Senior State Department Official On State Department 2019 Successes on Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Issues

And looking back on the past year, I wanted to highlight some of the main accomplishments of our bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, as well as look ahead and talk about some of our priorities.

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Press Correspondents’ Room
Washington, D.C.
February 13, 2020


MODERATOR: Hey, everybody. All right. This is kind of like a kind of review of where we are with the past year. I don’t think we’ve had you down here before, have we?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Not to this group, no. They look friendly. (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Sometimes – well, no, they’re great. They are friendly. They’re awesome.

But [Senior State Department Official] is here. He’s going to talk to you, give you some opening comments, and then take a few of your questions. I’m a little constrained on time, so like 20, 25 minutes.

QUESTION: And the ground rules?

MODERATOR: It is on background, attribution to a senior State Department official.


MODERATOR: The whole thing. All right? Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good to go? Well, thank you for joining me here today. And looking back on the past year, I wanted to highlight some of the main accomplishments of our bureau, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, as well as look ahead and talk about some of our priorities. The United States has been and will always remain a staunch promoter of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and human dignity, and a supporter of those who strive to defend and protect them, often at great personal risk. The Trump administration has made the protection and promotion of human rights a priority.

In 2019, governments in Iran, China, Russia, and Syria, as well as the former Maduro regime in Venezuela, as well as many others, continue to suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion or belief. The United States consistently took and will continue to take action to ensure these and other human rights violations and abuses are not ignored. Our focus remains on calling out governments and other actors when they commit serious abuses and pressing to hold them accountable. We seek to lend our voice to the voiceless.

As always, we have raised human rights cases and concerns bilaterally and multilaterally, publicly and privately. We have provided advice and assistance to governments seeking to reform and strengthen their democratic institutions. We have funded programs to empower local NGOs and citizens to build foundations for transparent governance, support access to justice, accountability for atrocities, and to document human rights abuses. And where appropriate, we’ve used sanctions and multilateral mechanisms to promote accountability and protect civilians from atrocities.

Among the most significant actions we have taken over the past year, year and a half or so, is our increasing use of our visa restriction authorities. Since the beginning of FY2019 – that would be September, 2018 – the Department of State has announced over 100 designations of foreign officials and their immediate family members in countries across every region of the world for their involvement in gross human rights violations and corruption, under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act.

Similarly, we have worked closely with the Treasury Department to designate 97 individuals and entities for their roles in corruption and serious human rights abuse under the Global Magnitsky sanctions program. We have also worked with Treasury to make six designations under the Russia Magnitsky sanctions program, including a designation of the organizer of the 2015 killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and other Chechen officials who were implicated in the horrific campaign of mass detentions and torture of LGBTI persons. We took punitive action in a number of other areas of serious concern as well.

On China, the Secretary has led a global effort to call the communist party to account for its wide range of violations and abuses, including the detention of over 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim minority communities in Xinjiang. In October, for instance, the department announced a new visa restriction policy under which we have restricted the visas of those Chinese Government and Communist Party officials who are believed to be responsible for or complicit in the detention or abuse of Muslim individuals in Xinjiang. This action was taken in conjunction with the Department of Commerce’s imposition of export controls on a number of entities complicit in those same abuses.

At the UN’s Third Committee, we worked with likeminded partners to develop a joint statement on Xinjiang, which was signed by 23 countries, including Albania, the first Organization of Islamic Cooperation member-state to participate in a joint call to action on Xinjiang’s human rights crisis.

On Iran, in his December 19 speech and elsewhere, Secretary Pompeo has made clear that the United States and the international community expect the Iranian regime to treat its people with the dignity that all human beings deserve, and to fulfill the human rights obligations and commitments both under Iranian law and in treaties to which it is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To this end, the United States imposed sanctions on a number of Iranian persons and entities responsible for human rights abuses over the past year, as well as two Iranian Revolutionary Court judges who have repeatedly punished Iranian citizens and dual nationals for exercising their freedoms of expression or peaceful assembly.

On Venezuela, the United States continue to use diplomacy, sanctions, humanitarian assistance, and support to the legitimate National Assembly and Interim President Juan Guaido to build pressure for a peaceful, democratic transition in Venezuela.

In 2019, we also took significant action on the deplorable human rights situation in Nicaragua. We restricted visas and imposed targeted sanctions under the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2018, the Global Magnitsky sanctions program, and Executive Order 13851. So far, we have imposed sanctions on Vice President Rosario Murillo and other members of the Ortega family, the head of Nicaragua National Police, the president of the Nicaragua National Assembly, and the minister of health, among others. By the end of 2019, we had taken action on a total of 15 individuals and five entities.

We have also sought to seize opportunities for improvements in human rights, rule of law, and democratic governance in a number of countries where there have been openings. We will continue to make this a priority in the coming year.

