Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner discusses the Obama administration's human rights agenda, as well as global human rights challenges and opportunities.
JACOB WEISBERG: Welcome, everybody, to today's meeting with Michael Posner. My understanding is that we are on the record today. And as per instructions, please shut your BlackBerrys off. We are going to -- I'm going to ask Michael some questions for the first part of the session, and then we'll open it up to your questions. Seeing who's here, I know we will have very good ones.
I'd like to start just by introducing Michael. Michael is currently the assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Obama administration. I understand this is his last week on the job. He's been a proponent of the Obama administration's integrated approach to human rights, focusing on the relationship between national security and economic, social and political rights.
Before joining the State Department, Michael was the executive director and president of Human Rights First. In that capacity, he helped develop the organization's reputation around refugee protection in particular, and advancing a rights-based approach to national security, including crimes against humanity and combating discrimination. I should say that long before that, he -- Michael was a graduate of the distinguished Francis W. Parker school in Chicago, which is of special interest to me, since I am also a graduate.
Michael has announced that he's -- after he leaves the State Department, he's going to be joining the NYU Stern School of Business starting next month, and he's going to be a professor in the school's Business and Society Program Area, leading an effort to establish a center for business and human rights.
MICHAEL POSNER: Pleasure to be here.
WEISBERG: Just to get started, I thought I'd ask you about the Obama administration and human rights. How does the place of human rights in this administration and the attitude towards it compare to the last couple or several presidential administrations?
POSNER: You know, I think at the outset there was some -- it took us a little while -- it took the administration a little while to sort of find its comfort zone in this -- in this area. There was some anxiety about the Iraq freedom agenda and the like, and so part of what I -- when I came in, I spent a fair amount of time at the outset trying to identify the areas of human rights and democracy that fit with the administration's approach.
One of the things the president said from the outset is that we're going to engage in the world but it's principled engagement. So part of the effort was to say, all right, we're going to go -- one thing that will be different, we're going to go to the United Nations and we're going to join the Human Rights Council, and we're going to be part of it even though we recognize it doesn't work well in a lot of respects. We're going to engage with governments that are allies, but we're also going to engage with governments where we have tough relationships, and human rights is going to be part of those discussions.
The second thing that I think we push very hard on and I feel really proud of is to say that there's a single standard for human rights; it's the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It applies to everyone, including ourselves, and we put a lot of energy into our own approach to the -- what the U.N. calls universal periodic review, where every government comes in and does this self-assessment of how they're doing. We put a -- the year 2010, we put a huge amount of time into going out around the country. We did about 15 sessions with NGOs around the country, looking at treatment of Muslim Americans and refugees and prison conditions and the like. And we really went with our heads held high -- not to say that we're perfect, because we have a whole range of problems to deal with, but to say that we're going to take -- we're going to hold ourselves to the same standard.
And then the last thing I would say, which I think really characterized the approach -- and it goes with President Obama's, you know, personality, his approach to things -- it's obvious that we can have an influence. We're the biggest, most influential country in the world in so many ways. But change occurs from within, and so a lot of the emphasis -- and Secretary Clinton put a lot of time and energy into this -- is to figure out how we help local actors change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders that are trying to change their societies from within, how to amplify their voices and give them the support they need, recognizing we can push from the outside but meaningful change really happens from inside.
WEISBERG: Do you think this administration will have or should have a reputation for putting human rights near the center of its foreign policy agenda? Obviously, that's how people remember the Carter administration, not necessarily positively but people understand that that was a primary emphasis. In another way, the Bush administration, particularly in the second term, used the language of human rights very strongly.
Obama is generally not thought of that way. There's clearly about some ambivalence. Is that right?
POSNER: You know, I would say -- you know, I spent -- I've spent most of my professional life working in human rights, and so I'm a pretty tough critic of what's -- you know, what's real and what's not on issues like LGBT rights, on issues like Internet freedom, on issues like promoting the place of civil society in places like Burma, where I was last week. I really feel I've had huge support both from the White House and from Secretary Clinton and now Secretary Kerry to be out there and pushing. So this is -- you know, we have the challenge of the changes in the Middle East, which -- where human rights -- you know, I was in Egypt for the seventh time a few weeks ago. It's not an easy place to say that everything is -- you know, human rights is a piece of what we're doing. We have security interests. We have a whole economic agenda. But human rights is very much part of the way this administration looks at even some of the toughest places, China, Russia, Egypt, Bahrain, places where we've really had a set of conflicting interests. Human rights is very much part of what we're doing.
WEISBERG: I want to do a world tour with you in a minute and get to some of these places specifically.
WEISBERG: But first, maybe just to keep it on this sort of general level a little longer, there's some perception that Secretary Clinton was extremely strong on human rights and was pushing that agenda, but to some extent pushing it against White House National Security Council that viewed foreign policy generally through a more political lens and also took a more realist approach, maybe partly in reaction to the previous administration.
POSNER: You know, I have to say that it's more complicated than that. To be sure, Secretary Clinton was a huge voice and force on human rights issues. She lived -- she's lived most of her life working for women and children.
