ANTONY J. BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE
PRESS BRIEFING ROOM
MARCH 20, 2023
MR PATEL: Good morning, everybody. And welcome back to those of us that were on the road with us last week.
The Secretary will make some very brief remarks and take a couple of questions before he has to head back upstairs for some engagements. Assistant Secretary Barclay and Ambassador Van Schaack, though, will hang back downstairs to answer some more Q&A once the Secretary departs.
Secretary, the floor is yours.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Vedant, thank you. Well, good morning, everyone.
Let me just start with some very good news this morning, and that is the release of Jeffrey Woodke after more than six years in captivity. I want to thank the Government of Niger, where I was just last week, for its important assistance in bringing him home. I also want to thank our team, starting with Special Envoy Roger Carstens, all of those who have been working at the department to bring him home, tireless efforts, and I’m very pleased that we are now seeing that come to fruition today.
As you know, I have no higher priority or focus than bringing home any unjustly detained American, wherever that is in the world. We won’t rest until they’re all home and, like Jeffrey, reunited with their families.
This morning, I’ll be launching the 2022 Human Rights Report. But just before I turn to that, I want to speak to what’s happening right now in Moscow.
Today, and throughout this week, President Xi is meeting with President Putin in Russia. We expect that China may use this visit to reiterate calls for a ceasefire under its peace proposal.
The United States welcomes any initiative that advances a just and durable peace. China’s proposal includes elements that we have long supported, including ensuring nuclear safety, resolving the humanitarian crisis, protecting civilians.
And indeed, the first element calls for upholding sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries.
The fundamental element of any plan for ending the war in Ukraine and producing a just and durable peace must be upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, in accordance with the United Nations Charter.
Any plan that does not prioritize this critical principle is a stalling tactic at best or is merely seeking to facilitate an unjust outcome. That is not constructive diplomacy.
Calling for a ceasefire that does not include the removal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory would effectively be supporting the ratification of Russian conquest. It would recognize Russia’s attempts to seize a sovereign neighbor’s territory by force. It would enable Russia to further entrench positions in Ukraine. And a ceasefire now, without a durable solution, would allow President Putin to rest and refit his troops and then restart the war at a time more advantageous to Russia.
The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia – supported by China or any other country – to freeze the war on its own terms. Such a move would violate the UN Charter and delay – defy, excuse me – the will of the 141 countries who have condemned Russia’s war in the United Nations General Assembly.
One party to this conflict – Ukraine – has already put forward a just peace formula. If China is committed to supporting an end to the war based on the principles of the UN Charter as called for in point one of its plan, it can engage with President Zelenskyy and Ukraine on this basis and use its influence to compel Moscow to pull back its forces.
Russia’s purported annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory, including vast areas it doesn’t even control, and its ongoing, brutal attacks on civilians make clear that President Putin currently has no interest in such a peace.
That President Xi is traveling to Russia days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin suggests that China feels no responsibility to hold the Kremlin accountable for the atrocities committed in Ukraine, and instead of even condemning them, it would rather provide diplomatic cover for Russia to continue to commit those very crimes.
Now, every year, I come to this podium for the launch of the Human Rights Report. I do so because the report embodies the importance of human rights for American diplomacy and for our vision of an open, free, prosperous, and secure world.
Human rights are universal. They aren’t defined by any one country, philosophy, or region. They apply to everyone, everywhere.
This report makes a factual, objective, and rigorous accounting of human rights conditions around the world, looking at nearly 200 countries and territories. And, importantly, it applies the same standards to everyone: our allies and partners, and countries with which we have differences.
The goal of this report is not to lecture or to shame. Rather, it is to provide a resource for those individuals working around the world to safeguard and uphold human dignity when it’s under threat in so many ways. And while this report looks outward to countries around the world, we know the United States faces its own set of challenges on human rights.
Our willingness to confront our challenges openly, to acknowledge our own shortcomings – not to sweep them under the rug or pretend they don’t exist – that is what distinguishes us and other democracies.
The report makes clear that, in 2022, in countries across every region, we continued to see a backsliding in human rights conditions – the closing of civic space, disrespect for fundamental human dignity.
The report details the appalling and ongoing abuses committed by the regime in Iran against its own people. In the wake of the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, authorities have killed hundreds of peaceful protestors, including dozens of children, and have arbitrarily detained thousands.
