Briefing by Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer
October 2, 2009
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MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome again to the Department of State. This is the second of three briefings we’ll have today.
Obviously, you saw last week the quite effective General Assembly at the UN, the significant engagement by the President and by the Secretary of State. The quarterback of that effort is Esther Brimmer, our Assistant Secretary for International Organizations. But also, we had an important meeting today with the Secretary General of the OIC, and Esther will be able to give you a little bit of a perspective on that meeting.
But the real reason I wanted to bring her down here today is the significant activity within the Human Rights Council this week, both in terms of passage of a very important resolution on freedom of expression, but also some other activity that has been going on this week within the Human Rights Council related to the Goldstone report. So we thought it was very good – lots of things going on in Esther’s world, and we thought it would be an appropriate time to bring her back down to the briefing room.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Thank you, P.J. As P.J. said, it’s been a busy week in the multilateral world, both in New York and Geneva, and I thought I’d just take a few minutes to share some thoughts with you and then answer your questions.
Three weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of representing the United States as it formally assumed its seat on the UN Human Rights Council. At that time, I expressed our clear intent and desire to work collaboratively and constructively with the council and its members to protect and advance the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The decision of the United States to rejoin the council was motivated by a desire to protect and promote human rights through engagement, our commitment to the universal application of international law, including human rights law, to all members of the international community without exception or double standards, grounded by fair-minded fidelity to the truth. In joining the Human Rights Council and giving greater volume to our views on these issues under its purview, the United States further signals the President’s era of engagement is well underway.
Today marks the end of the council’s 12th regular session, and the first with the United States as a member. These three weeks, full as they have been with negotiation, debate, and deliberation, have been a terrific learning experience for us. We saw significant achievements during the council’s session, including the strengthening of the mandate of the independent expert on Somalia, the continuation of important council work on Burundi and on Cambodia, a new resolution co-sponsored by the United States on the independence of judges, and resolutions on HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty, and other critical topics.
We have agreed with all – now, have we agreed with all the actions at the council session? No, of course, we haven’t. But that was not our expectation. We have, however, launched an effort to build new partnerships and strengthen dialogue to transcend some of the common impediments to multilateral effectiveness.
We discussed with council members – and in particular, we discussed with council members and the state of Israel, as well as the Palestinian Authority, how to approach the Goldstone report. As you know, the United States has reviewed the Goldstone report carefully. We have serious concerns about the report’s unbalanced focus on Israel, its sweeping factual and legal conclusions, and many of its recommendations; however, the issues are difficult and the stakes are high, linked as they are to fundamental goals of security and peace for both Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel’s right to self-defense and security must never be diminished. We must do everything in our power to end the suffering of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. We appreciate the decision to defer consideration of the Goldstone report, and we’ll continue to focus on working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to re-launch permanent status negotiations as soon as possible. We also encourage domestic investigations of credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
I would like also to highlight for your particular attention an important early success from the last three weeks. Today, the Human Rights Council adopted, by consensus, a resolution affirming the fundamental universal values of freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and freedom of the media. The resolution also speaks out forcefully against efforts to interfere with the exercise of free speech, including journalists, writers, internet users, and human rights defenders. It calls on all states to end these violations and provide adequate remedies for those victimized by them. Finally, the resolution confirms the central role of free speech, open debate, and the battle of ideas in combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance.
The obvious importance of this resolution is amplified by a key fact of which you may not be aware: This resolution had two sponsors; the United States and Egypt. Over the preceding weeks, we have been engaged with discussions with the Egyptians toward a shared goal, discussions conducted in the spirit of openness and cooperation. The resulting draft resolution eventually attracted 49 co-sponsors and underscores the important truth best expressed by the President in Cairo, when he said – quote – “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” – end quote. Thank you.
