Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner will leave government to start a new center for business and human rights at the New York University Stern School of Business.
Posner, who has been at State since September 2009, becomes the latest State Department official to leave since Secretary of State John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton last month. Other top officials who have already departed include Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, Undersecretary Maria Otero, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Policy Planning Director and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, and many others. Posner will join NYU in March, the university said in a Thursday release, and will also serve as a professor in the Stern School's business and society program.
"Global businesses are confronting complex human rights challenges that demand approaches that go beyond ‘corporate social responsibility'. We need rules of the road that address companies' responsibilities to respect human rights in their own operations," Posner said in the release.
Sarah Labowitz, Posner's policy advisor at State, will also join NYU Stern as a research scholar and will help Posner set up the new center. Labowitz also worked as an advisor to State Department Cyber Coordinator Christopher Painter.
Posner's last trip as an administration official was last week, when he traveled to Burma and met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Presidential Advisor Soe Thein, Attorney General Dr. Tun Shin, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Lt. General Kyaw Zaw Myint, and other high-level government officials in the capital Naypyidaw.
Before joining State, Posner was the founder and president of Human Rights First. He also played a leadership role in several advocacy organizations, including the Fair Labor Association, the Global Network Initiative, and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
"At NYU Stern we categorically reject the ‘or' and embrace the ‘and'. Profits and principle must coexist as citizens and consumers around the globe demand both. Mike is respected around the world for his distinguished 30-year career as a lawyer, advocate and policymaker," Stern Dean Peter Henry said in the statement. "His principled, practical approach to some of the world's toughest human rights and foreign policy challenges will break new ground in business education with the creation of the first center at a business school to focus on human rights."
The main group representing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Washington is calling for the United States and the international community to forcibly establish a partial no-fly zone in Syria for the first time since the 18-month revolution began.
The Syrian regime's increased use of air power to attack Syrian cities, combined with the increased control over land by the Syrian rebels, makes the idea viable, said Louay Sakka, co-founder of the Syrian Support Group (SSG), in an interview with The Cable.
The SSG is the main link between the U.S. government and the FSA and has emerged in recent months as the key organization in Washington dealing directly with the internal Syrian political and military leadership.
"This is right now the time for a no-fly zone to take place. We need to stop the fixed-wing and helicopters from attacking," Sakka said. "The regime cannot hold ground without air power or heavy artillery. Things have changed in many ways. The fighter jets cannot attack only the FSA; they have random targeting and that means a lot casualties: children, women, older people, people who have nothing to do with the fight, and they are dying in huge numbers."
The SSG's call for a no fly zone comes just as reports are surfacing that the Syrian military closed off the Damascus suburb of Daraya last week and began a brutal assault resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. Some 30,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries last week alone, pushing the external refugee total over the 200,000 mark, according to U.N. figures.
But an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Cable that the White House is still resisting any move that would see U.S. military assets used inside Syria, such as through a no-fly zone, but opponents of intervention are slowly losing ground.
"It's a Donilon call at the end of the day," the official said, referring to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who is leading a complicated interagency policy process on the Syria crisis. "There's not enthusiasm but there are differences of opinion about a no-fly zone," the official said. "There is no rush to do it."
The Assad regime's lack of use of fixed-wing aircraft was cited internally as a reason not to declare at no-fly zone and that reason no longer applies, the official argued. Opponents of a no-fly zone have also argued that the Syrian internal opposition had not formally requested it. That reason is also no longer operative.
"There's a question of whether or not our government is willing to reject the request. Or they could take it into consideration for a long time," the official said. "There's a recognition that some decision has to be made. We are quickly reaching a turning point due to the escalation."
The official confirmed that rebels are taking a serious toll on the regime's armor in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, pushing the regime to rely more heavily on its air superiority and massive artillery bombardments.
"These local rebel groups are gaining in organization and territory but they are there's still a significant gap in their capacity to fight back against the 500-pound bombs being dropped by regime aircraft," the official said, but warned, "No other countries are going to go all in until they see what the Americans are going to do."
The French government is pushing the Obama administration toward a decision, as in Libya a year ago. French President François Hollande said Monday that France would recognize a rebel government if the Syrian opposition declared one, and French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian signaled support for a no-fly zone last week.
Sakka said that based on his interactions with Obama administration officials, he believes that U.S. involvement in a no-fly zone is being seriously considered now.
