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U.S. Department of State

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Harold Koh
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State
On-the-Record Briefing on Burma
Washington, DC, January 18, 2001

Blue Bar rule

MR. BOUCHER: If I can apologize and explain to those who came in late, it looks like we didn't make a phone call we should have made when we started downstairs. The Secretary only had time to come and do the statement. Assistant Secretary Harold Koh is here to answer your questions on Burma and the issues involved, and then I will, after him, take over and answer your questions on other issues.

So we will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Koh at this point for any questions you have on the Burma statement.

QUESTION: Well, it's a little difficult for us to have any questions when the people that sit here and cover this building every day are not even warned in advance when she is going to come down. I mean, that is absolutely ridiculous.

MR. BOUCHER: Matt, the briefing was set for 12:15. I'm sorry we didn't give you the two-minute warning. That was our fault; we didn't make the phone call. But we are here, and we will have copies. They will be taped, they will be in writing, there will be anything you need on this.

QUESTION: Just so you know, Richard, we were told that it was going to be -- that she was running late and to stay tuned. Just so you know. If we were told at all, which many of us weren't.

MR. BOUCHER: All right. Once again, I'm sorry we didn't make the phone call, we didn't make the announcement. The Secretary's words are available to all of you in writing. We will have it in writing, we will have it on tape. You've got the video, and we are here to answer your questions about Burma -- anything anybody to ask.

QUESTION: Let's take it out on him.

MR. BOUCHER: No, don't. Take it out on me later, if you want to.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) -- questions in view of the whole statement?

MR. BOUCHER: Would you like us to read the statement to you again? I'm not sure, do we have it in writing? Do we have copies in writing yet to pass out, or not? Okay. I mean, if you want us to, we'll read you the statement again.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. BOUCHER: I'll read it more quickly than the Secretary did. Obviously, her -- I'll read what the statement was.

She said she wanted to come down because this is a subject that matters a great deal to her and to all who care about democracy and human rights around the world. For the past eight years, the President and the Secretary have worked hard to support the advocates of peaceful democratic change in Burma, including Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Today, she is issuing the following statement that makes clear our position on new talks that are taking place between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese military regime:

"The Burmese Government and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have recently confirmed that they are engaged in a dialogue. We hope it represents a genuine effort to achieve national reconciliation, and that it brings swift and concrete progress towards ending abuses of human rights in Burma, which regrettably continue. Burma needs a new beginning, not another false dawn.

"This Administration has worked continuously and with bipartisan support to aid the Burmese people in their struggle for human rights and democracy. We have imposed sanctions against their ruling military to help keep Burma's democratic opposition, and thus hope for change, alive. We have worked closely with the United Nations and our Asian partners to encourage diplomacy aimed at dialogue. I am confident that America's efforts will continue as long as they are necessary.

"The President and I" -- the Secretary -- "have been particularly concerned about the continuing use of forced labor by the Burmese Government. Last year, the International Labor Organization asked the world's governments, businesses and trade unions to review their relations with Burma, 'and take appropriate measures to ensure that it cannot take advantage of such relations to perpetuate or extend the system of forced or compulsory labor.

"Forced labor is unlikely to end in Burma as long as democracy is denied. Thus, it is especially important for the current dialogue to lead to genuine progress: the full and free participation of the National League for Democracy and the Burmese people in the political life of their country, the release of political prisoners, and an end to forced labor.

"We want to give this process the opportunity to succeed, but the President has asked me to make clear that, in the absence of significant progress, ILO members, including the United States, should be prepared to consider additional measures, including trade sanctions, to respond to the ILO's call to action."

So that's the statement that we'll give you in writing as soon as it's available. That's the statement that the Secretary made, and now Assistant Secretary Koh is prepared to answer your questions on the subject.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I apologize too, since this is my last briefing.

QUESTION: What is your assessment of how genuine these talks are?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, we're cautious. On the one hand, we welcomed the development, as the Secretary said. It's something that we have been encouraging for a long time. At the same time, there are some troubling signs. In December, or late December, six NLD members were sentenced to prison terms, attacks on NLD lawyers have continued, and the forced labor situation appears to have continued unabated.