I’m happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Can I ask you a couple things related to the – first about this freedom of speech resolution? Does the fact that the Egyptians were so helpful and continue to be helpful, particularly in this – after your opposition to their candidate for the UNESCO job, mean that their threats to disrupt U.S. or to work against U.S. goals in international fora were bluff?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I think that this resolution represents an excellent example of cooperation between the United States and Egypt in international fora. We both thought it was important to bridge gaps that have appeared in the past in the Human Rights Council, and to bring together Western states, OIC member states, and to transcend previous gaps here. So we think it’s an important example of cooperation in UN fora.
QUESTION: So they didn’t – they didn’t follow through on their threats to --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We have worked --
QUESTION: At least they haven’t – they haven’t so far.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We worked closely together on this resolution, and we’re glad we’re able to work together in this UN body.
QUESTION: On the Goldstone referral, how much pressure did the U.S. put on the Palestinians to defer this? And what do you hope to get from the deferral? Are you looking for Israel maybe to put a select number of people on trial? And it’s going to be six – a six-month delay. You expect – you really expect Hamas to do anything on their side in that six months?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, I’d say we appreciate the seriousness with which the parties addressed this issue, and the way they addressed it, really, during the session of the Human Rights Council. We’ve always said that the issue should be discussed in a constructive and non-divisive manner, and we’re grateful that that’s the approach that was taken by the parties to the report at this point. And the parties will now continue to look at it and prepare for the next session in March.
QUESTION: Right. How much pressure did the U.S. put on the Palestinians to defer this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: This was an issue for those who brought the resolution, and I’m not going to comment on views and activities of others to say that we were happy to see that the parties were working constructively at the Human Rights Council. Again, this is part of taking the Human Rights Council seriously and working in a professional and constructive manner, and we’re glad to see that that’s what happened at the council.
QUESTION: Well, what do you hope to see on – related to Goldstone in the next six months by Israeli – by Israel or Hamas? And I had one last very brief one.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: No, we think that these are serious allegations that need follow-up and will urge the parties to look at their responsibilities in this regard. And we know – we would expect both to continue to do so.
QUESTION: Madame, on this 60th anniversary of China – Communist China, China has been a major player on the UN Security Council for many, many years, and also major violators of human rights. What do you have to say?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, I would just say we note that this is the 60th anniversary, and that they had particular celebrations of that particular event, and that they are active members in the entire United Nations system.
QUESTION: But millions are suffering under China’s rule, and they have no human rights. They are asking the world, or even the UN or the United States, for human rights and free speech and freedom of the press, and --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We have always stressed --
QUESTION: -- whatever you said.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We have always stressed, whether – in human rights bodies, whether in the Human Rights Council or in its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, the role of universality of human rights, and adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, can I go back to my – the last question I had on the – which was, did the Goldstone resolution come up in the meeting with the OIC Secretary General?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I think all members were – all members and people watching the Human Rights Council were pleased to see that there was a constructive approach to the Human Rights Council, and I think all observers watching the events in Geneva were satisfied to see that.
QUESTION: Did you hear the question correctly?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I did hear the question.
QUESTION: Did the subject of the Goldstone resolution – report and resolution come up in the meeting this morning between Secretary Clinton and the head of the – and the Secretary General of the OIC?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I think both of them were happy to see the progress made in Geneva.
QUESTION: So that’s a yes?
QUESTION: So it --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: My understanding is that they were both happy to see the progress made in Geneva, as were, I think, many observers who watched the situation in Geneva.
QUESTION: Well, okay. That’s fine. Was it discussed in the meeting?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I think they looked at a whole range of issues where they said the cooperation between the United States and the OIC --
QUESTION: Well, I’m not saying that they didn’t look at anything else. I’m just asking if they – did they talk about the Goldstone report?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: My understanding was that they were satisfied to see what – the progress in Geneva. That was my understanding of the discussion.
QUESTION: Well, that’s fine, but did they talk about it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I can tell you what my understanding is of where the --
QUESTION: Well, I mean --
MR. CROWLEY: Let me help out a little bit. The Secretary General did bring it up during the meeting and did just underscore it was from the OIC standpoint, as well as from Secretary Clinton’s standpoint, a favorable step to take.