And, you know, it's very much part of her DNA. So it made it easier for me coming in and knowing that she was behind me. And even when she wasn't, I pretended that she was. (Laughter.) It didn't -- it wasn't that hard to get -- be a good -- (inaudible) -- yeah. Maybe she really is behind this.
But I think, you know, some of the conversations -- the White House has a perspective that wants to be more aggressive. Sometimes the Defense Department does. You know, in some places which I wouldn't have expected, there's a -- there's an imperative from a national security perspective -- we've got to be tough, we have to push. And then I try to go with that.
So it's more complicated than, it's always us versus them. It's, unfortunately, the government is a -- is a pretty complicated creature.
WEISBERG: What did you accomplish in human rights that you're proudest of now, leaving after being there for nearly the whole first term?
POSNER: I'm particularly proud of what we did in Burma, which is an easy one to explain. We'd -- a year-and-a-half ago, I raised the idea that we should be pushing for the release of political prisoners. I accompanied, after an initial visit, Secretary Clinton there last December. We gave the government lists, we went back and forth. The long and short is, they've released 800 political prisoners, including every prominent prisoner.
I was there a few weeks ago, and not only have they released those prisoners, but the -- we had a human rights dialogue last October, and we said to the government, we don't want to keep doing these lists. You ought to create a committee. And they've now created a committee with eight government people and eight former prisoners, and they met for the first time two weeks ago to figure out how to deal with the remaining cases, to deal with issues like rehabilitation and so forth. That's pretty extraordinary.
Red Cross had no access; they now have access to 36 prison and labor camps. Aung San Suu Kyi is a member of the parliament -- met with her as well. So there really is change going on. We didn't create the change, but we were there early on and pushed for that. And I feel really good about that.
I feel great, also, about the -- putting the LGBT issues on the global stage. I was with Secretary Clinton in Geneva when she gave, really, a landmark speech saying that LGBT rights are human rights. A number of countries have now -- governments have come to us and said, we want to do what you're doing. That's a good sign. Same thing on the Internet issues. We really took a lead on that, and have continued to do so.
WEISBERG: On the gay and lesbian rights issues, the world has changed so fast that it's one of the things where it's sort of hard to keep up. When you came in in 2009, was it imaginable that she would have given that speech two years later?
POSNER: Well, it was imaginable that it was on her mind. It took some, you know, figuring out the where and when, but she was committed, absolutely, from day one to say, this is part of what we're going to do, and help me figure out how to do it.
And so, you know, the door was wide open. But we -- every aspect of this was challenging. We didn't -- we had a thousand people in the room in Geneva, and we didn't -- we announced that it was a Human Rights Day speech, because we wanted to make sure all the diplomats showed up. And once they were in there, we were making bets as to who was going to get up and walk out. Nobody walked out, which is sort of amazing. Everybody didn't cheer at the end of the speech, but it was -- (laughter) -- it was a big moment.
WEISBERG: Is gay marriage a human rights issue? And if so, how have you talked about it on your seven trips to Egypt? (Laughter.)
POSNER: It's -- I don't think it's come up, exactly. We have a big agenda with the Egyptians, and that's not the -- that's not the front of what we talk about. (Laughter.)
WEISBERG: Yes, but the rest of the question is serious. Is gay marriage, because the -- because the Obama administration domestically has, in Obama's second inaugural address, framed it as a -- as a rights issue in the -- in the civil rights tradition. Does that then become part of our global human rights agenda?
POSNER: You know, I think one of the challenges on the issue -- the LGBT issues is trying to figure out how you move from where people are to the next step, and one of the things about the secretary's speech is that we were very mindful of the fact that it was not to be a scolding speech or we've got it right, you've got it wrong.
We started out in the international context dealing with violence and discrimination against the LGBT community. We have an instance this week, probably, or next week where the Ugandan parliament is again considering a bill that would not only criminalize LGBT, you know, actions, but impose the death penalty.
So, I think it's really for us -- you know, probably leading with gay marriage is not the place we would start, but we have to recognize how absolutely perilous it is for people in places like Uganda and many other places I visit, I make a point of meeting with the LGBT community. And a lot of them are -- you know, it's almost clandestine meetings. Their lives are at risk, so I think you start with the things that they themselves are asking for, and you build out from that. But it is, as you say, moving very fast.
WEISBERG: Let's talk about some of the Internet freedom issues a little bit. In some of the countries you've already mentioned, a very different scenario in terms of whether the Internet has been a force for human rights, a force for the good guys -- which it certainly was in Egypt -- or the opposite, as in Iran, and possibly a number of other examples you could mention.
What determines that and how have -- has that shaped our agenda? How have you tried to make Internet -- the free Internet a force for human rights and not repression?
POSNER: Well, when we came in, Congress had already begun funding support for what was called Internet freedom but was really entirely focused on technology to circumvent firewalls. And we said, you know, as we got more involved in it and met with experts, we realized it's a much more complicated discussion than that. And one of the challenges is to try to figure out a kind of intellectual framework to say, what are we in favor of, and also, what are the things we're nervous about and how do we mitigate the damage?
So, one of the things we said in the affirmative is, let's advocate diplomatically and through the support we give for an open Internet as a neutral platform across borders for all sorts of purposes -- for commerce, for innovation, for education but also for political discourse.
