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Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: Release of the 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

SECRETARY KERRY: Good to see everybody. Well, thank you very much for being here as we release our Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014. And I want to begin particularly by thanking Tom Malinowski and his entire team. It’s a great team effort that literally works all year long collecting extraordinary information, synthesizing it, and putting together what I consider to be one of the most important reports that the department puts out. And it reflects a vast amount of objective research that will provide a uniquely valuable resource for anybody in the world who cares about justice and law.

The message at the heart of these reports is that countries do best when their citizens fully enjoy the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled. This is not just an expression of hope. This is a reality, and it is proven out in country after country around the world. After all, we live in a time when access to knowledge and openness to change are absolutely essential. And in such an era, no country can fulfill its potential if its people are held back, or more so if they are beaten down by repression.

Now we understand that some governments may take issue with these reports, including such extreme cases as North Korea or Syria. But also some governments with whom we work closely may also object. But I want to say something about that, and I think it’s important. The discomfort that these reports sometimes cause does more to reinforce than to undermine the value and credibility of these reports. Truth cannot successfully be evaded or dented or defeated, not over time. It can be changed. The truth wins out.

And so my advice to any leader who is upset by these findings is really to examine them, to look at the practices of their country, and to recognize that the way to alter what the world thinks and the way to change these judgments is to alter what is happening in those countries. That is the advice that we also give to ourselves. There is nothing sanctimonious in this. There is zero arrogance. And we couldn’t help but have humility when we have seen what we have seen in the last year in terms of racial discord and unrest. So we approach this with great self-awareness. But we also understand that when human rights is the issue, every country, including the United States, has room to improve. And the path to global respect always begins at home.

So these reports can actually give governments an added incentive to honor the rights and the dignity of their citizens. It also equips interested observers with an arsenal of facts. Within these pages are the stories of imprisoned pro-democracy activists, journalists jailed simply for telling the truth, members of religious minorities persecuted for practicing their faith, civil society leaders harassed for daring to speak up, and young women and girls who because of their gender are denied an education, kidnapped, or abused.

There are other stories too, because these reports actually have improved over time. I think we do a better job of examining and making judgments about what is happening in places. And frankly, the reports have become more comprehensive each year as a result. The traditional principles of free speech, religious liberty, and equal protection remain at the center of our policy. But we have gradually expanded our reporting to include human trafficking, internet freedom, the rights of persons with disabilities, and the LGBTI community.

We’ve also begun to highlight the profoundly harmful impact that corruption and poor governance have on human rights. No person anywhere should have to pay a bribe just to open a business or to get a driver’s license or to have their day in court or to sell a basket of fruit on a street. Corruption is a threat to society at large, not only because of the larceny that it embodies in terms of the values and principles that people hope to organize their lives by, but also because of the cynicism that it feeds. And that matters because when trust in government is lost, other more harmful forces always try to fill the vacuum.

In this connection, no development has been more disturbing than the emergence of such groups as Daesh, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab. The many, the litany of these human rights crimes for which these terrorists are responsible has become all too familiar and no less shocking – murder, torture, rape, religious persecution, slavery, and more. Make no mistake: The world community has an absolute obligation to confront and to defeat these groups, and coercive measures are obviously an essential part of that effort.

At the same time, we have to understand that the terrorist presence does not give authorities license to use violence indiscriminately. We can’t rescue a village from Daesh or Boko Haram by destroying it. Any – and terrorism, obviously, is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society, or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent. Practices of this type are not only unjust; they play directly into the hands of terrorists. And when the pathways to nonviolent change are closed, the road to extremism becomes more inviting. And given all the suffering that we have seen in recent years, that is just simply unacceptable.

Terrorism is a grave threat to human rights; conflicts are another. For evidence we have only to turn to the 2014 Country Reports for such nations as the Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine, which has been victimized by its Russian neighbor. Today, an estimated 230 million people live in areas of overt strife, and we are experiencing a crisis in food security. The number of refugees has reached a record level. UNICEF called 2014 one of the most disastrous years ever for children. And in Yemen, Burundi, and elsewhere conflict and civil strife have grown even worse in 2015.

The persistence of terrible bloodshed is a challenge to all of us. It is a challenge to us to strengthen our institutions and our political will so that we can do a better job of deterring aggression, holding accountable those who commit atrocities, identifying potential crises ahead of time, and stopping outbreaks of violence before they begin.

Finally, it is worth asking – and some people do ask this question – why do we care? Why do we do this? Why do we issue this report? Why do we Americans care whether the rights of others are respected?

Well, certainly, in an interconnected world, “Injustice anywhere is,” to quote Dr. King, “a threat to justice everywhere.” And there can be no doubt that our citizens will do better and they will feel safer in a world where the values that we cherish are widely upheld.

But there is also, I think, an even deeper reason for why we care. Because when human rights tragedies are supplanted by human rights victories, the very idea of progress becomes less rhetorical and much more real. What do I mean by that?

Well, consider a couple of questions.

First, is there a more hopeful measure of civilization’s advance than the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the end of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the broadening recognition of minority rights everywhere in the world?

Is there a more meaningful agenda for the future than the shrinking of bigotry, the curtailment of conflict, the defeat of terrorism, the prevention of genocide, and a fuller commitment to the rights and the dignity of every man, woman, and child?

So why do we care?

Well, we care because respect for human rights provides the truest mirror that we have of ourselves, the most objective test of how we have come over the centuries, and how far we still have to go. It is a yardstick by which we can measure life itself. I realize that that is placing a lot of weight on what is, after all, just a report, but I think the description fits. And I hope it will inspire us – people here and around the world – between this year and next to take more steps, hopefully giant steps, in the direction of greater justice, wider decency, and peace.

So I thank you for coming together. I know you’ll have some questions of Tom. I’m going to leave this in his hands to further make a statement and then to answer your questions on specific countries. So Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary – Mr. Secretary, can I –

MR KIRBY: We’re not taking questions.

SECRETARY KERRY: Do you have my sticks here somewhere?

MR KIRBY: I got this. I’ll trade you, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Trade. That’s a hell of a trade. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we wish you all the best, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Thank you.

QUESTION: Are you hopeful on Iran? Are you hopeful on Iran, Secretary?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m always hopeful. Yes, I’m hopeful. I’m not declaring optimism. I am hopeful.