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Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Robert A. Destro on the Release of the 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

Special Briefing
Robert A. Destro, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Press Briefing Room
Washington, D.C.
March 11, 2020

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Well, good morning, everybody. The – let me make a few opening remarks, and then I'll be open for questions.

It's a great privilege to represent the United States in this forum and to work as a public servant along the thousands – along with the thousands of dedicated State Department employees who worked on this effort. One of the results of that work is the annual report. They look beyond law, policy, or statements of intent and examine what a government actually did to protect human rights during the year and to promote accountability for violence – violations and abuse. As the old statement goes, actions speak louder than words.

The 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices is the 44th such report that we've had the honor to present to the United States Congress. The Department of State is required by law to report annually on the status of internationally recognized human and worker rights in all countries that are members of the United Nations.

This year's reports summarize the situation in 199 countries and territories. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor works with our colleagues in U.S. embassies around the world to create these reports. We also work with them every day on U.S. efforts to promote democracy, protect human rights, and advance labor rights. I want to express my thanks to them for their hard work and dedication to this report, its accuracy, and more importantly, the greater mission it supports.

Together, we support human rights defenders in a wide variety of environments who risk their lives to instill in their own societies the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms that we as Americans hold dear and take for granted. We must not, as these reports too often show, take these freedoms for granted.

I think it's important to stress again that what we're looking at here is internationally recognized human rights. These are rights and freedoms that are encompassed in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They're the products of consensus among a wide cross-section of global rights traditions stemming from different faiths, cultures, regions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Our objective is to report accurately on human rights conditions around the world and to report both the good and the bad. It's easy for governments to say that they support human rights; it's harder actually to do so year after year.

These reports provide accurate information and examples gathered from multiple credible sources. What the world chooses to do with the information is up to them. We hope that people will demand accountability from their governments. We urge that citizens of every nation will respect the individual dignity of their fellow countrymen and women, and we hope that the world as a whole begins to see, as we do, that respect for the inherent dignity of every person is the foundation of lasting peace and security.

The 2019 Country Reports will be available to the public on the State Department website at when this press briefing concludes. Thank you, and now I look forward to taking your questions.

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Shaun.

QUESTION: Sure. Thanks for taking our questions. Could I ask you a little bit more about China? The Secretary was quite forceful in his comments about China. Do you believe that what's happened in Xinjiang rises to the level of crimes against humanity? That's been a term that's been mentioned by a number of organizations. And specifically in Xinjiang, the issue of forced labor – that's something I know particularly on the Hill there has been talk about trying to make sure that products sold in the United States are not made through forced labor from interned Uighurs. What is the State Department's position on making sure that that's not happening?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Well, we have spoken out very strongly about what's going on in Xinjiang, and not only the forced labor in Xinjiang, but also the forced labor that China exports to other places. We have – we've spoken out in as strong a term as possible. It's not necessary right now to draw any conclusions with respect to the ultimate question that you asked, but the Secretary himself has called it one of the worst human rights violations in recent memory.


QUESTION: I have two questions. I'll be brief, though. In the section in Saudi Arabia, it mentions the concerns about the transparency and accountability of the Saudi government in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Why did the report not say anything about any observations made by U.S. embassy personnel who may have attended the trial? And in the section on Guatemala, it says migration authorities lacked adequate training about rules for establishing refugee status, but the administration has been deporting refugees there saying that they have a full and fair opportunity to apply for asylum there. Does this report undercut that rationale? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Okay, let me deal with each question in turn. The – let's start by recognizing that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an unacceptable crime. We have spoken to the Saudi leadership from the king down about our concerns. The position that we have taken hasn't changed. But the – I'm not sure I really kind of understand the question about embassy personnel, so do you want to kind of expand on that for a second?

QUESTION: Well, there were people from the embassy who were attending the trial, and – the closed trial that was held.


QUESTION: And why did you not include any observations they have made about that trial that has not been released?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Because we – in these reports, even though there may be high profile trials in various countries, we tend not to report on them unless they're emblematic of what's going on otherwise. I think that we have reported on the lack of transparency in Saudi Arabia. The Khashoggi trial I think is an example of that lack of transparency. But beyond that, it wouldn't – there's only so much real estate in these reports. And so – and then your second question was about Guatemala?