So, let's start from the premise that a neutral and open platform is really an extension of human rights, of free speech, free assembly, free association. But let's also recognize that a number of governments, as they fear the Internet, are doing a lot to try to go after people who are their critics, and they're using technology against people.
So, much of what we've done -- and we've now funded almost $100 million of work -- a lot of it is training activists on what the risks are of using a computer or a phone. It's creating new technologies. We put a panic button -- we had some innovative young entrepreneurial types design a panic button for a Nokia phone that basically you push a button when you're about to be arrested and it eliminates your contacts.
WEISBERG: It's like a cyanide pill for your BlackBerry.
POSNER: Yeah, exactly, and it sends everybody a note saying, I've just been picked up. So, things like that are not what we were thinking about or Congress was thinking about in 2008, but I think we've recognized this is a moment where we've got to be aware of the negative -- the downside of governments -- pernicious governments really using technology as a force to control their enemies and their opponents.
WEISBERG: Yeah. You talked about a couple of the positive legacy issues -- Burma, LGBT issues in general. Let's talk about a few of the unsuccess stories, particularly Syria. Why has the administration not been able to do more about that human rights catastrophe that's ongoing?
POSNER: It's one of the most painful episodes just to watch and be involved in -- a place where 70,000 people or more have been killed; where you have almost a million refugees. And we've said for many, many months, now years, that Assad must go.
The reality of the region and the reality of our situation in the region is that we can't just wave a magic wand and have him leave. We have put in an increasingly -- and in fact Secretary Kerry this week announced further support for the Syrian opposition coalition; we've spent almost $400 million on humanitarian support; our office has sent up an accountability center to deal with transitional justice issues to document.
The challenge has been how do you accelerate a departure of a dictator who has committed these horrible act, and at the same time within the context of the politics and ethos of that society have a transition to a government that's going to be rights-oriented and democratic? It is a real challenge -- and we're still not there. I'm absolutely convinced Assad will not survive but we've had to deal --
WEISBERG: Beyond when? (Chuckles.)
POSNER: Yeah, well, I don't know. And you know, one of the challenges is -- and it continues to be a challenge -- the Russians at the Security Council, the Iranians with the support they give Hezbollah and others -- he's held on and in a desperate desire to hold on until -- you know, until his last breath. I think we've had a -- we've not been successful in persuading him diplomatically to leave.
Now obviously, there's a moment where there's going to -- there's more and more fighting; more and more violence. I'm very nervous about the day after. And that's what a lot of our energy's been spent on, trying to figure out how do you deal with the various ethnic and minority communities there, how do you begin to build a democratic culture while the fighting is going on, and as well as how do you try to promote a diplomatic, a political resolution of this? We're trying -- lots of time, lots of energy. I'm sure Secretary Kerry is going to make this and has already made this one of his priorities, but we've got to keep going until we get a resolution.
WEISBERG: Is the fear more Egypt or Iraq? I mean is it -- is the fear that it dissolves into an unresolvable civil war between ethnic groups and political factions or simply that the human rights and democracy forces are outnumbered by militant Islam?
POSNER: You know, I don't -- comparisons are always dangerous. It is what it is, which is a country that's been governed for a long time by a very authoritarian minority community with others in support. And you've got a range of disparate groups that are vulnerable, both to the current situation, but also very nervous about what's going to follow. And so our job, I think, or the global community's job is to try to create enough of a coalition or a consensus about a transition forward that's respectful of minority rights, pluralistic, democratic, but those are not things that people have practiced for a very long time.
WEISBERG: How do you deal, Mike, as the administration's until-now chief lead person on human rights issues, with the "you too" argument you encounter everywhere; that is, when you go to bring up human rights concerns and they say, yes, but what about Guantanamo, what about drone strikes, what about the Supreme Court decision last week -- you probably haven't encountered that yet -- but the fact that citizens in the U.S. can't sue if they think their -- the government is monitoring their email?
How is -- what's the -- what's the status, do you think, of our standing to criticize others about human rights?
POSNER: You know, I do get those questions all the time. And one of the things I say, and it's true -- is that I went into this administration only after the president said on his second day in office that we were going to end the abuse of interrogations, of cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment. We were going to try to close Guantanamo, but that's still the administration's position, something I've worked some on; others are working hard on -- we have to do that -- and that we would undertake also to redefine security detentions and the whole concept of national security post-9/11.
These are hard issues. I think the important thing is that we're honest about the challenges and honest about the debates. We have debates within the administration. But I feel -- again, the point of view that I bring to the table is one that's been taken very seriously. On the drones, for example, there are a range of things I'm not allowed to say, but what Harold Koh has said and John Brennan and others is, you know, we're going to do this in accordance with law. We're going to treat drones as a -- as a weapon, they are a weapon. And we're going to use doctrines of necessity and proportionality, admit mistakes when we have them. And I think we can be more open about some of those things.