Iranian forces are using torture and gender-based violence against arrested protesters. Journalists and lawyers are harassed and pre-emptively detained. Sham trials and hasty executions are used to further intimidate the people of Iran.
The international community has come together to condemn and confront Iran’s brutal crackdown, and we’ll continue to act in support of the right of the Iranian people to speak out for their fundamental freedoms.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban relentlessly discriminates against and represses women and girls, so far issuing 80 decrees and – that restrict women’s freedom of movement and their right to education and work. The Taliban’s December edict barring female employees of non-governmental organizations from the workplace imperils the tens of millions of Afghans who depend on humanitarian assistance for their very survival.
Human rights have further eroded in Burma, where the military regime brutalizes the population. Thousands of activists have been killed by the authorities – including four pro-democracy leaders executed last summer.
The PRC continues its abuses, including genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, repression of Tibetans, crackdown on basic rights in Hong Kong, and targeting of individuals on the mainland for exercising fundamental freedoms.
In Cuba, courts have issued draconian jail sentences to hundreds of people for protesting for their rights. And in Nicaragua, the authoritarian government continues to detain political prisoners and hold them in appalling prison conditions.
The 2022 Human Rights Report is also a reminder of the extraordinary courage of so many – activists, journalists, lawyers, government officials, regular citizens – who stand up to these abuses. Many do so at great personal risk of retaliation, harassment, detention, torture, even death.
In February, we celebrated ten Global Human Rights Defender awardees – individuals from around the world who are promoting and defending fundamental freedoms, from combatting slavery, to advocating for families of those forcibly disappeared, to demanding better wages and working conditions for low-income laborers, to representing political prisoners on death row. This report honors them.
I’m also proud of my colleagues here at the State Department – in Washington and at every post around the world – for not only reporting and documenting human rights abuses but also drawing on the power and purpose of American diplomacy to advance human dignity.
Now, as you know, I recently traveled to Ethiopia, where I had a very productive discussion with Prime Minister Abiy and his team. I also met with Getachew Reda, the TPLF signatory to the November 2nd Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, who was just selected to be the leader of its interim administration. I commended both sides for reaching that agreement and the significant progress made in its implementation.
With this agreement in place, the fighting has stopped, humanitarian assistance is flowing, services are being restored, human rights[i] in northern Ethiopia are significantly down, Eritrean forces are leaving, the Ethiopian Government is taking the first steps toward transitional justice.
But, as I discussed with both sides during my visit, to build a durable peace, there must be acknowledgment of the atrocities committed by all parties, as well as accountability together with reconciliation.
The conflict in northern Ethiopia was devastating. Men, women, and children were killed. Women and girls were subject to horrific forms of sexual violence. Thousands were forcibly displaced from their homes. Entire communities were specifically targeted based on their ethnicity.
Many of these actions were not random or a mere byproduct of war. They were calculated and deliberate.
After the department’s careful review of the law and the facts, I’ve determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces, and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.
Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the Eritrean Defense Forces, and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution.
Members of the Amhara forces committed the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer and committed ethnic cleansing through their treatment of Tigrayans in western Tigray.
We welcome the commitment that the parties to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement have made to acknowledge the atrocities committed and their devastating consequences.
The Government of Ethiopia is taking the first steps by publicly releasing a detailed green paper of transitional justice options based upon best practices and building upon the experiences of other states emerging from periods of mass violence. It has invited experts from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to join the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to deploy a team of human rights monitors to conflict-affected areas to ensure that such acts have truly ceased.
The government is also holding public consultations about transitional justice, which, as I discussed with the prime minister, should be inclusive of all stakeholders and provide victims a voice. The process is benefiting from the advice of experts in the field, including members of my team who participated in a workshop on transitional justice with other international specialists just last week.
Finally, and crucially, we urge the Government of Ethiopia and the Government of Eritrea, as well as the TPLF, to hold those responsible for these atrocities accountable.
These steps – acknowledgement, accountability, reconciliation – are key to breaking the cycle of ethnic and political violence that has gripped Ethiopia and prevented it from reaching its unlimited potential for so long.
The United States will partner with Ethiopia as it implements a credible transitional justice process for the benefit of all victims and affected communities. We will stand with Ethiopia as it honestly faces the abuses in its past, provides accountability for the harms committed against its citizens, and moves toward a future of lasting peace.
With that, happy to take a couple of questions before turning it over to my colleagues.
