US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was blunt and plain-spoken in his unflattering assessment of Uganda’s poor human rights record when he delivered on-camera remarks recently while presiding at the release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
Uganda’s grades on human rights took a battering before, during and in the immediate aftermath of 2020/2021 election campaign period that put on public display the army and police’s use of highhanded brute force to break up opposition campaign rallies, arrest politicians and their supporters deemed to run counter to Covid-19 rules limiting gatherings to 200 people.
The killing by security forces of about 60 people during protests last November sparked by the arrest of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, the flag bearer of the opposition National Unity Platform, in Luuka district in eastern Uganda, hugely dented the country’s human rights.
The kidnaps and disappearances and testimonies US of some of the victims continue to shock the nation and the international community. In Blinken’s speech, Uganda featured prominently in a very unenviable spotlight. See full speech below.
I have the honor today of joining our Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Lisa Peterson, in presenting the 45th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which offer a comprehensive review of human rights in nearly 200 countries and territories.
I very much want to thank you, Lisa, and thank the many folks at the department, here in Washington but also around the world – in our embassies, in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor – who researched, drafted, and edited these reports. They brought not only their expert knowledge of the issues but also a commitment to rigorously document the facts.
I also want to thank human rights defenders, journalists, and researchers, whose efforts informed these reports. They work every day to advance human dignity, often, as you all know, at grave risk to themselves and to their loved ones. We are humbled by their dedication and by their bravery.
President Biden has committed to putting human rights back at the center of American foreign policy, and that’s a commitment that I and the entire Department of State take very seriously. We will bring to bear all the tools of our diplomacy to defend human rights and hold accountable perpetrators of abuse. The reports we’re releasing today are just one way to do that.
One of the core principles of human rights is that they are universal. All people are entitled to these rights, no matter where they’re born, what they believe, whom they love, or any other characteristic. Human rights are also co-equal; there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.
Past unbalanced statements that suggest such a hierarchy, including those offered by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee, do not represent a guiding document for this administration. At my confirmation hearing, I promised that the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate those unbalanced views. We do so decisively today.
Human rights are also interdependent. If you can’t assemble peacefully, how can you organize a union or an opposition party, or exercise your freedom of religion or belief? If you’re denied equal access to a job or an education because of the color of your skin or your gender identity, how can you attain health and well-being for yourself and your family?
The report we’re releasing today (March 30) shows that the trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction. We see evidence that in every region of the world this is happening.
We see it in the genocide being committed against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang; the attacks on and the imprisonment of opposition politicians, anti-corruption activists, and independent journalists in places like Russia, Uganda, Venezuela.
We see it in the arbitrary arrests, beatings, and other violence against protestors in Belarus, and in the violations and abuses inflicted on the people of Yemen by the parties in that country’s conflict. We see it in the killings, sexual assaults, and other atrocities credibly reported in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and in the executions, forced disappearances, and tortures committed by the Syrian regime, as well as its ongoing attacks on schools, on markets, on hospitals.
The latest of those attacks occurred just last week, when the Syrian regime killed seven people, including two children – cousins aged 10 and 12 years old – in a strike on the Al-Atareb Hospital in western Aleppo.
We also see it in the ways authoritarian governments are using and exporting new technologies to surveil and harass citizens and spread disinformation at home and abroad. We see it in what’s happening in Burma. The events since the military coup occurred after this year’s report was finished, but we must highlight them.
Nonviolent protestors in Burma have been killed, beaten, imprisoned, including on Saturday, when more than 100 people were reportedly killed by the military. Many of those killed were protesting on Armed Forces Day; others simply bystanders. The military said in advance that they might shoot protestors in the back or the head. And they’ve made good on that threat. Among those reportedly killed, four children – the youngest a five-year-old boy.
We condemn these and other widespread violations by Burma’s security forces in the strongest terms.
And we continue to call on the military regime to release all those people who’ve been unjustly detained; stop its attacks on civil society members, journalists, labour unionists; halt the killings by its security forces; and return to power the democratically elected government.
The United States is committed to working with its allies and partners to hold the perpetrators of these abhorrent acts accountable. All of these alarming trend lines are being worsened by COVID-19, which autocratic governments have used as a pretext to target their critics and further repress human rights.
