Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives
March 19, 2005
How can our government speak with authority about the evil of torture in countries like Egypt and Syria and Uzbekistan when it is knowingly making deals with the worst elements of those regimes to send people to the very dungeons where they torture prisoners?
Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch

Thank you Mr. Chairman for inviting me to testify.

This year's State Department human rights reports live up to the tradition of candid and comprehensive reporting the Department has established over the years. The reports fairly describe human rights violations committed by America's allies and adversaries alike. They are so honest, in fact, that they describe as abuses of human rights a number of practices in which the United States itself has recently engaged, a subject I will return to in a moment. Ambassador Kozak and his team deserve credit for a job well done.

This annual exercise in truth telling serves a very useful purpose. By publishing these reports, the United States makes it harder for repressive governments to deny the indefensible reality of their behavior, and thus encourages them to alter that reality. The annual human rights reports also help to keep the State Department and the U.S. government as a whole more honest in dealing with abusive governments around the world. American diplomats can still argue that engaging the governments of countries like China or Uzbekistan or Egypt may be important to the national interest, despite their miserable human rights practices. But they cannot deny the brutality of those practices, or pretend that mere engagement is improving matters, if the State Department's own human rights reports state otherwise.

In addition to showing us what is happening inside individual countries, the reports also help us to see larger trends in the struggle for liberty and human rights around the world. They show us the hopeful victory of democracy in Ukraine, for example. But they also show how repressive governments elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and increasingly Russia itself are cracking down on dissent to avoid becoming the next Ukraine. They show how the Iraqi and Palestinian elections have encouraged demands for reform throughout the Arab world, but also how leaders in the region are pushing against the tide. They show the front edge of freedom and the backlash against it.

Every word and paragraph and chapter in these reports represents a challenge for the U.S. government. For it is obviously not enough for the State Department merely to describe once a year the injustices it sees around the world. The ultimate test of the human rights reports lies in what happens after the day they are published. How is the administration using their findings the other 364 days of the year? Is it applying the tools Congress has given it to combat the problems described in the reports? Is respect for human rights truly a consequential issue in America's bilateral relationships with governments that abuse human rights? When it becomes an issue, is the administration applying the right strategies and doing so aggressively enough? And is the United States leading the struggle for human rights by example, applying to itself the standards by which it judges others in these reports?

With those questions in mind, let me briefly mention a few countries where human rights abuses pose particularly great challenges for the United States right now (a list that will be illustrative but far from exhaustive). And then I would like to say a bit more about two issues raised by these reports that I believe ought to trouble us the most.

China

This year's State Department report makes clear that China remains a country where the most fundamental freedoms are denied. In Xinjiang, the government has engaged in a sweeping crackdown on Uighur religious expression, cultural traditions and social institutions, as well as systematic torture and executions. Regulations on March 1 of this year consolidate controls on religious belief and expression throughout the country, tightening requirements for any group hoping to register as a legal religious institution. China's court system continues to use coerced confessions, and political interference with judicial decisions is common. Chinese authorities have continued to tighten their control over the media and the internet, to discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS, and to limit the rights of the people of Tibet. We welcome the announced release of Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadir. But this does not represent fundamental change in China, or even a signal that a commitment to change may be present. It is simply the hostage diplomacy that always precedes possible action against China at the UN Human Rights Commission. For that reason, I strongly disagree with the administration’s decision not to press a China resolution at the Commission this year. And I hope that these issues will remain front and center when Secretary Rice visits China this week and in every high level dialogue between the United States and China.

Nepal

For several years, Nepal has been ravaged by a civil war fought between government forces and Maoist insurgents. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of civilians have been killed by both sides. Nepal now has the highest rate of disappearances of any country in the world. On February 1st of this year, Nepal's King and the Nepalese Army seized absolute power and imposed a state of emergency, suspending freedom of expression and assembly, and arresting opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights activists. The King launched the coup ostensibly to strengthen Nepal's fight against the Maoist insurgents; in fact, the coup will almost certainly weaken that struggle. It increases the likelihood that the Nepali army will fight the insurgency with indiscriminate force that further alienates the country's rural population and makes impossible a unified front of Nepali political factions against the Maoists.