MR PATEL: Matt, go ahead.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and welcome back.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: I’ve got about 17 questions, but for the sake of —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hold on, let me get my pen out.
QUESTION: But – yeah, but for the sake of both you and my colleagues, I’ll narrow it down to just one.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: And that has to do with the Ethiopia – and the decision you just made. As you noted, you were just there. Why didn’t you make this determination either while you were there or before you went? Were your conversations while you were there instructive in – did the – in making this?
And then the other thing is – on this – you seem to suggest that you think that Ethiopian courts can take care – can deal with this. That is not so much the case as it relates to Russia and Ukraine. And I – so I’m just wondering why it is that you think that.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Matt. Well, look, I’m not – obviously not going to get into the details of private discussions that I had, but two things. First, this determination is the product of a lot of very deliberate, detailed work, and we are, when we make these determinations, very focused on doing that work, making sure that we have the facts, that we apply them to the law, and all of that takes time and focus.
It seemed appropriate to release the determination that we made as we’re putting out the Human Rights Report. And beyond that, I’d say that in terms of what happens next in Ethiopia, including what process they establish to provide for justice, for accountability, we’ll see. I don’t think that’s been determined. What has been determined and what I could see from my meetings and conversations last week is a commitment on all sides to engage in this process of transitional justice; an acknowledgement of the atrocities that have been committed – again, by all sides – in the course of this conflict in northern Ethiopia; and, I believe, a commitment to genuinely get to a better place that has to include accountability, that has to include, I think, reconciliation if we’re going to have a truly durable peace.
That’s what I heard on the trip, and again, I think the situation that we’re seeing now in Ethiopia is vastly different than situations in other parts of the world in that, over the last four months, the steps that all sides have taken to implement the cessation of hostilities agreement has literally saved lives and changed lives for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. But that doesn’t erase what happened over the last two years, which is why it is so important that we get this transitional justice process moving and that there is accountability as well as reconciliation.
MR PATEL: Let’s go to Missy in the back.
QUESTION: Please, Mr. Secretary. Afghan situation also is very bad.
MR PATEL: Please.
QUESTION: Any message for our new year? We celebrated our new year.
MR PATEL: Nazira, I’m going to call the questions. Missy, (inaudible).
QUESTION: Please – you guys don’t give me opportunity. Any comment about Afghan women? And what’s your message for our new year? We celebrated, but Afghan women crying.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we —
QUESTION: I know you don’t give me a chance. Sorry, I have a lot of pain.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I’ll say very simply – no, no, I’m happy to address that. I’ll say very simply that we deplore the edicts that the Taliban have promulgated repeatedly that fundamentally repress the rights of Afghan women and girls. And we’ve seen this now time and again: denying them education, denying them the ability to work, denying them the ability to participate in the provision of humanitarian assistance that benefits all Afghans. And I think it’s safe to say from conversations with countries around the world that to the extent the Taliban is looking for more normal relations with countries around the world, that will not happen in so long as they continue to advance these repressive edicts against women and girls.
MR PATEL: Missy, go ahead.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, thanks so much for coming to talk to us about the report. What would your response be to those that would say despite the content of the – contents of the report and despite all of the work that goes into it, that the issues that are flagged don’t – are not sufficiently influencing policymaking, especially when it comes to countries where it is harder for the United States to have those tough discussions on human rights, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Israel? What’s your response to that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, we have those tough discussions across the board with friends, adversaries, competitors alike. So that – and the report itself makes that very clear. But in the day-in, day-out, it’s the same thing. So we don’t – we’re not pulling our punches with anyone as – we call things as we see them. Sometimes we do it more publicly; sometimes we do it more privately. We’re trying to determine in each instance how we hopefully can be most effective in advancing human rights and advancing human dignity.
So I think it’s safe to say, without getting into details, that we raise these concerns with everyone – again, friends, adversaries, competitors.
At the same time, as we’re working in different ways with different countries, we have a multiplicity of interests that we’re working on, and we always try to determine how we can most effectively advance them. Human rights is a central interest of ours; it’s not the only one. And my responsibility is to make sure that we’re doing our best to advance all of our interests however we can. But as this report makes clear – and it’s the fact that it’s a very public report and that it applies the same standards to countries around the world, whatever their relationship with us – I think demonstrates the seriousness with which we take this issue.
MR PATEL: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. I’ll leave it in the very capable hands of my colleagues. Thank you, everyone.
MR PATEL: Thank you, everybody.