QUESTION: I have a quick question about the free speech resolution. It seems to me that that’s something that critics of the UN and the Human Rights Council might well seize on and say here’s another toothless piece of paper that’s been produced by the bureaucracy and isn’t really going to have any kind of – there’s no way to implement – there’s no way to enforce people to keep its precepts.
What – do you worry at all that the U.S. participation in this process is somehow going to sort of water down the perception of our commitment to real free speech, if we’re just signing off on kind of pieces of paper in which countries, many UN member countries, will just be pushed aside?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We think one of the important things that you do in multilateral bodies is try to set the norms by which we are all judged. And one of them is the freedom of speech, which is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Interestingly enough, one of the new features of the Human Rights Council is something called the Universal Periodic Review, which is a new mechanism in which every single UN member- state has to go talk about its human rights record. And this and resolutions like these help reinforce the standards by which all states will be judged, and for which they then have to answer to the larger global body. So hopefully, it contributes to that.
It should also, importantly, provide support for human rights defenders – people on the ground in their own countries who are trying to actually claim their own human rights, and they can look to bodies. And we find that human rights defenders on the ground can often use the standards at the international level to support the human rights they’re trying to claim at home.
QUESTION: Is there any mechanism by which we can actually ascertain whether or not that’s happening? I mean, is there any way that the U.S. can look at the situation on the ground in a place like Zimbabwe or PRC or wherever and, say, after a number of – after a year or two years that, in fact, this hasn’t worked, and that our engagement on this – in this manner really isn’t bringing about the results that we are hoping for?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, we look at several different things. As you know, the State Department does publish an annual review of human rights issues. It does its annual report on human rights, country by country, and it looks at a variety of things, including such things as freedom of speech and other related topics.
We also realize that although multilateral bodies are imperfect and there will be wide varieties of opinions – and the U.S. will not agree with a lot of them – that it’s important that we’re in there defending the values we hold dear. That’s why we wanted to rejoin the council. We wanted to be part of making the case of why human rights are important for the ones who are standing up for universality, and standing with those who share those values. And we have to be in the body in order to do that.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Please.
QUESTION: But at the same time, like, although – I understand why you joined, and kind of to make a statement. But at what point are your – are you kind of held hostage to the kind of long history of members that, you know, kind of thrive on inaction on these type of issues?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: I would say that there will be resolutions that the United States supports, there will be resolutions that we would – at some point will not support, and that we will always defend our key principles. And if there are points on which there are things we do not agree, we will say so. And there are times when we have to do that.
But we also think it’s important to try to be the bridge, to try to serve as the bridge, if we can try to identify other states who want to work with us on defending key principles, and making that clear that we defend key principles, such as the freedom of expression. We think it’s important that we try to do that.
QUESTION: Can I go back to the issue of the Secretary meeting – the OIC Secretary General? What else was discussed except for the Goldstone report?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Among things that they looked at particularly were following up on issues which were raised at the President’s Cairo speech in June, when he talked about some of the activities and outreach to the Islamic world. One element, particularly, was looking at the importance of health issues that – in particular, they looked at cooperation on international health, and particularly on efforts to support maternal health, so – mothers and young children – and to support the eradication of polio.
As you may be aware, that – the World Health Organization has a major initiative on fighting polio, and the OIC is actively working to try to contribute to that effort, in particular, because there are – polio unfortunately is endemic into four countries, three of which are actually OIC members. And so the effort here is to try to work with the OIC to help fight polio in those countries.
QUESTION: Quickly I got one more on Goldstone. This has just occurred to me. And that is, it’s my understanding that the United States had actually prepared an alternate draft for the Palestinians if they would withdraw their original resolution. Is that correct? Did – if it is correct, did the Israelis tell you that that also would not be acceptable to them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We were prepared to, in case – first, in case the resolution – the Palestinian resolution came to the floor. We also did talk closely both to the Palestinians and to the Israelis about our main concerns of the report, what we would think a positive resolution – what it might look like. But clearly, it was the Palestinian resolution that was actually brought to the floor, so that’s what actually moved ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Okay. Thank you.
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