The Bush administration has condemned the coup and urged a restoration of democracy in Nepal. But surprisingly, it has not reacted as forcefully as the United Kingdom or even India, both of which, unlike the United States, have suspended military aid to Nepal. The United States should get in step with India and the UK and suspend military assistance until the King takes real steps to restore democratic freedoms. It should also mobilize donors to suspend budget support for the Nepali government, and back a Nepal resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Swift action is needed both for the sake of the Nepali people's human rights and their interest in ending the Maoist threat.

Burma

As the State Department reports make clear, the situation in Burma has worsened. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. More than a thousand political prisoners languish in jail (and while the government has released a few in the last year, it has arrested even more). The Burmese government has ended its cooperation with the International Labor Organization on forced labor. The Burmese military continues its campaign of ethnic cleansing in isolated areas of the country, a campaign that merits international investigation to determine if prosecutable war crimes and crimes against humanity are occurring as well as responsibility for those crimes. The only good news about Burma, and it is a significant piece of good news, comes from its region. A number of Burma's neighbors, including Singapore and the Philippines, have expressed increasing frustration with the Burmese government's refusal to reform. The criticism is led by elected parliamentarians from the ASEAN countries, who well reflect the values of the people of the region and their desire to see genuine change in Burma. The United States must remain firm in its demand for the restoration of human rights in Burma. The Congress should renew sanctions imposed last year against Burma. The administration should urge more proactive leadership on Burma from the United Nations and America's European allies.

Uzbekistan

In the past few years, Uzbekistan has come under increasing pressure from the international community, including the United States, to improve its human rights record. Little progress has been made. The Uzbek government continues to imprison thousands of people for the peaceful exercise of their religious and political beliefs. Torture remains systematic in Uzbek prisons. There is no free media. Independent political parties cannot legally operate. Dissidents are persecuted and harassed; some, in an eerie echo of Soviet repression, are committed to psychiatric institutions. Uzbekistan has been a key U.S. partner in the war on terrorism and a host to U.S. military bases. Last August, the Bush administration suspended military aid to Uzbekistan over its human rights record. But shortly thereafter, General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Uzbekistan, where he announced a new aid program equal to the one the administration suspended, and publicly criticized his own administration's decision to suspend aid. Since then, the Uzbek government has become increasingly resistant to U.S. demands for reform. The Bush administration is sending Uzbekistan mixed messages that undermine both its human rights and its security agenda. All elements of the U.S. government, including the Pentagon, must start to speak with a single voice in Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan

The people of Turkmenistan are suffering from the increasingly bizarre, arbitrary, and potentially deadly policies of their president, Saparmurat Niazov, who has sought to exercise absolute power over their lives. His government tolerates no opposition or criticism and crushes critical thinking. He has instituted a perverse cult of personality that increasingly dominates public life and the education system. In the name of building the Turkmen nation, he has banned opera, ballet, circus, and the philharmonic orchestra. Libraries in rural areas are being shut down. And last month, Niazov announced that all hospitals outside the capitol of Ashgabat would also be closed. "If people are sick," Niazov reportedly said, "they can come to Ashgabat." Turkmenistan is an outpost of tyranny that also suffers from obscurity -- President Bush and Secretary Rice never mention it, though it clearly belongs in the same category as North Korea as a country that stifles the freedoms that make normal human life possible. The United States is even considering not supporting a resolution at this year's UN Human Rights Commission on Turkmenistan. The spotlight on Turkmenistan should be growing brighter, not dimmer.

Russia

The largest human rights crisis in Europe remains the war in Chechnya. This is the only place on the continent where civilians are “disappeared” or killed on a daily basis as a result of armed conflict. As the State Department reports make clear, the situation is not "normalizing," despite statements to the contrary from Russian officials. Chechens believed to be linked to rebels committed a serious of horrendous attacks on civilians, including the massacre of hundreds of school children in Beslan. Russian forces, and increasingly pro-Russian Chechen forces, continued to arbitrarily detain, extort, and execute civilians. Meanwhile, the Russian government continued its crackdown on independent media and civil society throughout Russia. The progress Russia has made towards democracy in the last decade is in serious jeopardy. During his trip to Europe, President Bush called on world leaders to make democracy a central issue in their engagement with the Russian government. But in his public appearance with Russian President Putin in Slovakia, President Bush did not confront the Russian leader, and instead appeared to take at face value Putin's assertion that he was committed to democracy.