So this is a welcome step, and that is why I think the Secretary has put it the way that she has. We hope the dialogue is genuine and we hope that it leads to the restoration of democracy, and we hope that that process also brings about a change in the situation of forced labor.

QUESTION: And yesterday General Powell was asked about human rights in the foreign policy of the new Administration. He made a point that in every place human rights would be an issue -- you know, every occasion. Sometimes when you approach something universally, individual problems maybe don't get as much attention as they should.

You're about to leave. Could you tick off the five or ten -- or pick your own number -- countries with the most grievous human rights situations where you wish the new Administration would focus its efforts? And there's not a quarrel with the new Secretary, but what is your parting advice?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I think what Secretary Albright has done -- and in my judgment this is the real Albright doctrine -- is to say that the promotion of democracy promotes human rights, that the promotion of human rights develops democracy, and that the US needs to promote the globalization of human freedom, both as an end in itself and as a means of addressing other global problems.

And that means exactly what General Powell says: that we have to make a focus on democracy and human rights an integral element of both our bilateral policy with every country and part of our multilateral strategy. And it's not something that can be turned on and off every four years; it has to be sustained over the long term on a bipartisan basis.

I think the point the Secretary has made in many of her recent speeches is the point that the dichotomy between realism and idealism is a false one. In the 21st century you're going to have to have a serious commitment to these values, which Americans care so much about, as part of a realistic foreign policy.

I think Secretary Powell and Secretary Albright share many things, but the main thing they share is they are both 21st-century Secretaries of State, and that means they're going to have to address these global problems. And I think that because our interests are so similar and our values are so similar that there's going to be continuity on these issues.

QUESTION: Do you know if she has talked to incoming Secretary Powell about this specific subject? And did she talk to him about the statement she was going to make today?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: She has talked to General Powell about a whole range of issues. Certainly the subject of democracy and human rights and how important it is to her as a core element of her approach to foreign policy is something that she has conveyed in every statement she has ever made.

QUESTION: In the statement today that she made, did she advise him she was doing it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I don't know.

QUESTION: To follow up on Barry's question, but specifically related to Burma, aren't you in fact by this statement telling the Bush incoming Administration that they should be prepared to invoke trade sanctions against -- more trade sanctions, or at least support more trade sanctions against Burma if this dialogue proves to be without progress?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Matt, the statement we are making is directed toward the Burmese regime and the Burmese people.

QUESTION: I thought you said other countries, including the United States, should -- the ILO should consider additional measures, including trade sanctions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: If you look at the statement and you see what it says is, first, our approach with regard to the dialogue, that we hope it's not a false dawn; that it's been a bipartisan effort; that we think those efforts will continue; that there is a forced labor problem in addition to the democracy issue; that we see the two as connected. Forced labor is unlikely to end as long as democracy is denied. It says what genuine progress means.

And it says the President has asked the Secretary, "to make clear that, in the absence of significant progress, ILO members, including the United States, should be prepared to consider additional measures, including trade sanctions."

QUESTION: Right. So I want to see if I can get you to shorten that. Are you saying that the incoming Administration should be ready to support additional trade sanctions against Burma if --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: This is the final statement of this Administration, Matt. And Monday there is a new team and they have to assess the situation in light of what they see and in light of advice that is passed on to them by us and many others.

QUESTION: I don't understand, because this thing only has a shelf life of two days, then, and then after that you're saying, well, forget about it. We don't have any opinion on Burma?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: We have expressed our opinion on Burma pretty forcefully, Matt. And as I've just said to Barry, our core interests in this continue, and we think that the United States Government and the United States people will continue to have that same core interest regardless of who is in charge.

QUESTION: On this, but on a related issue, can you speculate as to why the Burmese Government may be doing these talks now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: It's very hard to say. Our information on this is quite limited. Certainly the approach of Special Envoy Razali has been very proactive, and he has taken a lot of steps -- I think innovative steps -- to try to get the dialogue started.

I think frankly also they were feeling the heat. The ILO took really unprecedented action this last June. The imposition of sanctions on Burma was the first such action in 80 years. And the ILO asked the world's governments, businesses and trade unions to do two things: first, to review their relations with Burma to ensure that the actions did not perpetuate a system of forced labor; and, second, to take additional actions to try to stop the use of forced labor in Burma.