So I don't feel -- I have a lot of these conversations. I don't feel defensive about it. We are not perfect, we are constantly trying to form a more perfect union, and I think the more honest we are about what some of the challenges are, that -- people respect that. And frankly, at the end of the day, in -- whether I'm in Egypt or Russia or China, people understand that the kind of debates we have here and the energy around those debates is something that they're aspiring to. So people are -- there's always like a 10 or 15 minute barrage --
WEISBERG: You have to listen to that, right.
POSNER: -- and then -- and then we go on and have a conversation about how can we help them.
WEISBERG: I know drones are a sensitive issue and hard to talk about, but I wonder if you could maybe address the issue as a human rights lawyer and, you know, as opposed to someone who knows anything about the inside about the policy what should our safeguards be -- procedure? I mean, right now we have a declaration of war which is the legal basis for the drone strikes, but presumably that's not always going to be in effect, and that's not necessarily going to cover every occasion where there might be an argument for using drones as a weapon. How should -- what should be the legal framework for dealing with this? Should there be special courts, which some people have talked about?
POSNER: You know, there are all kinds of discussions, both in the Congress and the administration, of what the right mechanism is. And again, you know, I think we should say more about what we're doing, but there is a -- there are long memos and lots of procedural safeguards in place. I think the key thing is, there has to be a definition of what's the battlefield, where are the places where -- and what's the enemy? And those are discussions that are being -- going on.
Secondly, what are the safeguards in a particular instance and other alternatives? And again, you know, in any war you have weapons, so whether they're bombs or, you know, drones or tanks. And you have -- you have to be doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, so doctrines of necessity and proportionality have got to be part of the discussion.
WEISBERG: With drones, since they are much better at avoiding killing innocent civilians, they become for that reason much easier to use as weapons.
POSNER: Right. And -- but you know, John Brennan gave a speech a year ago or so at the Wilson Center, and he makes the case pretty -- in some detail that you -- you know, as war becomes more sophisticated or, you know, militaries become more sophisticated, you're able to be more discrete in identifying and attacking a target. And so this is part of a bigger discussion about how you fight a war in the 21st century. It's a -- it's gotten a lot of attention, but there is a broad range of issues now where we have to figure out, what do we do with new technology? What do we do with cyber, for example? There are a range of things that 50 years ago our militaries didn't dream of. They didn't exist. And now we have to figure out what are -- what's the law, what's the ethics, what's the right thing to do. And again, the principle has to be, how do you protect noncombatants to the greatest extent possible?
WEISBERG: I want to open this up to participants in one minute, but I have one more question for you, which is about your -- what you're going to do next. So your job for the last four years has been trying to influence the administration to care more about human rights. You're now going to be trying to get businesses to think more about human rights and that -- its role in their decision making and in their objectives. What -- how are you going at this? Is the business world -- are Fortune 500 companies encountering this issue increasingly?
POSNER: Yeah, you know, one of the things that's been very interesting to me in coming into government for the first time, we -- the United States government is by far the most powerful government in a world where governments are a lot less powerful. And in some ways I say to colleagues in the State Department, you know, 50 years ago, we weren't dealing with -- certainly not to the same extent -- the al-Qaidas, the -- you know, the terrorist, the violent organizations that have no allegiance to a state. Fifty years ago, we didn't have the literally millions of nongovernmental organizations that are doing what states used to do.
And of the hundred-biggest economies in the world, 50 of them are not states. They're private actors. Wal-Mart's the 31st biggest economy in the world. We have an ambassador to Benin, but we don't have an ambassador to Wal-Mart. And so, you know, I think both for government and for business and for the nongovernmental world, it's a new world, and adjusting to that is taking -- is really just beginning to happen, whether it's big companies manufacturing and trying to figure out what their labor issues are and their supply chains, whether it's the extractive industries trying to figure out what their security arrangements are in conflict zones -- and resources often draw conflict -- or whether it's the information technology companies trying to figure out what their responsibilities are. I think a lot of companies are now waking up and saying -- are saying to themselves, oh, my god, it's a new world. We don't quite know what the rules are.
So part of what I'm hoping to do is to create a place to really figure out what are the rules of the road, what are smart companies doing, push some of it but also use it as a forum, as a safe space to have conversations with companies, with government, with the nongovernmental world to really try to figure out what's the path for the 21st century.
WEISBERG: Is there a risk -- I'm sorry just to ask a follow-up here, but --
POSNER: No, no.
WEISBERG: -- but just wanted to say, is there -- is there a risk that you absolve government of responsibility in these areas if it becomes a responsibility of corporations to think about human rights and respond to those kinds of pressures, as opposed to the old-world model where their job is to make money and follow the law, and you have to think about what the law should compel them to do in relation to human rights?
POSNER: See, I would say -- I want to put more pressure on governments and on companies. Governments -- a lot of governments are abdicating responsibility because they're trying -- poor governments are trying to get foreign investors to come in and they're trying to make it as easy as possible, so they either don't have laws in place or they don't enforce them. They ought to be held accountable for international standards, whether it's in the labor area or in the extractive area or whatever.
I also think it's imperative that companies recognize they have a responsibility. If their name's on a product, if they're operating in a global environment, the reality is, in the 21st century, people are going to hold them accountable, and they should, and they should hold themselves accountable.
So I think there's room to push everybody here, actually.