"If we brought it up a few weeks ago [to the administration], their reaction was ‘Don't even think about it.' And now the reaction is ‘We're thinking about it,'" he said. "That's a good step forward. Now we're looking for them to move it from a plan to implementation."
Sakka acknowledges that a no-fly zone would include using foreign military assets to attack Syrian air defenses and perhaps even engage Syrian aircraft directly. Turkey and other countries are ready to move toward that if the United States would agree to the idea, and safe zones already established in Turkey could be expanded to include a 10-kilometer buffer zone along the border inside Syria, he said.
"We need an area inside Syrian soil that we know cannot be attacked by the regime. And that's what we think is doable... This is the minimum required at this stage," Sakka said. "It will be a big mistake down the road not to do this now before the amount of casualties is so big and the amount of destabilization happens that it spreads further outside Syria."
The SSG is working closely with the State Department, especially the office of Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, to increase the U.S. understanding of the internal Syrian opposition. The SSG is also helping various local rebel councils organize into a more coherent chain of command that can communicate effectively both among themselves as well as with outsiders, potentially tackling another key obstacle the United States says stands in the way of more robust and direct American support to the FSA.
The SSG's effort to become the conduit between the U.S. government and the FSA seems to be working. Earlier this summer, the State Department and Treasury Department changed policy to allow the SSG to send cash from the United States to the FSA -- cash the FSA can use for weapons despite the administration's refusal to directly arm the rebels.
One American politician urging intervention is Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who was in Paris last week and met with Le Drian, as well as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, National Security Adviser Paul Jean-Ortiz, Foreign Ministry Political Director Jacques Audibert, Hollande's military advisor, Gen. Benoit Puga, Eric Chevallier, the French ambassador to Syria, and members of the Syrian opposition based in Paris.
"I'm very encouraged by the discussions I had with the French leadership about Syria," Lieberman told The Cable from Paris. "As Assad has sharply escalated his use of attack helicopters and fighter aircraft against the Syrian people in recent weeks, there is an increasingly clear and compelling case for a limited no-fly zone. While this would require no U.S. combat forces on the ground, it could have a strategically significant impact by reinforcing the emerging rebel safe zones in northern Syria and allowing the opposition the space they need to organize politically and establish a transitional government on Syrian soil."
Two congressmen who lead on human rights issues wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to urge her to address the growing crisis in Tibet, where tensions, protests, and self-immolations are mounting.
"We write to urge that you undertake stronger, more coordinated, visible international steps with regards to the People's Republic of China's policies and practices towards Tibetans," wrote Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Frank Wolf (R-VA), in an Aug. 9 letter. "We appreciate your efforts with regards to courageous individuals such as Chen Guangcheng. Yet we believe that the United States can and must significantly increase diplomatic and international pressure on the Chinese government to reverse the crisis in Tibet."
The congressmen noted that more than three dozen Tibetans have self-immolated in protest over the last year alone amid an increasingly restrictive environment that includes arbitrary detention, sham trials, harsh prison sentences, the use of reeducation camps, and a sharp increase in the Chinese military presence in and around Tibet.
They also noted the Chinese crackdown on religious freedom in Tibet, as reported in the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report released last month, and the new Chinese policy of expelling ethnic Tibetans from Lhasa while importing Han Chinese.
"The situation is unambiguously deteriorating, and none of these actions comport with the Chinese government's rhetoric of respect for the rights of ethnic minorities, religious freedom, or a quest for a ‘harmonious society' in the region," the congressmen wrote.
In an interview last month with The Cable, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, Lobsang Sangay, called on the Obama administration to send a fact-finding mission to Tibet.
"At the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," Sangay said. "So in that sense I think from a democratic point of view, from a nonviolent point of view, supporting Tibet is vital because we are trying to be and we have proven in the last five decades to be a torchbearer of nonviolence and democracy."
The congressmen called on Clinton to convene an international meeting on Tibet, perhaps alongside the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York next month, and to establish a contact group with other countries that are concerned about the situation.
"As the United States continues its ‘pivot' towards Asia, it is important that the U.S. demonstrate that it is not deaf to the desperate appeals for help and support emanating from the Tibetans," they wrote.
The Obama administration must do more to help the nephew of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Chen told lawmakers on a visit to the Capitol building Wednesday.