Egypt

The Egyptian government is under great pressure to begin political reforms, in large part from its own people, but also from the example of the Iraqi elections and the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. But the State Department reports illustrate just how far Egypt has to go. Emergency rule in Egypt continues, with arbitrary arrests (sometimes on a large scale), official impunity in the face of routine torture, stifling restrictions on non-governmental organizations, persecution of persons engaging in consensual homosexual conduct, discrimination against women, and discrimination against religious minorities including Shi`a Muslims, Christians, and especially Baha'i. Recent political reforms announced by President Mubarak do not go nearly far enough to guarantee a fair presidential election. Opposition leader Ayman Nour was recently released from prison due in part to strong protests by the United States, but still faces harassment and possible prosecution. The Bush administration deserves credit for beginning to press Egypt to open its society, but should not rush to claim credit for success before that is merited. It will take a much more persistent and consistent effort to move Egypt in the right direction.

Darfur

Perhaps the most troubling part of these reports, Mr. Chairman, is the description of continuing human rights abuses in the Darfur region of Sudan. There is nothing inaccurate about the description itself. On the contrary: What should make us angry is that the description of massive atrocities committed against civilians in Darfur is absolutely true, and absolutely unchanged from the report the State Department issued last year.

We have known for more than a year what is happening in Darfur. For more than a year, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militias it supports have been killing civilians in Darfur or pushing them from their homes. For more than a year, the Sudanese air force has been bombing villages in Darfur to support this brutal campaign. For more than a year, we have been saying that Darfur should not become another Rwanda. Speeches are given; resolutions are passed; promises are made. And yet, the violence continues. The most the world has been able to muster for the people of Darfur is a small force of only 2,000 troops sent by the African Union, who have a mandate to observe crimes, but not to stop them. The kinds of sanctions that might convince the government of Sudan to change course have not been imposed. The UN Security Council has not even managed to ban arms shipments to Khartoum. Meanwhile, probably over 100,000 civilians have died as a direct result of the Sudanese government's actions. Almost two million people have been internally displaced.

Compare the world's lethargic response to what the United States has called genocide in Darfur to its immediate response to the Tsunami disaster in Asia. Somehow, when nature kills people, we do not hesitate to come to their aid. When governments kill people, we throw up our hands in despair and say it's all too complicated; nothing can be done. And then, ten years later, we attend solemn ceremonies of remembrance, express regret, and promise that next time, the lessons will be learned and people will be saved.

The truth is, a great deal can be done right now to help the millions of people in Darfur who are still alive and who still hold out hope of returning to their homes in peace. The key lies in placing a military force on the ground with the size and authority to protect civilians, in stopping aerial bombardment by the Sudanese air force, in imposing sanctions on the perpetrators until the price they pay for continuing atrocities is greater than the perceived benefit, and in ensuring that that those responsible are prosecuted for their crimes as quickly and credibly as possible.

The U.N. Security Council is now debating a resolution that, frankly, does far too little. The draft resolution does not call for the AU force in Darfur to be increased or to protect civilians. It imposes targeted sanctions on government officials and militia leaders responsible for the violence, but only for acts committed after the passage of the resolution, not for the crimes that have already claimed so many lives. It endorses a purely consensual no-fly zone, without providing for any military enforcement or even active monitoring of Sudanese air force flights in Darfur. It does not resolve the issue of how perpetrators of atrocities in Darfur should be prosecuted.