Good. If you have a question, please, when I call on you, the microphone will come to you, and state your name and affiliation. And one question per person and please make it a question.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Michelle Caruso Cabrera from CNBC.
Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea -- what did you think? And why didn't you like Bill Richardson's and Eric Schmidt's trip to North Korea? (Scattered laughter.)
POSNER: I'm a Bulls fan, I should say. So I -- (laughter) -- I liked -- I liked Dennis Rodman in those years, when he --
You know, North Korea is probably the most closed and certainly one of the worst human rights offenders. That's a starting point. Yeah, I -- any time that we are doing something to open up North Korea and access to North Korea, I'm in favor of that. But I'm very nervous about public comments that praise a leadership that's been absolutely not only indifferent to human rights, but that's violated human rights at every turn.
So to the extent people want to go there, that's their business. They're not going on behalf of our government. But when people make comments that reflect the fact that they don't see the brutality of the government, the labor camps, the long history of disregard for human life, I -- that -- I don't approve of that.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Sir, in the back there. Yeah, you.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Ahmed Fatih (ph), al-Wafd News, Egypt.
Mr. Posner, you are a frequent visitor to Cairo. Recently, just two days ago, Secretary Kerry have released $250 million in economic aid to Egypt, in spite that there is a law from the -- from Congress dating back to November 2011 that mandated that the secretary of state should go to Congress and certify that the government in Egypt is moving toward democracy and adhering to human rights standards.
In the past 37 days alone, there have been 74 people killed, over 1,500 persons injured, and yet Secretary Kerry released $250 million. Till what extent the Egyptian people have to look to the U.S. government, in the same manner they look to them right after the revolution in 2011 as the defender of human rights and democracy, after what they have seen at the recent actions?
POSNER: I was in Egypt last month and I -- at the end of -- I saw people in the government, I saw people in the political opposition, I saw a lot of the nongovernmental activists of various -- from various quarters. And at the end of that, I spoke publicly and I said two things: One, there is a human-rights crisis in Egypt, very serious situation, including impunity for security forces, police who are out on the street -- as you say, 70-plus people have been killed in the streets. Particularly concerned about attacks against women, who are targeted, many raped on the street or pulled off the street. I met a number of advocates who are working on those issues. Deeply concerned about a new NGO law that's being proposed and now is in the Shura Council, another law on demonstrations. Real concerns about the constitutional process, both the process and the outcome. Nervous about the upcoming parliamentary elections. So there is a range of things, which you know well, that continue to be human rights problems, serious problems in Egypt.
At the same time, I said -- and I believe -- that the economic situation in Egypt is now so precarious. We talk about a cliff here; Egypt really is hanging by a thread in terms of its economic stability. And I think it ought to be possible for us both to be forthcoming, as I was, and as Secretary Kerry was in his public remarks, to be -- we need to be strong on human rights, and we also have to recognize that if there isn't economic support to the country, the country is really going to fail.
One of the reasons so many people are on the streets in these demonstrations -- they're young guys, mostly, without a job. They haven't had a job for a while. They're desperate. They're -- there's almost a nihilism, which creates the potential for an escalation of violence. I'm very nervous about that. So we need to be looking for ways to strengthen the economy, strengthen the reform that needs to happen, but we also need to put our money behind that and have a long-term view.
I take a long-term view on almost everything I do, and my sense is that Egypt is at the center of the Middle East, its rise or fall is going to affect every country around it, and we've got to stand behind the Egyptian people. And that means supporting them economically.
WEISBERG: Yes, sir, in the front row.
QUESTIONER: Jeff Laurenti with the Century Foundation.
First, Mike, if I can just pay tribute to what you, the secretary and the president have done to restore America's credibility and authority globally on human rights, these four years have been day after night.
There hadn't been discussion yet of labor rights, which is part of your portfolio. Issues like child labor and rights to unionize, association, all that actually affect many people in the lower half of the income ladder across the world and yet get relatively little resonance in Washington debate about human rights.
How has this administration made any impact on greater observance? And how -- going to a business school, those are the kinds of human rights issues that I expect you might find those Fortune 500 companies to be a little less enthusiastic about than freedom of press or whatever.
POSNER: Well, one, my title is democracy, human rights and labor. And in -- there weren't for eight years -- there wasn't anybody in the special adviser role on labor, and we brought in a woman named Barbara Shailor, who worked for 25 years for the A.F. of L. and is really a leader in the global labor rights world. And she's done a fantastic job.
I think one of the things -- going back to the Egypt point, what you find in so many places, I find in so many places I travel, people, young people especially, want to be treated with dignity. And it has two components: They want economic opportunity and a job, and they want a stake in the political future of their country.
So we've used the discussion about labor in a whole range of places. Burma's a good example, where government passed labor reform laws a year ago, now is trying to figure out how to implement them in a place that hasn't had any concept of that for a long time. We've done it in China, where we've -- I went to the Foxconn factory that produces Apple computers to talk about how do you -- how do they do better in terms of their labor record. I'm having meetings this week with a number of American companies doing business in Bangladesh, where there was a fire several months ago that killed over a hundred people.