Chen, who was imprisoned and then harassed for years due to his work exposing abuses of China's one-child policy, was allowed to move with his wife and children to New York following his daring April 26 escape from unofficial house arrest and six days of intensive diplomacy while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Beijing in May. He met with more than a dozen lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk about the Chinese government's record on human rights and to plead for help to save his nephew, who remains in prison for allegedly stabbing a thug who broke into his home after Chen's flight to safety.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) hosted Chen at the Capitol and held a press conference along with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman who held two hearings on Chen's case in the middle of his May ordeal.
"His example humbles us and reminds us why we cherish freedom so much and why we work so hard to protect it," Boehner said at the press conference after the meeting. "We cannot remain silent when fundamental human rights are being violated ... The Chinese government has a responsibility to do better, and the American government has a responsibility to hold them accountable."
"I am hopeful that the members here with me today will consider how to take action against China. Equality, justice and freedom do not have borders," Chen said through a translator.
In a Thursday interview with The Cable, Smith said that behind closed doors, Chen asked the lawmakers to press the Obama administration to speak up publicly and work actively to secure the release of his nephew, Chen Kegui, who was arrested on the night Chen escaped for stabbing an intruder with a kitchen knife. Chen Kegui has not been heard from since, though he has been accused of attempted murder.
"Chen asked us with the greatest sincerity to work for the release and protection of his nephew," Smith said. "The Obama administration on human rights in general globally has been a failure ... This is just another manifestation of a very weak if not non-existent human rights policy by this administration."
"This charge against my nephew for intentional homicide is totally trumped up. To be charged with this in his own home when defending against intruders is totally irrational and unreasonable," Chen said over the phone when he called into the second congressional hearing in May.
Smith said that Chen will continue to speak out publicly to pressure the Obama administration and the rest of the world to confront China on abuses of the one-child policy, which includes forced abortions. Millions of Chinese were outraged when a picture of a woman next to her forcibly aborted fetus went viral on the Internet last month.
"Chen wants Washington to work for human rights, the rule of law, and protection of women from the one child policy, and speak out against the Chinese government's human rights abuses persistently and consistently with knowledge and depth and not just generic statements that bounce off the Chinese like water off a duck's back," Smith said. "I think you're going to hear a lot more about that from him going forward."
House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) plans to introduce legislation Friday that bans foreign government officials responsible for violating the due-process rights of imprisoned U.S. citizens abroad from traveling in the United States.
Smith announced the move during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Jacob Ostreicher, a Brooklyn native who has been held in Bolivia for alleged money laundering since June 2011.
"The United States cannot stand by and simply ‘monitor' the case when our citizens are being held hostage to international human rights standards," said Smith, who visited Ostreicher in June and described him as "extremely frail and weak."
Ostreicher, an entrepreneur, went to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, in December 2010 to take over the management of a rice business he co-owns from a local manager after investors suspected she was embezzling money from the venture.
The manager had disappeared by the time Ostreicher arrived, but before leaving she had purchased land from alleged Brazilian drug kingpin Maximilliano Dorado, who briefly lived in Bolivia.
Bolivian authorities, upon realizing that Ostreicher's company was operating on his land, arrested the businessman on June 3, 2011. Since then, 22 hearings have been scheduled for Ostreicher's case, but each has been postponed due to the successful maneuvering of Bolivian government prosecutors, including demanding the recusal of judges. Ostreicher is being held in the notoriously corrupt Palmasola prison, where he has been denied access to a doctor. He has been on a hunger strike since April 13.
Smith lambasted the State Department, which declined to testify at the hearing, for failing to effectively take up Ostreicher's case.
"Although our own State Department officials are finally acknowledging that Mr. Ostreicher's due process rights are being violated, they continue to seem hesitant and uncertain about what action to take on his behalf," he said.
Former FBI special agent Steve Moore, who has also visited Ostreicher in prison, said in heated comments during the hearing that Smith's proposed legislation addresses a vast government blindspot.
"There are brave people in State, but there are cowards in State too," he said. "If Jacob Ostreicher dies in Palmasola prison, both the Bolivian government and the United States Department of State will have the same blood on their hands."
The State Department responded Wednesday that it continues to work hard on the issue, as U.S. officials have been in "frequent contact" with Bolivian officials to advocate for due process under Bolivian law.
