Remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry on the Release of the Annual Country Report on Human Rights

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, good morning, everybody.  Excuse me.  I’ve got a little allergies this morning, I think.

I’m delighted to be here this morning for the second Human Rights report that I have issued as Secretary, and I’m particularly pleased to be here with our Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Uzra Zeya, who as I think all of you know, is performing these responsibilities in the capacity as an interim assistant secretary but who has done just a spectacular job and has led the Department in a year-long process to track and make the assessments that are reflected here.  So I thank her for a job particularly well done on this year’s Human Rights Report.

The fundamental struggle for dignity, for decency in the treatment of human beings between each other and between states and citizens, is a driving force in all of human history.  And from our own nation’s journey, we know that this is a work in progress.  Slavery was written into our Constitution before it was written out.  And we know that the struggle for equal rights, for women, for others – for LGBT community and others – is an ongoing struggle.  And it’s because of the courage and commitment of citizens in each generation that the United States has come closer to living up to our own ideals.

Even as we come together today to issue a report on other nations, we hold ourselves to a high standard, and we expect accountability here at home too.  And we know that we’re not perfect.  We don’t speak with any arrogance whatsoever, but with a concern for the human condition.

Our own journey has not been without great difficulty, and at times, contradiction.  But even as we remain humble about the challenges of our own history, we are proud that no country has more opportunity to advance the cause of democracy and no country is as committed to the cause of human rights as we are.

This year’s report, we think, is especially timely.  It comes on the heels of one of the most momentous years in the struggle for greater rights and freedoms in modern history.

In Syria, hundreds were murdered in the dead of night when a disaster occurred at the hands of a dictator who decided to infect the air of Damascus with poisonous gas, and many more have been, unfortunately, confined to die under a barrage of barrel bombs, Scud missiles, artillery, and other conventional weapons.

In Bangladesh, thousands of workers perished in the greatest workplace safety disaster in history.

And from Nigeria to Russia to Iran, indeed in some 80 countries the world over, LGBT communities face discriminatory laws and practices that attack their basic human dignity and undermine their safety.  We are seeing new laws like the Anti-Homosexuality Bill enacted by Uganda and signed into law by President Museveni earlier this week, which not only makes criminals of people for who they are, but punishes those who defend the human rights that are our universal birthright.

These laws contribute to a global trend of rising violence and discrimination against LGBT persons and their supporters, and they are an affront to every reasonable conscience, and the United States will continue to stand with our LGBT brothers and sisters as we stand up for freedom, for justice, for equal rights for all people around the world.

And so with this year’s report, we join with many other nations in reaffirming our commitment to a world where speaking one’s mind does not lead to persecution, a world where practicing or changing one’s faith does not lead to imprisonment, and where marching peacefully in the street does not get you beaten up in a blind alley or even killed in plain sight.

So let me be clear.  This is not just some high-minded exercise.  This is the most comprehensive, authoritative, dispassionate, and factual review of the state of human rights globally, and every American should be proud of it.  That’s why Acting Assistant Secretary Zeya of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and our embassies and consulates around the world have spent countless hours researching and writing these reports, engaging activists, talking to governments, and analyzing NGO and media reports.  And that’s why they capture the attention of dictatorships and democracies alike.

This is about accountability.  It’s about ending impunity.  And it’s about a fight that has gone on for centuries, as long as human beings have been able to think and write and speak and act on their own.  The struggle for rights and dignity couldn’t be more relevant to what we are seeing transpire across the globe.  The places where we face some of the greatest national security challenges today are also places where governments deny basic human rights to their nations’ people, and that is no coincidence.  And it is particularly no coincidence in an age where people have access and want access to more information and the freedom to be able to act – to access information and to be able to act on the basis of that information.  That is what has always characterized democracies and free people.

It’s no coincidence that in North Korea, a UN commission of inquiry recently found clear and compelling evidence of wholesale torture and crimes against humanity, reports of people who have been executed summarily and fired at by artillery, fired at by anti-aircraft weapons, 122 millimeter aircraft weapons that literally obliterate human beings, and this has occurred with people in the masses being forced to watch, a form of gross and utter intimidation and oppression.

It’s no coincidence that the first use of a weapon of mass destruction anywhere in the last quarter century came from a dictatorship in Syria in trying to suppress a popular uprising, in trying to suppress the aspirations of young people who simply wanted jobs and education and opportunity.

It’s no coincidence that the brutal violence that we’ve seen recently in South Sudan and the Central African Republic is rooted in cycles of violence stemming from past abuses, marginalization, discrimination, and unwillingness to listen.

And so the United States of America will continue to speak out, without a hint of arrogance or apology, on behalf of people who stand up for their universal rights.  And we will stand up in many cases for those who are deprived of the opportunity to be able to stand up for themselves.