There are plenty of excuses for the weaknesses of this draft resolution. The Bush administration, which, to its great credit, would like tougher action on Sudan, will say that China and Russia are blocking it at the Security Council. That may be partly true. But that just means the United States needs to make Darfur a higher priority in its engagement with key allies as well as with Russia and China. Darfur was not prominent on President Bush's agenda during his trip to Europe and it does not appear to be high on Secretary Rice's agenda during her trip to China this week. Unless the President and the State Department make the maximum effort, the apathy and opposition of others will not be a sufficient excuse for weak action.

Moreover, there is one issue on which the United States is obstructing swift action by the international community. That is the issue of justice for those responsible for the killing in Darfur.

Justice is a moral imperative in Darfur. It is also a practical imperative. Justice is one of the most effective targeted sanctions we can apply to the Sudanese leadership. For once leaders are indicted by an international court, they will not be able to travel without fear of arrest; they will find it much harder to move their money around outside Sudan or to have any dealings with other governments. Indictment, therefore, would be the practical equivalent of a travel ban or asset freeze, but unlike those measures, it never expires; it remains in place at least until its targets stand trial. An effective process of accountability could also deter further violence. The more seriously officials in Khartoum take the prospect of prosecution by an international court, the more likely the are to refrain from further killing to avoid calling the court's attention to themselves. Lives can be saved, therefore, if such a process can be started swiftly. Lives may be lost if there is delay. Right now, there is only one institution in the world that can move immediately to investigate, indict, and prosecute Sudanese officials. That institution is the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague - so long as Sudan is referred to it by the UN Security Council (since Sudan is not a party to the ICC treaty, this court can only prosecute crimes committed there with a Security Council referral).

As you know, the Bush administration has profound concerns about the ICC. It has proposed as an alternative the creation of a brand new international court for Darfur, to be housed alongside the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. The problem with this alternative is that, based on past experience with such courts, it would take at least a year to recruit the judges, prosecutors, and staff needed to establish a new Darfur Tribunal. In the meantime, the Sudanese government could continue its killing spree without an existing international court looking over its shoulders. It could take the time to burn documents, kill off witnesses, clean up mass graves. This delay will cost lives. It will make the ultimate task of prosecuting the killers harder.

Creating a new court for Darfur would also cost, by the State Department's estimation, about $100 million a year for the next five years. Because most U.S. allies are already assessed to support the ICC, none are likely to contribute a penny for a new tribunal. Realistically, the United States would have to bear the entire cost. That means the Congress would have to be prepared to allocate half a billion dollars over the next few years simply to avoid having to use the ICC in Darfur - half a billion dollars for a superfluous court that could instead be used to equip peacekeepers to protect civilians in Darfur, or to buy food and medicine for desperate refugees. In addition, a Darfur-only court would expire after several years, as all ad-hoc, single issue tribunals eventually do. This means that the killers in Khartoum could wait it out.

The ICC, on the other hand, has the capacity to begin investigating and prosecuting and deterring crimes in Darfur right now. The ICC is a permanent court -- it cannot be outlasted by indicted Sudanese officials; if they hide, it will be pursuing them till the day they die. It is fully funded by other nations. What's more, the United States could support employing the ICC consistent with its general objections to this court, because the ICC would be acting in this case in the manner the United States has consistently said it could support - via a referral from the UN Security Council, where the United States has a veto.

Wherever one stands on the merits of U.S. participation in the ICC, this court is clearly the best option for saving lives in Darfur. And in a moment of crisis such as this, that should be our only consideration. The State Department has argued that its alternative is better because it would empower Africans to settle this problem in an African-based court. But the African members of the Security Council have made clear that they themselves would prefer Darfur to be handled by the ICC. Twelve of fifteen Security Council members support using the ICC; none have endorsed the administration's alternative. The administration's reluctance to accept an ICC referral, therefore, is holding up a resolution that could bring some help to the people of Darfur. Were the administration open to compromise on this issue, it would be in a much better position to win its allies' support for an even stronger resolution, with real sanctions and a more effective peacekeeping force. My understanding is that discussions are underway on a deal that would let ICC referral go forward. I urge all members of the Committee to encourage the administration to seek such an outcome as quickly as possible.