"Mr. Ostreicher's guilt or innocence will be decided by the Bolivian judicial system," a State Department spokesman said.
"However, the Bolivian government should permit the judicial system to function properly and allow Mr. Ostreicher's motion be heard on its merits," spokesman Patrick Ventrell continued. "The Bolivian government's actions are deeply regrettable, and are resulting in unacceptable delays. We urge the Bolivian government to act swiftly to correct this situation by holding the bail hearing immediately and advancing the judicial process without delay."
Smith, on the other hand, says he is not convinced that Bolivian officials intend to take any action.
"While in Bolivia, I met with Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Carlos Alurralde, Minister of Government Carlos Romero Bonifaz, and Minister of Justice Cecilia Ayllón Quinteros to advocate for Mr. Ostreicher's release," he said. "Each of them have made commitments with respect to this case but have not followed through."
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Yimmy Montano, one of Ostreicher's Bolivian attorneys, believes his client is "being used by Bolivia to get back at the U.S. after a Miami court last year sentenced Gen. Rene Sanabria, Bolivia's top-ranking antidrug official, to 14 years in jail for trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S."
Jerjes Justiniano, Ostreicher's second attorney, says there is no logical reason for his client's treatment.
"I do not understand how an American citizen can be treated this way, having invested in Bolivia and given jobs to indigenous Bolivians, reaching higher salaries than the government itself pays to the police," Justiniano said at Wednesday's hearing. "This approach demonstrates a clear interference by the executive on the judiciary."
Ostreicher's wife had harsh words for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which she says told her that he husband's situation is a symptom of a larger problem.
"The U.S. Embassy reported that it is the opinion of the UNCHR office in Bolivia that Jacob is not being persecuted or targeted by the government, but rather he is yet another victim of a brutally slow, inefficient, underfunded, and corrupt judicial system," the wife, Miriam Ungar, told the audience at the hearing. "As our Bolivian attorney will attest, the totality of what Jacob has experienced is not common."
Bolivia has had tense relations with the United States under the administration of President Evo Morales. In 2008, Morales accused U.S. antidrug officials of interfering in Bolivian politics and expelled them from the country.
Several individuals connected to the Morales administration have been convicted for cooperating with cartels in Bolivian and U.S. courts, the Eurasia Review reported in July. Morales himself has headed Bolivia's coca growers union since 1996. He was reelected chairman in July.
The House will not take up a trade bill with Russia or a bill to sanction Russian human rights offenders before leaving for August recess and probably not until after the November elections, key lawmakers say.
The House will adjourn this week without even trying to pass the bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) or the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act of 2012, named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being tortured. Both bills have passed out of Senate committees after considerable wrangling, and the PNTR bill was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last week.
But House leaders have decided there just isn't enough time to bring them to the floor this week before lawmakers leave town for a five-week recess, and now the accusations are flying over why U.S. businesses will not be in a position to take advantage when Russia officially joins the WTO later this month.
House Ways and Means Committee ranking Democrat Sander Levin (D-MI) said that the House Republicans just couldn't get their caucus to agree on passing a Russia trade bill in the current political environment because of the misconception that the bill would be a gift to Russia and due to anger over Russia's behavior in Syria.
"The GOP leadership has made the firm decisions [not to take up both bills]," Levin told The Cable in an interview Tuesday evening.
There was a bipartisan effort to strengthen oversight of the trade bill, and there was always an understanding that the House would have to pass the Magnitsky Act in conjunction with the PNTR bill. But top Republicans just couldn't come up with the votes in their own caucus to get it done, Levin said, so they decided not to try.
"There were problems within the Republican conference," he said. "Russia is going into the WTO anyway and now we won't have those enforcement mechanisms. American businesses and workers will be disadvantaged."
Levin said the House could take up both bills in September, but there are only a handful of legislative days in that session before Congress goes home to campaign, so there's little likelihood the bills can get done then.
"Essentially, the Republicans are putting it off until after the election," Levin said.
Republicans, meanwhile, blame the Obama administration for the delay.
Michael Steele, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), told The Cable Tuesday evening that the administration failed to do the spade work on Capitol Hill to lobby for the trade bill.
"We were waiting for the administration to get engaged on something they said they supported," said Steele. "They have to do something to build support among members to move this."
"They're just looking for a rationale for their inability to come to a conclusion," Levin responded.