We will do so in Venezuela, where the government has confronted peaceful protestors by deploying armed vigilantes, by imprisoning students, and by severely limiting freedoms of expression and assembly.  The solution to Venezuela’s problems are not found through violence, and they will not be found through violence, but only through dialogue with all Venezuelans in a climate of mutual respect.

We will do it in Sri Lanka, where the government still has not answered basic demands for accountability and reconciliation, where attacks on civil society activists, journalists, and religious minorities, sadly, still continue.  Our concern about this ongoing situation has led the United States to support another UN Human Rights Council resolution at the March session.  We will do so because we know countries that deny human rights and human dignity challenge our interests as well as human interests.  But we also know countries that advance those values, those countries that embrace these rights are countries that actually create opportunities.

From Yemen to Tunisia, which I just visited last month, we have seen how national dialogue and democratic progress can make countries more stable and make them stronger partners for peace and prosperity.  In Ukraine, as we all just saw in real time in the last days, tens of thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against the power – to demonstrate again the power of people to be able to demand a more democratic and accountable governance, and to stand up even against those who would sniper from roofs and take their lives in the effort to have their voices heard.

In Burma, we continue to see a country that was isolated for so many years slowly moving away not just from dictatorship, but toward a more productive partnering with the United States and the international community.

So there are plenty of examples, folks, of places that choose a different road, and that strive to make it work.  As today’s report makes clear, Burma still faces the normal challenges, from reforming an undemocratic constitution to ending discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic minorities, but we must continue to encourage progress even as we speak honestly about the problems that persist.

In my first year as Secretary of State, I have been very fortunate to see with my own eyes what we can accomplish when we see our power and use our power and influence to empower others to be able to change things for the better.  I’m truly inspired by the civil society activists that I’ve met with in many of the countries I’ve been to – in Hanoi, for instance – people who are standing up for their fundamental rights to speak out and to associate freely.  I’m inspired by the 86-year-old human rights pioneer I met in Moscow who has spent a lifetime fighting for the basic rights that we take for granted here in the United States.  I’m inspired by a group of young southeast-Asian land rights advocates that I met at the ASEAN regional forum last year who understand that societal problems are best solved when the government works with civil society, not against it.

The truth is that some of the greatest accomplishments in expanding the cause of human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but they came through the awesomely courageous acts of individuals, whether it is Xu Zhiyong fighting the government transparency that he desires to see in China, or Ales Byalyatski, who is demanding justice and transparency and accountability in Belarus, whether it is Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, who is rapping for greater political freedom in Cuba, or Eskinder Nega, who is writing for freedom of expression in Ethiopia.  Every single one of these people are demonstrating a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever.

This year there is actually another name on all of our minds, and that is, of course, the first Human Rights Report since the passing of one of the most courageous individuals of all time, Nelson Mandela.  Mandela was more than an inspiration; he was a model.  All over the world, I have been in homes and offices where his unmistakable face was on posters and prints.  I’ve met so many young kids named Nelson in Africa, but in so many other places where people are aspiring for real change.  His influence was just that powerful.  Even in his absence, the example that he set will long endure.  We carry on his work for those who are walking picket lines, who are sitting in prison cells sometimes unknown to anybody except their family, who are protesting from Cairo to Caracas to Kyiv.

And we have to ask ourselves, as we do this:  If we don’t stand with these brave men and women, then what do we stand for and who will stand with them?  And if we don’t give voice to those who are voiceless, then who do we speak for and who will give voice to them?  The demand for human dignity I believe, President Obama believes – I think all of us believe in this country – is unstoppable.  And today we reaffirm our commitment to stand with the many who seek dignity and against the few who deny it.

That’s how we live up to our ideals.  That’s how we will meet the demands of this moment.  That’s how we will build a more stable and peaceful world.

And before I turn things over to Uzra, let me leave you with one final thought.  We obviously have a big agenda.  You can see that.  And that means we need our full team on the field so that we can get to work.  Frankly, it’s unacceptable that so many of our nominees – countless numbers of ambassadors to very important countries are awaiting confirmation.  Our national security is not served by keeping many professionals, people who have waited patiently, in a perpetual limbo.  Neither is our ability to support democratic rights and aspirations of people all over the world enhanced by what is happening.

Let me give you an example, for instance, of what is happening to Tom Malinowski.  Tom is a human rights champion whom the President has picked as his nominee to be the next Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.  Tom has strong bipartisan support.  We know of no objection to his nomination – none – and yet, he has been waiting more than 220 days to be confirmed.

So now is the time to send a strong signal that we are not content to sit on the sidelines.  I ask and I hope that our colleagues in the Senate will help Tom Malinowski get on the job so that we can continue to lead in these very kinds of issues that I have just laid out here today.  We are ready to lead, and that’s when America is at its best, and that’s the vision that has always inspired people.  And it always will.  And it’s with that understanding that we are committed to continue this important work to defend the rights of people all around the world.  That’s how we became a nation, and that’s how we will stay the nation that we want to be.

With that I thank you very much, and I will leave it in the good hands of Uzra.  Thank you.

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