These are critically important issues. They're a way into a broader economic rights and justice discussion. But in so many parts of the world, independent unions really aren't allowed to function, and as a result, people, especially young women, are exploited in the workplace.
And it is something that American companies need to be attentive to. I think -- again, my own experience working with the apparel industry and footwear industry is that companies like Nike and Adidas have taken a lead on this, they're doing the right thing, but there are a whole lot of others that need to be brought into that discussion. That's part of what I'm going to be doing at NYU.
WEISBERG: Great. Let's come the other side, down -- sir, yes.
QUESTIONER: Steve Kass. Hi, Mike.
POSNER: Hi, Steve.
QUESTIONER: I'd like to ask you a question on something you haven't, I think, touched on, and may not be solely within your jurisdiction, but it's the relationship between human rights and climate change. It's a subject that doesn't get enough attention, and yet the economic and social rights you were beginning to talk about are directly affected by forced migration, by displacement of people within urban areas. We saw the article yesterday about Lagos, for example. Do you have any recommendations for your successor or for your boss' successor as to how human rights ought to be incorporated into our climate change policies?
POSNER: Steve, it's a good question, and it honestly is not something that we've treated as a priority; so many other things going on. I think it's an area where you're going to see greater attention under Secretary Kerry. He's already spoken quite a bit about climate change, and I think there is a natural connection -- there are people like Mary Robinson beginning to look at these issues and doing it in a smart way.
It is -- you know, both human rights issues and the climate change issues are very challenging, and honestly, putting them together is going to create even more challenges, I think. But it's the right -- it's the right discussion.
I think there is a discussion we have had about some of the environmental justice issues who -- you know, it's often the case that people who are disenfranchised or disempowered wind up on the receiving end of some of the worst environmental practices. But that's really as far as we've taken it, and I think what I would say is that because Secretary Kerry has already weighed in on the climate piece and clearly cares about the human rights piece, I think for my successor this would be an area where a lot can be done.
WEISBERG: In the corner. Ma'am.
QUESTIONER: I'm Deborah Bonn (ph). I'd like to ask, should the Obama administration use aid or -- to -- as a leverage to exert influence so that countries can improve their human rights, particularly in Asia and in Middle East?
POSNER: You know, it's a good question. There isn't a yes-or-no answer to that.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Cambodia, where we have a very tough relationship with a very tough government that's been in place for a long time and that's eager to have greater economic and military relationship with the United States. And one of the things we talked about very frankly is, in a world where are limited resources, we're going to make choices, and governments that don't advance or don't engage in the human-rights debate are probably going to do less well.
So to that extent, yes. But I can't say that there's a formula that applies everywhere, and there's certainly not a cookie cutter that says, you know, we ought to always hold up aid. For example, on the Egypt question, I'm quite convinced that at this stage we need to be both providing economic assistance and at the same time pushing a human rights agenda.
WEISBERG: Let's do one more on this side, in the second row. Yes?
QUESTIONER: Hi. Wendy Luers, the Foundation for a Civil Society. I've known Mike since he looked 12 years old; now, he looks about 18. (Laughter, laughs.)
How has your point of view changed since you came into government? From the silo that has been human rights all of -- all of -- most of us in this room are all in that silo, and how -- and your world has broadened a great deal, I'm sure, after these four years. And can you fill us in on how that's going to affect the way you're going to do, and do you know who your successor is?
POSNER: I don't. I'd say a couple of things.
One, having never been in the government and having gotten a lot of advice of what I was likely to face, many people said, oh, it's impossible to get anything done, and my experience has been just the opposite of that. It's interesting to me -- government is -- and I don't mean this in a politically liberal/conservative -- government and the State Department is a very conservative institution. It's risk-averse. And there's an awful lot of people that sort of wake up in the morning and they say, what did we do before and how do we make that a little bit better. And my theory was let's take a fresh look at a whole range of things and see if there isn't a different way to do it.
Now, initially, that isn't met with wild enthusiasm -- (laughter) -- but it's surprising how often the -- changing the conversation yielded openings that weren't otherwise available and we got stuff done.
I mean, I give a lot of examples. The prisoner list is one in Burma. People said, oh, my God, if we raise prisoner cases and they don't release them, we'll look bad. Well, you got to take chances to accomplish things.
So it's interesting to me how often I've gone in with some confidence but, you know, also aware of all the competing interests and said, here's a way that everybody can look good and we can do the right thing.
The second thing I would say is I've really -- in part because I came out of an NGO background, I walked into a bureau where people proudly told me, we're the NGO within the building -- (laughter) -- we're a nongovernmental organization working in government. And I said, no, you're not -- (laughter) -- you know, if you want to work for an NGO, I'll give you some names -- (laughter) -- and phone numbers. You're working for the government, and our job is not to be right -- it's not to make a point; it's to make a difference.
And so I spent a lot of time, really a lot of time trying to build relationships with regional bureaus in the State Department and with the senior people in the State Department to say, this is what's in the U.S. national interest; this is not a human rights issue, it's a national interest issue. It's both, and our national security and our human rights interests, in fact, overlap and coincide and reinforce each other.