One key actor in this dispute is House Foreign Affairs Committee member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who never supported the trade bill and was engaged in a negotiation over the Magnitsky Act. The House version of the Magnitsky bill applied only to Russia, while the Senate version, which the administration favored, was broadened to apply to all countries with human rights violators.
"I oppose granting PNTR for Russia because it would be yet another concession to a regime that abuses the human rights of its citizens and undermines U.S. interests around the globe," Ros-Lehtinen told The Cable. "Whether or not the PNTR bill is considered, it is important that the House pass the Magnitsky human rights legislation in order to hold Russia accountable for its shameful actions."
There was a lot of scrambling on Capitol Hill late last week to try to work out a deal to move both bills before the recess. Some proposed adding a resolution in support of Georgia to help nervous Republicans feel better about passing the trade bill.
But those negotiations ultimately petered out.
"A deal was never seriously in the works and the bill realistically had no chance of going forward. The clock just ran out. The votes were just never there," one senior House staffer said.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill in the Senate, told The Cable he was frustrated by the delay but unable to do anything about it.
"We delay the impact of WTO for American companies and we delay an important human rights bill," he said. "But I can't control the House."
For the human rights community, the delay hurts American credibility and effectiveness in dealing with Russia.
"The administration has not done a good job in pushing PNTR, and its continued opposition to Magnitsky has severely complicated the problem," said Freedom House President David Kramer. "The Congress needs to send a strong message that gross human rights abuses in Russia such as the murder of Sergei Magnitsky will incur real consequences. I worry that Putin will interpret this delay as a victory."
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Governments worldwide restricted religious freedom in 2011 through the implementation of blasphemy laws and legislation that favored state-sanctioned groups, while religious minorities who experienced political and demographic transitions tended to suffer the most, stated the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday.
"Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When it comes to this human right ... the world is sliding backwards."
The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in China, whose government continued to increase restrictions on religious practice for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. This repression resulted in "at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans" last year, a trend that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay emphasized in a recent interview with The Cable. The Chinese government also cracked down on Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and religious groups unaffiliated with China's official state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations," particularly Christian house churches.
Other designated "Countries of Particular Concern" included Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Burma, also known as Myanmar. According to the report, Burma eased some restrictions on religious freedom, though it continued to "monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events." The Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, which the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens, were especially targeted.
In Egypt, where the population democratically elected an Islamist government, the country's post-Mubarak transition remains tenuous, as Coptic Christians still face persecution. On October 9, for example, hundreds of demonstrators -- mostly Copts -- were attacked by Egyptian security forces in the Maspiro area of Cairo.
"Now, I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don't know if that's going to quickly be resolved, but since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased," Clinton said. "We don't think that there's been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws."
Regarding recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said during a briefing Monday that the U.S. government expects him follow through on his commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
"President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman," she said. "So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was."
The new government in Libya, which stopped enforcing Ghaddafi-era laws that restricted religious freedom and institutionalized the free practice of religion in its interim constitution, was cited as a case of tangible success.
"They [the Libyan government] have come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with speech that reveals the lies," the Secretary said.
Another trend on the rise in 2011 was global anti-Semitism, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, Holocaust denial in Iran, the desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and France, and the openly anti-Semitic and nationalistic Jobbik party in Hungary.
China's oppression of Tibetans and their culture is preventing China from becoming a modern, pluralistic, free, and democratic nation, according to Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of Tibet's government in exile, who added that the current Chinese system and policy in Tibet is destined to fail.
"If Tibet is granted autonomy, that could be a catalyst for moderation of China because if the Chinese government grants autonomy to Tibetans, for the first time they are accepting diversity within and accepting a distinct if not different people," Sangay, who is also known as the Kalon Tripa, told The Cable in an exclusive interview during his visit to Washington last week.
"I think no system which is authoritarian, or one-party rule, can last long. Ultimately, other people have to be taken into consideration, have to be empowered and respected by the system, because universality of freedom is established now," he said. "In that sense I do believe the universality of freedom will prevail and justice will prevail in Tibet as well."
For now, Chinese repressive and violent treatment of Tibetans inside China is increasing and tensions between Tibetans and Han Chinese are reaching new and dangerous levels, Sangay said. The Tibetan people, dedicated to nonviolence, have resorted to self-immolations in record numbers this year to protest their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government, he said. Forty-four Tibetans have self-immolated over the last 18 months and 34 of those have died.
