Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lisa Peterson on the Release of the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

12 Apr

Lisa Peterson, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Washington, D.C.

Press Briefing Room

MS PETERSON:  It’s a privilege to be here for the release of the 46th Human Rights Report, which we submitted to the U.S. Congress earlier today.

For nearly five decades, the United States has issued the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, addressing the status of internationally recognized human rights in all countries that are members of the United Nations.

The Annual Human Rights Report includes 198 reports on individual countries and territories, and provides an objective record of whether and how human rights and fundamental freedoms are protected by law and in practice around the world.  The individual reports draw on information from a range of governmental, nongovernmental, and media sources.  The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which I currently lead, is at the forefront of preparing these reports along with colleagues across the department and our embassies in the field, and I am proud to note that this June we will mark our 45th anniversary.

In 1977, the Carter administration oversaw the establishment of what is now the DRL Bureau, with the mission of advancing individual liberty and democratic freedoms around the world, and upholding the truth enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all individuals are born equal in dignity and rights.

Over those four and a half decades, DRL has rolled up our sleeves alongside U.S. Government colleagues as well as countless brave human rights defenders and other civil society leaders to promote our namesake values of democracy, human rights, and labor.

Despite innumerable achievements over that period to defend and strengthen democracy and to promote and protect human rights and labor rights, serious challenges persist.  Some of today’s challenges to democracy and human rights are longstanding and familiar; others are new and evolving.  All demand continued leadership from the United States in close collaboration with our partners and allies across the globe.

On the home front, strengthening our democracy in the United States and ensuring that the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all people are protected and advanced is a critical part of the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to global leadership on human rights.  We can’t be credible advocates for human rights abroad if we don’t live up to the same principles at home.  We do not claim a moral high ground, but we do, in the words of our Constitution, resolve “to form a more perfect union,” which means we must continue to address the many human rights challenges in our own country.

The Summit for Democracy held this past December served as a rallying point to address these challenges, both new and old.  President Biden brought together world leaders, civil society, and private sector representatives in a shared commitment to push back against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and advance respect for human rights.

We’re taking forward the momentum of the first summit through a year of action in which governments, including the United States, are working to fulfill our commitments and tackle human rights challenges at home and globally in partnership with civil society.

The yearly Human Rights Report speaks to the importance that we place on these goals.  The report does not attempt to catalog every human rights related incident.  It is not an effort by the U.S. Government to judge others.  It does not reach legal conclusions, rank countries, or draw comparisons.

We’ve seen all too well in recent years that around the world, democracy and human rights have been threatened and undermined by disinformation, misinformation, and outright lies.  So our objective with the Human Rights Report is simple: bring the facts to the table.  It is only when we’re armed with the truth that the United States can most effectively use our voice and our influence to call attention to violations and abuses of human rights worldwide, and press the perpetrators of these violations and abuses to change course and end their egregious conduct.

At the conclusion of this press briefing, the 2021 Human Rights Report will be available to the public on the State Department website at www.state.gov.

Thank you for being here today, and with that, I am happy to take your questions.

MR PRICE:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Hello.  Guita Aryan, Voice of America, Persian service.  The Secretary just mentioned Iran as one of the examples of countries where human rights violation is rampant, and he referred to abduction or attempt to abduct dissidents overseas.  A little over a year ago the Secretary also issued a statement designating a number of IRGC commanders for having a hand in the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of protesters a couple of a years ago.  And in continuation of that statement, the Secretary said that the U.S. will continue to support the Iranian people.  Now how has the Biden administration helped or supported the Iranian people during this past year, given that the list of violations of human rights on Iran in the report is, I don’t know, 10, 15 lines long?

MS PETERSON:  So we continue to find ways, both in public and in very discreet manners, to support people who are trying to advance the human rights situation in Iran.  As you note, we have also put into play a variety of sanctions tools.  I am sorry, I don’t have details in front of me at this moment, but it is something that I would be happy to circle back to you on.

MR PRICE:  Janne.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  On the North Korean human rights issues.  Human rights violation are currently ongoing in North Korea, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is – massacred their own citizens.  What is the final destination for the United States to resolve the North Korean human rights problem?

MS PETERSON:  So we do recognize that the DPRK is among the most repressive, authoritarian states in the world.  And obviously, we remain deeply concerned about reports of systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations and abuses committed by the DPRK Government.  And we certainly hope that one day justice may be achieved for the people of North Korea.

Similar to the very difficult operating circumstances with Iran, we continue to work with the international community to raise awareness, document and preserve information on human rights abuses and violations, and increase access to independent information.  We also seek to impose sanctions on those who are complicit in abuses and violations, and as always, promote respect for human rights within the DPRK.

QUESTION:  Do you have any tools use for the – resolve this human rights issue in North Korea, or you don’t have anything?  Because this is long time being the North Koreans in human right – abuse the human rights.

