambassador Pearson, who went out to Ankara earlier this year, but also have had communications with Foreign Minister Cem and also with Mr. Yuchellan (sp), who is the new state minister for human rights. We've urged him to come to visit the United States so we can continue our bilateral dialogue.

Obviously, the same sets of issues that we spotlighted at the time are of concern -- freedom of expression, concerns about torture and allegations of torture. But we note that there have been some positive developments on that front, which we strongly encourage. Third, concerns about cultural rights with regard to Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent. And then concerns about democratization. Those remain our concerns.
We note also that the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession contain many of the same sets of issues and concerns and that the Turkish government has itself -- pledged itself to try to meet those conditions.

In short, I think our view on human rights conditions in Turkey is that we are supporting the Turks in their effort to do what they have themselves committed themselves to do, which is to develop a human rights system which fully meets international and EU standards.

Moderator: Time for two or three more questions.

Question: My name is Mohammed Haki (sp) with Al Ahram Weekly in Cairo, Egypt, and I have two questions; one is concerning the Sudan. And I know that the department is having a stormy relationship with the Sudan right now. But my question is, do you have --

Mr. Koh: Having a -- I'm sorry, I didn't hear what you said.

Question: A stormy relationship.

Mr. Koh: Stormy?

Question: Do you believe that the Sudan government in Khartoum is involved in slave trade, as such?

And the second question is vis-a-vis Israel. Other than the diplomatic demarche, do you have any other mechanism to voice the U.S. displeasure with the violations of human rights by the Israeli forces against the Palestinians?

Mr. Koh: With regard to Sudan, I think that Secretary Albright and President Clinton have been extraordinarily clear in their views about the atrocious human rights situation in Sudan, and particularly focused on the problem of slavery, which is really going on at an unconscionable rate and needs to be addressed, at the bombardment of civilian entities, interference in humanitarian lifelines, and religious persecution, which has been a subject of concern not just to the U.S. Government, but also Congress and the International Commission on -- U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Obviously, we have some difficulties raising these issues directly with the Government in Khartoum, and they have not been particularly receptive. I think you know also of the recent travels of Assistant Secretary Rice in which her concern for these issues on a people-to-people basis were very strongly expressed. It's hard to see how Sudan can be a full member of the community of nations when it's engaged in this kind of human rights activity with regard to civilians and with regard to UN individuals and entities. And I think I'll leave it at that.

With regard to the situation in the Middle East, I think we've made clear our views about concerns on violence on all sides and excessive use of force, and particularly concerns about use of force against civilians. And I simply leave you to past press statements that we've made on that issue.

Moderator: Over here on the side. Question: Sujono from Indonesia Suara Merdeka. I'm just wondering what is your comment on the accusation that the United States applies a double standard of human rights against -- (inaudible) -- abroad. Thank you.

Mr. Koh: A double standard in -- ?

Question: A double standard -- applies a double standard on the human rights violations abroad.

Mr. Koh: I don't think there's a double standard, I think there's a single standard,and it's not the U.S. standard, it's the universal standard. I know there are some who say that these standards are Western standards and they are not Asian values.

As you may notice, I am myself Asian, and I've always considered them to be at the core of what Asian values also are -- a universal commitment to the dignity of the human being, their freedom from certain kinds of restrictions, namely invasions of the physical person, restrictions on the right to express oneself, freedom of thought, conscience and religion. I think that these have been core values in Asian society in the writings of Confucius and others. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, has written about the consistency between Asian values and the universal standards of human rights. He is himself of Indian descent. So I see no double standard.

Is the United States itself perfect? Of course not. We are trying to form a more perfect union; that's one of the key concepts in our Constitution. When we struggle with issues of democracy, as we're doing right now, we try to do it openly and transparently and to achieve a peaceful and just result. And it's not always easy, but I think that we try to hold ourselves to very high standards.

I should say, for myself, that when I was outside the United States government, I brought lawsuits against the United States government, trying to hold it to these universal standards and, as a member of the administration, I've tried to do the same. I don't think I've changed my own role at all, other than to try to hold the United States to the same universal principles to which I try to hold all governments.

Governments do not rule people because of some divine right. They do it because of the consent of the governed and because of their commitment to the well-being of the people that they govern, and I think that those are basic values of fairness that should be applied everywhere.

Moderator: Time for our final question. We'll go back here --

Question: Thank you. What does the human rights stand today in Guinea?

And beside that, would you comment on the latest clashes along the border between Guinea and Liberia, and eventually who are behind these?

Mr. Koh: Well, on the last part, I think it all depends on who you listen to. I will say that we have had tremendous concern about the instability in West Africa, and particularly Sierra Leone, which has been the subject of tremendous concern. And on that score, we have been grateful to the government of Guinea, Conakry, for the role that they've played in dealing with refugee issues.

At the same time, I think we've made it clear our concerns, particularly about the trial of Mr. Conde and the violations of international human rights that we think went on with that regard. With regard to Liberia, I think we've also made our objections to their conduct known, and our concern about the extent to which they're contributing to regional instability.

Moderator:Thank you very much.

[end of document]

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