Plus, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the individuals and groups in our societies who were already subject to abuse, to discrimination, to marginalization before the pandemic, such as racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, LGBTQI persons.
Women and girls have also endured greater gender-based violence during lockdowns and face more obstacles to seeking help. Now, some have argued that it’s not worth it for the United States to speak up forcefully for human rights, or that we should highlight abuse only in select countries, and only in a way that directly advances our national interests.
I believe those people miss the point. Standing up for human rights everywhere is in America’s interests. And the Biden-Harris administration will stand against human rights abuses wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.
Countries where dissent is welcomed, where corrupt and abusive officials are punished, where labor laws are respected, where people of all backgrounds have equal access and opportunities – those countries are more likely to be peaceful, prosperous, stable.
They’re less likely to fall into conflict. They’re more likely to have growing economies and be markets for our own goods and services. And governments that respect human rights are more likely to support the rules-based international order that the United States and our allies have built and invested in for decades and decades.
Look at the countries that run roughshod over the rights of their people. They’re almost always the same countries that flout internationally accepted rules beyond their borders – whether that’s by lopping off the territory of other countries, launching cyberattacks, harassing dissidents, spreading disinformation, or breaking trade rules.
In addition to all of these reasons, there’s a simpler one: Standing for people’s freedom and dignity honors America’s most sacred values. At our best, we stand for freedom and justice for all. Not just here at home, but around the world.
We will hear from some countries – as we do every year – that we have no right to criticize them because we have our own challenges to deal with. Well, we know we have work to do at home. That includes addressing profound inequities, including systemic racism.
We don’t pretend these problems don’t exist or try to sweep them under the rug. We don’t ignore them. We deal with them in the daylight, with full transparency. And in fact, that’s exactly what separates our democracy from autocracies: our ability and willingness to confront our own shortcomings out in the open, to pursue that more perfect union.
And the way we confront our challenges at home will give us greater legitimacy in advocating for human rights abroad. It’s what President Biden means when he says we must lead by the power of our example. These annual human rights reports are important, but of course they’re not enough. We will use a broad range of other tools to stop abuses and hold perpetrators to account.
One way to do that is by working with the United States Congress, which has passed laws providing new authorities to sanction human rights violators, things like the Global Magnitsky Act, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, other pieces of important legislation, and continues to demonstrate a bipartisan commitment to promoting human rights.
We’ll continue to look for innovative ways to partner with Congress to shine a light on abuses and hold perpetrators to account.
Another way is by imposing consequences through economic sanctions and visa restrictions, as the United States did recently in unity with Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom on individuals engaged in atrocities being committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
And we will find ways to incentivize countries to take positive steps toward respecting human rights, such as through trade benefits and development aid.
The Khashoggi Ban – which we created after the period covered by this year’s human rights reports – gives us an additional tool to hold accountable officials who harm journalists, activists, or other perceived dissidents by revoking or restricting visas to them or their family members.
While this policy bears Jamal Khashoggi’s name – and we first applied it to 76 individuals from Saudi Arabia for their appalling actions targeting perceived dissidents abroad, including the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. We’ll apply the ban to officials from any country that targets dissidents beyond its borders.
As we take these steps, we recognize that America is always more effective when we work with allies and partners. I delivered that message in recent visits with allies and partners in Asia, Europe, and North America, and in my virtual visit yesterday to the United Nations.
We will engage in multilateral institutions, even flawed ones like the UN Human Rights Council, because we can do much more to move them in the right direction when we have a seat at the table instead of staying outside of the room. And because, in our absence, we have seen how autocratic governments use these institutions to undercut human rights.
The Biden-Harris administration will also redouble our efforts to support journalists, human rights defenders, anti-corruption activists, labour union organizers, and other advocates around the world who put everything on the line to defend human rights.
When these people come under attack, they often look to the United States to speak up on their behalf. Too often in recent years, these defenders heard only silence from us. President Biden says that America is back. We are back for those brave advocates as well. We will not be silent.