MS PETERSON:  Obviously, that is an extremely difficult environment to be able to influence, but it is an area that we continue to focus our efforts on to try to raise awareness around the issues within North Korea.

MR PRICE:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Yeah, how do you assess the human rights record in the Middle East?  Are they deteriorated, or how do you – how do you see that?

MS PETERSON:  I would hesitate to speak to the Middle East as a region as a whole.  Each country has its individual circumstances.  Some have progress, some less so.  So I would hesitate to speak on an entire region.

QUESTION:  On Russia, the report obviously covers the 2021 period, but Russia seems to be committing even worse atrocities this year in Ukraine and its repression at home.  I would wonder if you would agree with that characterization.  And then secondly, if you could expand on why that would be the case – do you think that Vladimir Putin has a sense of impunity because he hasn’t faced repercussions in the past?

MS PETERSON:  So I will share that because the report does focus on 2021 and a lot of the preparation is very focused on what went into those reports, I was struck by the manner in which the listing of issues with Russia have simply been amplified in the context of the Russia-Ukraine context.  As to why that has happened, I will not speculate on what is motivating Putin.

MR PRICE:  Sir.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  On Georgia, there are some serious concerns about Georgia’s human rights record.  Many believe within the country and by respondents here in DC, former diplomats, that Georgia is leaning towards illiberalism.  Secretary Blinken mentioned that it’s irrespective to friends or not friendly countries, that applies – that human rights – human rights standard applies equally to everyone.  I just want to gather your thoughts how far – is the United States willing to go further if the former partners – and Georgia has been partnering with the U.S. for the last 30 years – is violating systematically human rights within its territory?  Thank you.

MS PETERSON:  So, clearly, we do have a list of human rights concerns with Georgia.  I will also note that we have been following actions such as the October elections.  And they’re – while those were characterized as candidates generally being able to campaign freely, but there were observations from OSCE observers that the competitive environment was marred by widespread and consistent allegations of intimidation.  I do think that this is an appropriate example of how we do see problems in countries and we use the human rights reports to analyze and understand those problems, but in understanding and analyzing we try to find ways to move forward, and as long as there is opportunity for engagement with a government we will continue to engage on those human rights issues.

MR PRICE:  Humeyra.

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  I know that the report covers last year, but I just wanted to ask you something a little bit more contemporary.  There has been a lot of reporting – an increase in reporting of accounts of rape and sexual violence from Ukraine.  UN human rights monitors are seeking to verify these allegations of sexual violence by Russian forces.  Is that something the United States is picking up, and do you think that it has reached a level where rape is used as a weapon of war?

MS PETERSON:  So the reports of sexual violence are certainly something that we are tracking, both in our own efforts to understand what is happening in Ukraine, in our own efforts to catalogue what is happening there, and through the various citizen-level mechanisms and multilateral approaches that are all gathering information.  We are hearing horrific stories; I’m sure you are hearing horrific stories as well.  And that is something that we will come continue to gather and ultimately, ideally, have it feed into transitional justice mechanisms.

MR PRICE:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Following up a bit on that as well – sorry to bring it back to Ukraine.  There’s also been a claim by the Ukraine’s UN ambassador that Russia has taken more than 121,000 children out of Ukraine and is reportedly drafting a bill to simply and accelerate adoption procedures for orphans.  This is something obviously coming from the Ukrainian side.  Is this something that the U.S. is also tracking and looking into in terms of the kind of behavior that has been reported by the Ukrainians?

MS PETERSON:  This is certainly something that we have heard about.  This is something that we will continue to try to learn more about and try to determine what action may be possible.

MR PRICE:  Final question?  Yes.

QUESTION:  Yes.  These reports every year include a lot of details about LGBTQ rights abroad.  And I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts about folks who might be critical of that in the context of what’s happening here in the United States with bills like the “Don’t say gay” bill in Florida, efforts to discriminate against transgender folks, et cetera.  Any thoughts on that point?

MS PETERSON:  So this will not be the first issue on which people will say, well, what about your own country?  I do think – again, within the framing of the Summit for Democracy and the approach that this administration has taken, we’re not trying to pretend that these are not issues that we are grappling with here in the United States.  This report, because it is very clearly focused on the rest of the world, we do dig in on other countries.  We do not have a mandate to do a report on our own circumstances.

MR PRICE:  Final question, Andrea.

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Any comment on Russia’s arrest of Kara-Murza just hours after he appeared on two American networks from Moscow speaking out against the Russian war?

MS PETERSON:  I would speak in general about Russia’s crackdown – further crackdown on freedom of information, freedom of expression in Russia in the context of the Ukraine conflict.  This was space that they were closing even before the conflict started.  Their efforts to close down that space have simply grown exponentially since the start of the conflict, and we would want to see that space reopened so that Russians can understand what is happening within their neighborhood and what their government is doing.

MR PRICE:  Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Peterson.