And there's been more receptivity to that than, again, I would have expected. So you succeed, in my position, when you persuade the head of the Near East Bureau that it's in our interest to work together on Egypt or Bahrain, which we did for three years until they left, and really accomplished a heck of a lot more. So those are a couple of comments.
WEISBERG: Great. In the front row. Yes.
POSNER: Boy, I know a lot of people --
WEISBERG: Yeah, this is -- (laughter) --
QUESTIONER: Felice Gaer. Hi, Mike. You knew -- you know the human rights field better probably than anyone who's served as assistant secretary, and you also know that the Congress has been the lead entity in pushing human rights within the government.
I wonder if you could say a few words about your relationship with this Congress and, in particular, if you could give us some insights into how you saw the Magnitsky Act develop and how it's impacted on the relationship with Russia.
POSNER: So this is another observation about the State Department. People in the State Department, by and large, are terrified of Congress, the press and nongovernmental organizations. (Laughter.) Most people would just as soon never have to deal with any of those. (Laughter.) And my attitude was just the opposite; I couldn't get enough of it.
And so what's interesting about Congress is whatever -- there are many issues where Congress is paralyzed and dysfunctional, but on the issue of human rights, there are people from the -- one end of the spectrum to the other who have an interest. They're not always the same interest, but they would view themselves as human rights champions and advocates. So the challenge is just to figure out what's the issue that's motivating them and then go figure out how you work with them.
And so I had -- I spend, probably, when I'm in the country, a day a week up on the Hill, and I regard many of the Republicans and Democrats as key supporters of what we're trying to do. And you know, I'm not -- people, again, hate testifying; I like testifying. People hate, you know, congressional briefings; I'm, like, always raising my hand. And people let me do it.
WEISBERG: Well, why are you leaving? (Laughter.)
POSNER: But on Magnitsky, you know, there are two parts too -- this is a bill that Congress passed, Senator Cardin and others, Jim McGovern, that focuses on the tragic death in Russia of a great lawyer and imposes sanctions, both visa limitations and asset sanctions through the Treasury, on people who were implicated in that. And our government rejected the whole concept, and the bill was passed over our objections. And again, there's a long story that goes behind it.
I would separate the two things. And I think what I've tried to do -- and frankly, this is what President Obama did last year through an executive proclamation -- said we should keep human rights violators out of the United States; we should have a visa ban that cuts across. And we're trying to implement that in a serious way.
I think that's easier to do; it's effective. And why should people be entitled to the benefits and privileges of being in the United States if they've committed gross human rights violations?
The asset controls -- the sanctions through Treasury are much more complicated for a variety of reasons. The standard's very high; the agency at Treasury that does them has very limited capacity. And in lumping the two together, I think we've -- you know, we've lost, or Congress lost an opportunity to do something that was simple and straight that would have had the strong effect.
So we're now in a place where you have the standard for OFAC being the standard for visas under the law. And that creates a whole range of challenges. We have a report due in April, and it'll be interesting to see what comes out of that. I think the visa ban is something that we really can pursue much more aggressively.
WEISBERG: That's true.
A very high percentage of the people in this room have had their hands up. Second row.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Alice Tepper Marlin. Mike, now that you're going to be advising business at the Stern School and looking for what the best businesses are doing and should be doing, what would you advise them about Burma now, particularly from a labor rights perspective -- a decent work perspective?
POSNER: There are a couple of pieces on Burma. One is, we've made a decision, sort of step-by-step, to lift a number of the sanctions -- investment ban and the like.
We've also said to American businesses, if you're doing business in Burma, you have to report both on what you're doing and the remedial -- the actions you have in place to deal with environment, human rights and labor.
So the first thing I would say to them is, take the reporting requirements seriously and use the reporting requirements -- any -- this is any company that's doing $500,000 a year in business or $500,000 in business period. And this will take effect in June.
So I'd say, use the time now to figure out internally, what are you doing? What are the safeguards you have in place, and what are the things that others are doing?
So I think it's really an opportunity to do the right thing. And if you don't do it, there's legal sanctions against you. So that's an added incentive.
Second thing I would say is, on the labor front, you have -- as I mentioned a few moments ago, you have a new set of laws that have been adopted, yet to be implemented. The ILO -- the International Labor Organization is there advising the government. So I think if you're in the manufacturing space and trying to figure out how to deal with the labor issues, it would be wise and right to basically take a look at, what are the things that are being put in place, and reinforce them rather than undermine them.
In 2008, the Chinese government adopted five new labor laws. And one of the things -- this is before I got into government, or maybe it was even 2007 -- one of the things that happened that was really distressing to me is that AmCham -- the American Chamber of Commerce actually opposed the basic contract law.
Here, you have a government that's trying to actually give workers a legal remedy, and American companies -- some American companies were there saying, this is too stringent. So I'd say that's not the way to proceed. The right way is to reinforce the government's best instincts. There are a range of things that are going to be a challenge, but in this area, I think the government generally wants more investment, more manufacturing to balance some of the extractive industries and the (gems ?). And I think American companies can reinforce its better instincts.
QUESTIONER: You would encourage them?
POSNER: I would encourage them, yeah, but with their eyes open.