A final note on an important topic. For many years, our human rights reports contained a section on reproductive health, including information about maternal mortality, discrimination against women in accessing sexual and reproductive health care, and government policies about access to contraception and skilled health care during pregnancy and childbirth.
These topics were removed from the country reports by the previous administration, so they’re not a part of the reports released today, which cover the year 2020. I’ve asked our team to release an addendum for each country report later this year that will cover these issues. And we are restoring the practice of documenting these rights in 2021 and future years.
It is one of many steps – along with revoking the Mexico City Policy, withdrawing from the Geneva Consensus Declaration, resuming support for the United Nations Population Fund – that we are taking to promote women’s health and equity at home and abroad. Because women’s rights – including sexual and reproductive rights – are human rights.
Thank you very much, and happy to take a question.
MR PRICE: Andrea, go ahead.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, in speaking out against human rights in China and Russia in particular, are you creating a blowback, a reaction, in that you’re creating an alliance of autocracies, really, against us? And criticism from both of those countries in the last week that we are bullying them, how do you counteract that and make your criticism more effective, especially in the context of them – neither of them, to our knowledge, doing anything to help you regarding Burma, or Myanmar, and the atrocities there?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Andrea, I’d say a couple things to that. First, and more generically, whether it’s China, Russia, or anyone else, we’re not standing against any of those countries. We’re not trying to, for example, contain China or keep it down. What we are about is standing up for basic principles, basic rights, and a rules-based international order that has served us and countries around the world very, very well.
And when any country in whatever way seeks to undermine those rights or undermine that order, yes, we will stand and speak out forcefully about it. And that’s what is going on. I think we’re seeing as well that when we’re doing that, we are much more effective when we are speaking out and working with other likeminded countries.
And I think what you’ve witnessed in recent weeks, particularly with regard to the response, the international response to the abuses being committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for example, the quashing of democracy in Hong Kong, as well as numerous actions taken by Russia that, again, are fundamentally attacks on the international rules-based order, you’re seeing country after country speak out in unison and often in a coordinated fashion. We have spoken out in conjunction and coordination with the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, many allies and partners in Asia. And the power of countries speaking out together, I think, will be increasingly, increasingly evident.
So we’ve seen some responses from, for example, the government in Beijing to some of the actions taken by countries in Europe. I suspect that is only going to redouble the concerns and the focus that other countries give to the actions that the government in Beijing has taken in abuse of human rights. I think we’re already seeing that.
MR PRICE: The Secretary has time for a final question. Simon.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned the different tools that you have at your disposal to address these issues. Obviously, the issue and the situation in Burma, or Myanmar, is – this happened since this report was written, but it offers a live case where human rights are being suppressed day by day on the ground. And we’ve seen from the U.S. a kind of escalation of sanctions, week by week more sanctions, but the generals in the country are pushing on with their – they’re not changing course. The death toll is getting more and more. What more do you have at your disposal to try to actually get them to listen when it seems like they are completely unresponsive to everything you’ve done so far?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I’d say a few things about that. First, the actions that we’ve seen by the Burmese military in terms of its attacks on civilians are reprehensible.
And we witnessed just this past weekend, as I noted earlier, an attack that killed about a hundred civilians, some people simply caught in the crossfire, others just expressing peacefully their views. And this is – this follows a series of other attacks, and indeed, increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence. One thing is clear. It’s that the people of Burma are speaking clearly. They don’t want to live under military rule, and that is evident from what we’re seeing and hearing and witnessing every single day in Burma.
So we’ve taken a number of actions, as you note. Of course, we and others have spoken out very forcefully against the violence being perpetrated by the military regime. Beyond that, we’ve taken specific action with regard to those responsible for the coup and enterprises that support them, including designations under various sanctions laws. We’ve also worked closely with other countries to speak out in unison.
There are I think other things that countries should be looking at. For example, some countries and some companies in various parts of the world have significant investments in enterprises that support the Burmese military.
They should be looking at those investments and reconsidering them as a means of denying the military the financial support it needs to sustain itself against the will of the people. But I think you can expect us to continue to speak out strongly and to work with close allies and partners, including the ASEAN countries, in strong opposition to the actions that the coup regime is taking in Burma.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.