Rendition/Torture

Mr. Chairman, a second troubling issue raised by the human rights reports is the one I alluded to at the start -- the reports call into question practices in which the United States itself has engaged since September 11th. One of those practices is the so called "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects to countries that routinely torture prisoners. Consider what the State Department reports say about some of the countries to which the United States renders terror suspects. They say that torture is used "frequently" by security services in Syria, including methods such as electrical shocks, pulling out fingernails, forcing objects into the rectum, beating, hyperextending the spine, and using a backwards bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine. They say that in Egypt, "a systematic pattern of torture by security services exists," including beating victims with fists, whips and metal rods, electrical shocks, and sexual assaults. They say that authorities in Uzbekistan "routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions" using suffocation, electric shock, rape, and beating.

These reports make clear that the Bush administration knows perfectly well what goes on in the prisons of countries to which it sends terror suspects. It knows perfectly well that torture is standard operating procedure in these places and that anyone delivered to the custody of their security services is likely to be tortured. So how does the administration defend this practice? It says that it doesn't send anyone to a place like Syria or Egypt unless Syria or Egypt promises not to torture that person. If anyone here today thinks we should believe such unenforceable promises from countries that systematically torture people, please let me know.

As it is, we have strong evidence that several of these countries, including Syria and Egypt, have already violated the assurances they have given the United States in these cases. And those involved in the process privately acknowledge the assurances are worthless. As one Arab diplomat quoted in the Washington Post today said: "It would be stupid to keep track of [rendered prisoners] because then you would know what's going on. It's really more like don't ask, don't tell." An American official quoted in the same story said: "They say they are not abusing [rendered prisoners], and that satisfied the legal requirement, but we all know they do."

How can our government speak with authority about the evil of torture in countries like Egypt and Syria and Uzbekistan when it is knowingly making deals with the worst elements of those regimes to send people to the very dungeons where they torture prisoners? This practice diminishes America, Mr. Chairman. And it does not strengthen America's security -- for one would have to be truly naive to trust the reliability of intelligence obtained in Syrian or Uzbek torture chambers by intelligence services that have their own agendas to promote. The administration must stop this practice. If it does not, the Congress should. The House already took one step in this direction earlier this week when it voted to prohibit the expenditure of funds for any purpose that contravenes the Torture Convention (as rendition to torture clearly does). I urge the Congress to support legislation that explicitly forbids this practice.

A similar problem highlighted by the State Department reports relates to the methods that the United States has used to interrogate suspects in American custody. In chapter after chapter of these reports, the State Department candidly describes some of these methods as torture. The chapter on North Korea, for example, condemns as torture methods of interrogation such as "prolonged periods of exposure"; "humiliations such as public nakedness;" "being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods;" and "being forced to stand-up and sit-down to the point of collapse" (practices referred to in the U.S. military as "stress positions.") The chapter on Libya condemns as torture the use of dogs to threaten detainees. The chapter on Iran condemns as torture "prolonged solitary confinement with sensory deprivation," "long confinement in contorted positions," and "sleep deprivation." The chapter on Tunisia condemns as torture "submersion of the head in water" (which is often referred to as "waterboarding.") All these methods have at one point or another been approved by administration officials, including Secretary Rumsfeld, for use on detainees in Guantanamo, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in CIA custody around the world, where they clearly contributed to abuses that have done great harm to America's standing in the world. When they are used in places like Libya and North Korea, the State Department agrees that they are torture. Yet their use by the Pentagon and CIA has never been repudiated by the administration; no one has acknowledged that it was wrong; no one has pledged that it will not be tolerated again.

Once again, the Congress must do what the Executive Branch apparently will not. The Congress should establish clear standards for interrogating detainees that are consistent with the laws and treaties of the United States. The best way to do that is to mandate compliance with the standard that has guided America's armed forces successfully in the past, the standard that reflects the armed forces finest values -- the standard contained in the U.S. Army's Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation. The fundamental point is that we need the moral clarity that is provided by these State Department human rights reports and by the efforts of the President and the State Department to condemn human rights abuses throughout the year. But the United States needs to project more than moral clarity – it must maintain moral authority to promote a more humane and democratic world. That requires consistent leadership abroad and a sterling example at home.