In Sudan, for instance, we supported the first steps towards the country’s historic transition to democratic civilian rule.

In Ethiopia, we continue to support Prime Minister Abiy’s ambitious reform efforts and his plans to hold free and fair elections later this year.

In Angola, we revived our human rights dialogue with the government and are working closely with it to advance fundamental freedoms and address the serious corruption that has plagued that country for so long.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are encouraging President Tshisekedi to advance democratic reforms and plan to hold our first human rights dialogue with his government in the near future.

In Bolivia, we are working closely with the transitional government to ensure free and fair elections that are credible in the coming year.

In Armenia, following a historic change in the 2018 Velvet Revolution, the U.S. has expanded assistance to help the government combat corruption, improve governance and political processes, and lay the groundwork for a transparent, accountable, and effective justice sector.

In Malaysia, we’re continuing to support the new government’s reform efforts while bolstering the capacity of civil society.

We also took action to bolster the department’s capacity to identify and respond to significant abuses and atrocity risks. In 2019, we held the first-ever State Department field training on atrocity prevention for U.S. embassy staff abroad. Held in Johannesburg, South Africa, we trained 52 U.S. Government employees working at 28 U.S. embassies and consulates throughout Africa.

Beyond atrocity prevention, we also train embassy officials and local staff on labor rights, such as freedom of association and forced and child labor. In 2019, we coordinated interagency training sessions on labor in Washington, Bratislava, Kuala Lumpur, Muscat, Mexico City, and Addis Ababa for a total of more than 125 officials.

But of course, there is always more work to be done on these issues. I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. So in a very polite fashion, we’ll take questions.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. I’d like to ask about two countries you didn’t mention in that – one, Egypt has tens of thousands of political prisoners; one American died in prison there. Is this building doing anything about that? Are you raising it? Are there any sanctions that will come out of the fact that an American died there? And then in Saudi Arabia, also you didn’t mention – is this building satisfied with how they handled the Khashoggi trial?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So on Egypt, we have continued to raise our concerns with the Egyptian Government about a range of cases and a range of issues. We were very disappointed and concerned about the death of the American citizen, and we continue to consider options on how to respond to that case.

On Saudi Arabia, as you may know, we were the first country to sanction both through – on – through visa restrictions and through economic sanctions a wide range of individuals complicit in the Khashoggi killing. We continue to monitor what – how that – how the cases against individuals are being dealt with in Saudi Arabia, as well as to raise concerns we have about Saudi practice around the case and around other human rights issues.

QUESTION: May I follow up on that?


QUESTION: Because I had a similar question. I was wondering if you, in your search for accountability in Saudi Arabia – in – for Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi case, are you pushing for them to open up the court rooms, make the proceedings public, make all the records public? And can we ever expect an end to the U.S. investigation? Because the United Nations special rapporteur thinks that there were higher level people who were involved in this than have been mentioned in any U.S. sanctions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me take the second question first. We continue to dig into the facts of the case. It’s a never-ending process. With any abuse of that caliber, the process can take some time, but it’s – as I mentioned, we have sanctioned a number of individuals, many more than any other country has, but we also continue to look at new evidence.

As to the trial, we are among several countries who attended the trial and continue to urge that the trial be conducted in the fairest and most transparent way possible.


QUESTION: Another country that you didn’t mention was Myanmar, where the Rohingya continue to face violence and oppression from the government. I know last year there were a number of Magnitsky sanctions on some senior military commanders, but that hasn’t changed what’s happening on the ground. Is 2020, then, the time to take greater action, and what would you say to the criticism that the administration cares more about combating Chinese influence in the country than actually dealing with the human rights situation?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me say that, first of all, we have taken significant action in response to the horrible abuses and the ethnic cleansing that took place in Rakhine state. We continue to be the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the victims of that ethnic cleansing. And as you mentioned, we’ve taken a number of actions to identify and restrict – to hold accountable, really – some of the senior-most individuals responsible for what took place there. That includes our announcement of visa restrictions under Section 7031(c) against the commander in chief of the armed forces, as well as his deputy.

We do think, while the situation remains extremely problematic and deplorable, there have been some baby steps of progress. There was a domestically created independent commission of inquiry created by the government which did acknowledge some military culpability for the abuses that took place, and there have been some steps on the ground to address some of the longstanding injustices that the Rohingya population has faced. But we continue to review the situation. It’s one of our top priorities. I and others are hoping to go out there again in the not distant future to see if we can move the needle further there.

Of course, we have elections coming up later this year in Myanmar, and that too is of great interest to us, and we want to encourage again the freest, fairest, most transparent elections possible there, recognizing that the constitution continues to impose undemocratic constraints on what is possible in that country.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on Egypt?