That led to a very strong call. I should say that at the Millennium Summit there were a series of statements made by a large number of the world's leaders, led of course by the Secretary and by the President, and I think that that message got through.

QUESTION: Betsy took my question. But if I could follow up on what Nick was asking, what is it that leads you to believe that this is actually genuine? Is there anything substantive that tells you that this time they mean business?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: You know, they have met face to face. It has been confirmed on both sides. The discussions are proceeding. Special Envoy Razali is a facilitator of these discussions, and that is a promising sign. And I think we have to acknowledge that and welcome it. But as the Secretary said last week in her final briefing, we also hope that it is a genuine dialogue, and I think only time will tell whether it is one or not.

QUESTION: Do you have any information from Aung San Suu Kyi in terms of her current conditions? Any update in terms of her freedom of movement, and that kind of thing?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: She has been under a de facto house arrest for more than 100 days. She has acknowledged the fact of these meetings. But, again, our capacity to communicate with her is extremely limited.

QUESTION: So are you confident that she is willingly participating in these meetings in a way that signals that she views these as a positive development? Or are you taking just the fact that she is participating as the sign that she sees this as a positive development?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, there is evidence, and what we have presented is based on our best assessment of the evidence. But obviously there will be more over time, including, we hope, more direct evidence, and that will be a way which we can evaluate the genuineness of the dialogue.

So as we have said, it is a beginning. But it could be a false dawn; it could be the start of something that we have been urging for a long time.

QUESTION: Do you think -- do they have any information about human rights in North Korea?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, I have a lot of information about that, but I think Richard probably wouldn't want me to use all the briefing time.

I think you should look at our Human Rights Report from last year, which summarizes what we knew at that time. We will have another report coming shortly. When I visited there with the Secretary, we had only limited access to the people of North Korea because of the shortness of time. But I think that the basic report that we gave in February of 2000 in the Country Reports remains valid.

QUESTION: When is the next report due? Is it February 1st or so?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: February 25, 2001, when I will be a private citizen.

(Laughter.)

QUESTION: Are you not going to be involved? You must be involved in that.

QUESTION: Is it mostly prepared?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, we work on them year-round, and obviously we have been involved -- we have an entire office that works on it year-round. I have been involved in it intimately, but obviously the final development, the rollout of the report, will be done by somebody else.

QUESTION: So it won't have our imprimatur on it.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: My influence will be intertwined with those of others, Matt, and I am optimistic that it will carry the stamp of my influence.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Well, actually, can I ask one more question. As you leave, and you have said that obviously you had a hand in this report that is coming out, could you speak as to whether, in the last year since the last report came out, China's human rights situation has improved, or has in fact gotten worse?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Well, I don't want to preview the report for you, but I do think that the various developments that we have reported over time have been extremely troubling, the continuing crackdown on the Falun Gong, the treatment of house churches in Wen Jo, the continuing restraints on the China Democracy Party.

On the other hand, there have been developments on the side of personal freedom and economic freedom that we think need to be continued. There have been also rule of law developments, the development of efforts to make the laws WTO-compatible, some lifting of internet restrictions.

All of these will be surveyed and presented in the Country Reports in February 2001. You should look, thought, at the Religious Freedom Report that we issued in September of 2000, which gives the state of play on religious freedom as of that point in time.

QUESTION: Well, thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: One more question, Mr. Secretary. What are your onward plans? That is the most often -- the question most often asked in this talented --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: I am leaving tomorrow night. I'm driving to New Haven, Connecticut, where my family has lived this entire time, and Monday at 10:00 a.m. I teach a course called, "Promoting Democracy and Human Rights Theory in Practice." And my major ambition after being Assistant Secretary is to be the assistant coach of my son's little league team.

QUESTION: Is Strobe Talbott with you in the car? (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KOH: Strobe's coming. We are going to be the place to watch. (Laughter.) Globalization. Thank you.

[end of document]

Link to Secretary Albright's January 18, 2001 statement on Burma.

Blue Bar rule

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