Itai Dzamara’s Case Important to Washington, the World

Marking the release of the 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski highlighted cases from around the world that demonstrate the very concerns stimulating the need for the annual reports and ensuing action. From his podium in Washington, he spoke about Itai Dzamara to a room full of international media. For the full transcript, read on:

Assistant Secretary Malinowski:  All right.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Hello, everyone.  It’s good to be here.  Before I answer your questions, let me take a few minutes to talk about the 2014 reports and highlight some of the major developments that we have documented in this past year.

As the Secretary emphasized, the Human Rights Reports demonstrate America’s commitment to human rights, and they’re a tool in their own right in the advancement of those rights.  They cover 199 countries and entities.  They strive to provide a comprehensive and factual review of conditions around the world.  They are also the most widely read document that we put out at the State Department every single year.  And I think that just reminds us that what America says about human rights around the world – just the words – matters greatly.

Now despite all the problems that the reports describe, I want to start by noting that people working for democracy and human rights around the world made many advances in the last year and in recent months.

In Burkina Faso, people stood up to uphold their constitution, part of a larger movement for term limits that is manifesting itself across Africa and in many parts of the world today.

In Ukraine, peaceful protests helped citizens reclaim their country’s traditions of freedom of speech and political choice.

In Afghanistan and Indonesia, millions people went to the polls and chose among all the candidates before them leaders with the most progressive, democratic visions of their country’s future.

This year – too late to be included in these reports – we saw two more elections in which people affirmed their right to choose and change their leaders in Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

That said, when you scan the headlines from Syria to North Korea to South Sudan, it’s clear that overall 2014 was a tough year for human rights and human rights activists.  We highlight many specific cases, of course, in the reports, and more have developed this year; for example, the disappearance of Zimbabwean civil society activist Itai Dzamara, who has been missing for over 100 days now.  The United States urges the Government of Zimbabwe to pursue a credible investigation of the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Now as the Secretary said, one of the notable trends this past year was the brutality of non-state actors.  These groups did not emerge from nothing.  Violent extremism in Nigeria was exacerbated by the actions and in some ways the inaction of the previous government there.  In Syria, Daesh’s rise was fueled by Assad’s horrific abuses.  In Iraq, Daesh took hold because many in the Sunni community felt marginalized, that their legitimate grievances were being ignored by the government in Baghdad.

As President Obama noted in the 2015 National Security Strategy, many of our biggest national security challenges come from the biggest human rights failures.  So our response to terrorist groups must be consistent with human rights too, which leads us to another troubling trend that the reports identify: the misapplication of counterterrorism laws to stifle criticism and restrict the space for civil society.

For example, in Saudi Arabia, peaceful internet activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 100 lashes by a court originally set up to try terrorists.  Egypt has used a real threat of terrorism to justify the prosecution of nonviolent opposition figures, human rights activists, and demonstrators.  Bahrain has a legitimate interest in protecting its people against violent groups, yet its government has focused much of its energy on prosecuting peaceful critics, including this year opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman.  Last year in China, Ilham Tohti, an Uighur scholar who promoted moderation and reconciliation among ethnic groups, was sentenced to life in prison.

Now we ask partner governments to make many contributions in the fight against groups like Daesh, but amongst the most important contributions that we ask for is to set an example in their own societies that grievances can be addressed through peaceful democratic politics so as not to feed into terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer.

Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine is another example of human rights crises sparking first-order challenges to our national security.  Our 2014 reports highlight the abuses associated with this conflict and the territory Russian-backed separatists control and in Crimea.  Meanwhile, even as Russia denies being involved in the conflict, it continues to detain Ukrainians on Russian soil.  Many are aware that Russia is holding Ukrainian pilot and member of parliament Nadiya Savchenko.  In fact, there may be many more cases.  All should be returned home.

The Russian Government’s efforts to abolish domestic discussion of its intervention in Ukraine is just one example of how its behavior abroad mirrors and reinforces the persecution the Russian people face at home.  Seventy-six of the country’s most respected NGOs are now listed as foreign agents, and a new law banning undesirable foreign organizations will intensify this trend.  There has been no progress in identifying those ultimately responsible for past murders of journalists, activists, and – now with the killing of Boris Nemtsov – leaders of the political opposition.

Another prominent trend was the use of technology to control the flow of information.  Last year, Gmail saw its traffic in China reduced to zero when Chinese authorities prevent mainland users from accessing it.  In Turkey, government authorities blocked YouTube and Twitter for several days in the lead-up to elections.  And in Cuba, while the government has publicly committed to expanding internet access, access remains restricted for the vast majority of the population – something that we will be working with U.S. service providers to help change.

Access to information is also critical to fighting corruption, and the Secretary highlighted that as another major theme of the reports this year: the connection between corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarian governments.  This is evident in many, many places.  Venezuela is one country that we highlighted in this context in this report.

In China, while the government cracked down on corruption, it also convicted civil society activists associated with the New Citizens Movement in retribution for their public campaign to expose official corruption, including Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong.  China has now introduced draft laws on foreign NGOs, national security, and counterterrorism which appear to call into question its commitment to the path of opening to the world that has supported its transformation over the past three decades.  We expressed our very serious concerns about these draft laws at the Strategic & Economic Dialogue this week and we will continue to do so.

Now these are all very tough issues.  There is no single approach or remedy, and change sometimes takes a long time.  But we must and do press for change because our hopes for peace and security and prosperity depend on respect for human rights.  These reports make clear that this is the standard towards which we must strive and to which we will be held.  And in that spirit, I welcome your questions.