QUESTION: You said we’re still evaluating our response to that, so should we not assume that this is a closed case for U.S.? What kind of options are you looking at —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Correct. I can’t get into the specific options we’re considering, but we continue to consider options.

QUESTION: Okay. And then there is some criticism with regards to 7031 about impact. These are effectively visa bans, and I’ve actually compiled a list of the people that you’ve, like, sanctioned.


QUESTION: And some of them do not necessarily travel to the U.S.


QUESTION: It’s not an asset freeze. So effectively, it actually does not affect them that much. Like, the fact that they’re banned from traveling to U.S. might be something that they might think, oh, big deal, I’m just not going to go to U.S. Like, what kind of leverage do you actually have on this? Like, what kind of impact do you think you’re doing? What would you say to the criticism that it’s not extremely impactful from that point of view?

And the other thing is, like, was Duterte’s former police chief – was his visa banned also under 7031? It’s just a technical thing.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hard to always assess what the impact any sanction might have. It is important to recognize, though, that Section 7031(c) involves not only the denial of a visa but the public identification of an individual culpable for a gross human rights abuse, and we think there is impact in publicly calling out someone for such an abuse. I would note as well that the law requires not only that a visa be denied to the individual culpable of the gross abuse but to immediate family members. So even if the individual concerned may not intend to travel to the United States, it is sometimes the case that immediate family members do intend to travel here, so there’s impact there.

QUESTION: Is this something that you look at while you’re designating these people?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, we do. And we have found our embassies in the countries where we have taken these sorts of actions report that there has been significant impact in a lot of these places. It is, again, a public identification of the person responsible for certain types of gross abuses. And for civil society, for political opposition in many of these countries, the United States – the most powerful country in the world – making such a finding is of great significance to them. And typically, they tell us that they feel bolstered by these sorts of actions.

MODERATOR: Jennifer.

QUESTION: Going back to Egypt, in addition to the American citizen who died, there’s a number of American citizens who are still detained wrongfully in Egypt. What is being done on their behalf? And then more broadly, what do you say to the criticism that the fact that the U.S. has capped refugee admission at historically low numbers, has expanded the travel ban, has diminished the funding to different democracy initiatives – what do you say to the criticism that that undercuts your message on trying to spread human rights abroad?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The Bureau of Consular Affairs is responsible for addressing the cases of U.S. citizens imprisoned overseas, so we don’t have – our bureau doesn’t have direct responsibility for that. But that said, I am confident that they are taking every action possible to try to get the other American citizens imprisoned in Egypt out of jail.

Sorry, your second question is on refugees and —

QUESTION: Just these actions that have been taken under this administration to cap refugee numbers, to expand this travel ban, different funding numbers have decreased – what do you say to critics who say that undercuts your message on spreading human rights and democracy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The United States remains the country that has taken the greatest number of refugees over the course of our history. The number we’re taking now continues to be the highest. And of course, we continue to receive and process the cases of thousands of asylum seekers who themselves are seeking refugee status in the United States. So the United States remains a country that protects people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries.

MODERATOR: You had a follow-up?

QUESTION: I was just wondering about Duterte, his police – former police chief. Was he – was his visa revoked or, like, canceled under this 7031?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can’t – visa records are confidential, so I can’t get into the details of what was done in that case.

QUESTION: Weren’t you just saying that it’s the – naming and shaming was —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s under a very specific authority, so —

QUESTION: So that’s – those are under 7031. So the fact that you can’t say it means that it was not under 7031?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: 7031 does have a provision that allows the designation to take place privately. So I’m not saying —

QUESTION: Oh. So you might —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — that that’s been done in this particular case. But the mere fact that we haven’t announced a visa restriction on someone does not mean that 7031(c) has not been applied to that person. But in any case, I don’t have more to say about that particular case.

MODERATOR: All right. Last one. Carol.

QUESTION: In general, how do you respond to critics, including some people who served in DRL in the past and were assistant secretaries there, saying that in this administration human rights has been deprioritized and not enough attention is being paid to it? You focused on some very specific countries, but there still is a, well, widespread perception out there among people in the human rights community that this is not a priority, it’s something the administration is willing to push into the background if there are other transactional interests involved in particular.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think you’ve seen the Secretary speak out loudly and clearly on abuses occurring in China, the abuses occurring in Iran, in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, and in many other countries. We continue to do our work robustly in a wide array of countries. I’ve listed a number of countries where we see significant opportunities, where we’re engaged in human rights dialogues. Our assistance has increased significantly since the beginning of this administration. We are now programming over $300 million a year in support of human rights defenders, civil society organizations. So human rights continues to be a priority for our government, and I think that is borne out by what we’ve been able to do.


U.S. State Department