QUESTIONER: Hello, my -- hello, my name is Daniel Pincus (sp). The United States maintains very strong economic and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia, and yet they remain a prominent violator of human rights. Can you comment on the history and the trajectory of this relationship, and where we can use our influence to address some of the concerns?
POSNER: Yeah, thanks. Secretary Kerry was in Saudi Arabia today, in fact.
You know, there are two aspects of this. One is the domestic scene -- the domestic situation. You have clearly a range of discriminatory behavior relating to women, relating to religious observance and the like. There's restrictions on speech and a whole range of other kind of core rights.
The other aspect, which I'm also very mindful of and interested in, is the influence not so much of the government but of money that comes from Saudi Arabia and the gulf that goes to finance some of the religious schools in South Asia. I was just in Pakistan. There are many, many thousands of madrassas, many of them funded by individuals or entities, charities from the Gulf. And those are schools that are, some of them, promoting hateful behavior. And I think our national security interest is affected if we don't pay attention to that.
The relationship, as you well know, is one that's been strong for a variety of reasons relating to both national security and economics. It's a big -- the biggest oil producer. It's also -- the Saudis have been very helpful in Yemen and other places on counterterrorism, in fact our whole regional approach in the Gulf. But I think see need to balance that and we need to have an honest conversation both about the domestic scene, which I've just outlined, as well as on trying to figure out how to really reduce some of that export of funds to extremist groups.
WEISBERG: Sir, in the corner.
QUESTIONER: Matthew Lee with Inner City Press. I wanted to ask you about Sri Lanka, which was a country where in 2009, you know, some -- the U.N. says 40,000 people were killed. And it seems like at the time the administration really didn't do much. Now there are some efforts to do something in the Human Rights Council, but it's unclear really if that's going to actually bring any accountability to the Rajapaksa government.
So I'm wondering, how do you -- do you feel this was a success of the Obama administration, or should more have been done? What do you learn from it? And what now in terms of the same government's in place that's killed almost as many people as Assad does but remains -- you have an embassy, meet with them. What's up with that? (Laughter.)
POSNER: (Chuckles.) What's up. It's an interesting example of the trajectory. As you say, in 2009 there was a reluctance to challenge some of the things that were going on at the U.N. and elsewhere. There was a move to create a commission of inquiry. We were not persuaded that that was the thing to do. But what happened last year is really quite significant. We not only participated in, but we led, the effort at the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt a very critical resolution calling on the government to honestly implement the Lessons Learned Commission. We put enormous diplomatic effort into it, and it really reflected a shift in part because we hadn't seen progress from them, in part because there was a lot of advocacy both inside and outside the government.
That resolution is now going to be revised and revived in this coming couple months at the Human Rights Council. And we've also had a series of quite tough conversations with the government about exactly the issues you raised. One of my deputies, Jane Zimmerman, was out there a month ago with a fellow from the Defense Department, Vikram Singh, to raise a set of human rights issues relating to the failure to integrate the Tamil population into the -- into the government, the accountability issues, but a whole range of issues relating to how Sri Lanka moves forward in a more appropriate way.
So we're very mindful of the challenges there. And I would say I do regard it as a success because it's a -- it reflects a willingness to change positions and to recognize, when governments don't respond as they should, that we have to step up our diplomatic efforts privately and publicly.
WEISBERG: Does anyone have a question about China? We just haven't talked about that yet. I would give priority, if so.
QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)
WEISBERG: But no. All right, never mind the question about China. But if you want to say anything about China on the way -- the way out. (Laughter.) Otherwise, we can maybe get two quick ones in. Yes.
QUESTIONER: Some years ago, President Carter put a great deal of emphasis on human rights treaties, his point being that you might be able to affect the way people think about human rights problems and thus ultimately the way they behave. And yet at the same time, he refused to allow any of those treaties to change U.S. domestic law except through the normal legislative process. So I don't know how successful the treaties were in this country, perhaps again the theory being the way people think. But to what extent has treaty-making been a part of the Obama administration's approach to human rights?
POSNER: So two parts to that: One, we pushed very hard last year and will push again this year for the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, came very close to getting ratification, three or four votes short. And we thought we had it. But I know that's something Secretary Kerry cares a lot about.
We're also going to push on CEDAW, the women's convention. We need 67 votes in the Senate, and that's hard.
What's more -- what's more encouraging is that we've taken seriously the notion that these are not just treaties for the other guys; it's for us as well. And so in the reports, for example, that the human rights committee under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the torture committee, we're really looking hard at -- we're taking a maximalist position to say, what should we be doing? We did this also with the periodic review. We had people from 30 government agencies and offices in these discussions with NGOs and then among ourselves to say, let's not just pay lip service to it; let's figure out, what are the things that the international treaties and the international regime teach us of things that we can do better?
I think as long as that's the approach, it has the effect that President Carter intended.
WEISBERG: I'm afraid we're out of time. But the good news is Michael's going to be back here in New York and is going to be much more available to us. (Laughter.)
But Michael, I want to second the comment about thanking you for the work you did in the Obama administration, which, looking around the room, I know that everybody here supports. And please join me in thanking Michael for his comments today. (Applause.)
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