QUESTION: Guatemala, and the policy on the migration authorities not receiving adequate training.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Right. Okay, hold on one second here. Let me just find my notes.

MS ORTAGUS: You need an iPad.


MS ORTAGUS: You need an iPad.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: (Laughter.) Yeah. My daughter actually looked at this and she says, "You actually read all this?" (Laughter.) And I says, "Well, yeah, as a matter of fact, I did." So – all right.

So the – what we're trying to do in all of this – we've got two different problems. We've got – we're trying to help the countries in the Northern Triangle to address the drivers of illegal immigration, and to strengthen those institutions. So when we look at what we're trying to do with the folks in Guatemala, it is – we're trying to protect those vulnerable families that have made this long trip up. But at the same time, we have to have respect for the rule of law and the whole question of asylum processing. So it seems to me that there's nothing in the reports that would undercut that. The reports are very accurate. They report on what happened last year. And so no, I don't think there's any inconsistency whatsoever.

MS ORTAGUS: Right behind Carol. Nike, yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. On North Korea – on the COVID-19 coronavirus in North Korea, regarding in the North Korean human right abuse, do you have any information about coronavirus in North Korea, because Kim Jong-un hide this virus is not a serious problem. But do you find out recently what's happened in North Korea, and to worry about the North Korean people?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Well, I mean, the short answer to your question is that of course we're concerned about the North Korean people, and we extend our sympathies to all of the families that find themselves in the unfortunate situation of being infected. But we also know that North Korea is a very closed society. Information is very hard to come by. But I do know that the – that our government has reached out to North Korea, to Iran, and to China – to everybody, and said look, to the extent that we can be useful, we will try and be useful and provide assistance. We've done that in any number of occasions.

So the short answer is I don't know about the penetration of coronavirus there, but – and I can't speculate.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS: (Inaudible.) I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. You described an important, extensive, thorough documentation – 199 countries. Do you think the fact that the Secretary chooses to single out the four adversaries, main adversaries of the United States at this point – including three that are under UN – U.S. sanctions – might decrease the impact of the document, and people would – and support criticism that it's – that human rights are being politicized?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: No, I really don't. I think that the Secretary's choices are his own, and they reflect current American policy. And so the – but one of the things I think anybody – any fair-minded person who reads these reports will see is that they're pretty hard-hitting across the board. And so we're no more or less hard-hitting with respect to those countries than we are to other countries that are flagged here for having problems.

MS ORTAGUS: Jennifer.

QUESTION: Why isn't Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman mentioned in the section about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi given that U.S. intelligence has concluded he played a role in that murder?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Hold on one second, let me just see. We're not, generally speaking – hold on one second. I think we have made clear across the board is that (a) we don't mention high-profile cases unless they're emblematic of a country's approach to cases like this case. We have taken significant actions against people in Saudi Arabia. We've imposed visa restrictions and financial sanctions. So the question of accountability is that we're looking at all the facts, we're continuing to look at all the facts. That investigation, as I understand it, is ongoing, and if more facts come to light about who's responsible for what, we'll make comments at that point.

QUESTION: But the U.S.'s own Intelligence Community has concluded that.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thank you. Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Regarding Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, we have seen a spike in home demolitions over the past 14 months and it's likely to increase. I mean, the indication is that the first two months of this year also show a higher spike in East Jerusalem and in the occupied West Bank. What is your position on the home demolitions? Besides reporting on that, what are you doing in terms of deterring the Israelis from doing so? And does it fall under collective punishment? Thank you.


QUESTION: Does it fall under collective punishment? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: Well, the – what I can tell you is that we intervene with every country when we consider there to be – they're considered violations. Now, let me just pull up the material on Israel here.

And the – I think probably the best way to respond is that the United States intervenes actively with Israel any time it perceives there to be a serious human rights problem. The – we have expressed our views with respect to discrimination that appears. And in terms of the – in terms of whether or not home demolitions are a significant human rights problem, those are issues we would raise with the Government of Israel, and I'm certain that we have done so.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Last question. Abbie.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks again for doing this. What role did the Commission on Unalienable Rights play in the assessments in this report, if any? And what was the impact of their assessments?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESTRO: The commission and DRL are completely separate, so they had absolutely no role in this, no influence, and that's a completely separate process. That's advisory to the Secretary. This is a congressional report.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thank you.

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