Meanwhile, Tibet has been closed off to foreign tourists, Tibetan visitors are being expelled from the Tibetan capital Lhasa, and thousands of Han Chinese are being brought into Tibet to artificially alter the demographic balance there.
"That means the Chinese government is really cutting off Tibet and Lhasa from the rest of the world," said Sangay, who came to Washington to meet with administration officials and lawmakers to rally support for the region's plight.
Unlike his first visit to Washington since becoming Tibet's first ever competitively elected prime minister last year, when no U.S. officials would meet with him, this year Sangay was able to meet with two top Obama administration officials. The White House confirmed that Sangay met with NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel and the State Department confirmed he met with Under Secretary of State Maria Otero.
Both meetings happened in non-U.S. government buildings, however, in a likely effort to stave off a diplomatic blast from Beijing. Sangay also met with several lawmakers, including Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
Sangay said there's no reason for U.S. officials to be wary of meeting Tibetans.
"Meeting Tibetans and receiving his Holiness the Dalai Lama is not zero-sum," he said. "Some have this mindset that if I meet a Tibetan I'll be in trouble with the Chinese government, but the Chinese will meet with you and do business with you because they get a good deal. Tomorrow if they get a better deal from some other country, they'll do that too."
"And at the larger level, if Tibetans are ignored, essentially what you're ignoring is nonviolence and democracy," he said. "So in that sense I think from a democratic point of view, from a nonviolent point of view, supporting Tibet is vital because we are trying to be and we have proven in the last five decades to be a torchbearer of nonviolence and democracy."
During his meetings with officials and lawmakers, Sangay updated them on what he sees as a ramping up of Chinese government persecution of Tibetans, which included the arrest and detention of thousands of Tibetans who traveled to India in January to hear a teaching from the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, and violence against Tibetans who protested in February during the Chinese New Year that resulted in at least 6 deaths.
"Unfortunately, instead of the Chinese government addressing the issues, they're resorting to the blame game and saying these protests are instigated from outside, that self-immolations are happening because of influence from the outside," he said. "But even the generation of Tibetans who grew up under the Chinese system who have not met outside Tibetans and the Dalai Lama are protesting against the Chinese government, which clearly indicates the failures of Chinese government policies."
Chinese repression of Tibetans is not just a human rights issue, he said. The Tibetan plateau houses 10 major rivers that provide water for over a third of the world's population and the Chinese government is damning those rivers in ways that are sure to alter the environment unpredictably. The Chinese government has built the second-largest mine in Asia in Tibet, he complained, destroying historical and also sacred mountains.
"Some experts say that wars were fought over land before, now wars are fought over energy and soon wars will be fought over water, and Tibet constitutes if not the largest than one of the largest sources of freshwater," Sangay said.
Sangay's message to U.S. officials and lawmakers was to ask for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Tibet to investigate the situation there.
He also repeated his call for limited Tibetan autonomy within the Chinese system, similar to how China treats Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997 but still enjoys some control over its own affairs.
"We are asking for genuine autonomy within China, within the framework of the Chinese constitution. We are not challenging Chinese sovereignty or territorial integrity so we are willing to accept the One China concept," he said.
Chinese officials are in Washington Monday and Tuesday for the semi-regular U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, a set of talks Washington insists are productive but that critics see as routine and light on deliverables. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly urged the Chinese government to reopen a dialogue with the Tibetan people last week during a meeting in Cambodia.
"The secretary's been forthright, the president has been forthright, that we have serious, ongoing concerns about a variety of human rights issues and rule-of-law issues in China, and we are always open and clear about those with Chinese officials," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Monday's press briefing.
Sangay wrote in a July 13 Washington Post op-ed that such statements are welcome but not nearly enough to help the Tibetan people.
"The time has come for the world to shut out the noise of China's influence and to hear the Tibetan cries: that repression is unbearable and unacceptable," he wrote. "Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further."
In his interview with The Cable, Sangay also noted the irony of the Chinese government's attempts to choose the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, even though the Chinese government denies the validity of organized religion.
"The communist party thinks of religion as poison, and his Holiness is called the Devil, so why are the Chinese so interested in the reincarnation of the Devil?" he said. "So we think they have no business in reincarnation because they don't believe in it to begin with, and even if they try to intervene, Tibetans will not believe it. It's like Fidel Castro saying I'll select the next Pope and Catholics should believe it. That's not going to happen, so the Chinese government might try, but it's bound to fail."
The Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved today a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status as well as a bill to punish Russian human rights violators, but time is running out to pass the legislation through the full House and Senate.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (R-MT) called on Congress to quickly pass the bills before lawmakers leave town at the end of this month for the long August recess. Russia's accession to the WTO is imminent, and unless the United States grants Russia PNTR status, U.S. businesses won't be able to take advantage, he argued.
"There is no time to waste; America risks being left behind," Baucus said. "If we miss that deadline [of Russia's WTO accession], American farmers, ranchers, workers and businesses will lose out to the other 154 members of the WTO that already have PNTR with Russia. American workers will lose the jobs created to China, Canada and Europe when Russia, the world's seventh largest economy, joins the WTO and opens its market to the world."
Baucus also trumpeted the fact that the PNTR bill is now officially joined with the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously in June. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators.
"By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky bill, we are replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today. The chairman's revised markup includes the version of the Magnitsky bill that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last month under [Senate Foreign Relations Committee] Chairman [John] Kerry's leadership," Baucus said.
Baucus and Kerry co-authored an op-ed in Politico today urging Congress to move quickly to pass the PNTR-Magnitsky package.
The Russian government is vehemently opposed to the Magnitsky bill and has threatened broad retaliation. A group of Russian senators came to Washington last week to accuse Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison allegedly by torture, of being a tax cheat.
The next step is for the package to be passed in the House, because PNTR is a revenue-related bill and all revenue bills have to originate in the House. Several congressional staffers told The Cable that Ways and Means committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) is now the biggest obstacle to moving forward quickly because he wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnistky bill.
"This has to be done by August recess," one senior senate staffer told The Cable. "It's all coming down to Camp. Camp is taking this line of being a trade purist and wanting a clean bill. The Senate is ready to do this -- the question is whether the House get its ducks in a row."
Camp said in a statement Wednesday that he welcomed "the news that the Finance Committee was able to pass bipartisan Russia PNTR legislation today and will carefully study the bill once legislative text is available."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also said she wants to separate the PNTR bill from the Magnitsky bill, but for a different reason. She supports the Magnitsky bill doesn't support PNTR status for Russia.
President Barack Obama spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday morning, but not about the WTO or human rights, according to a White House statement.
"President Obama called Russian President Putin today to discuss the developing situation in Syria," the statement said. "The two presidents noted the growing violence in Syria and agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation."
Four members of Russia's upper chamber were in Washington last week to ask Congress not to pass human rights legislation targeting Russia and to accuse the late Sergei Magnitsky, for which the legislation was named, of stealing millions through tax fraud.
Russian Federation Council members Valery Snyakin, Vitaly Malkin, Alexey Shernyshev, and Alexander Savenkov were in Washington July 7 through July 13 and met with administration and congressional officials, including Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, NSC Senior Director for Russia Alice Wells, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), among others.
On July 11, the visiting Russian lawmakers held a press conference at the Russian embassy to unveil their parliamentary investigation report on the case of Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials. Their message was that Magnitsky was guilty of tax fraud in Russia and that he died due to medical neglect, not torture.
Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, a bill that would create a list of human rights violators all over the world and impose banking and visa restrictions on them. The bill was initially designed to punish Magnitsky's captors. The House version still only targets Russian officials.
Before his meeting with the Russian senators, McCain told The Cable he would press the Russian lawmakers on why they are so focused on discrediting Magnitsky, who is facing criminal prosecution for tax fraud even though he has been dead for more than two years.
"I'll ask them why they are putting a dead man on trial. That's not a system of justice that I'm familiar with," McCain said.
In their press conference, the Russian senators spent at least 30 minutes detailing how they believe that Magnitsky worked with William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital, to defraud the Russian government of $230 million in tax revenue. The senators also released extensive autopsy and investigative reports to back up their contention that Magnitsky's death was the fault of his doctors and not Russian government or police officials.
According to that report, the doctors treating Magnitsky in prison made diagnostic errors and didn't prescribe him the right medicines. The report also claims that Magnitsky fought his captors and therefore force had to be used to get him to obey prison orders.
"The injuries on Magnitsky's body were most likely caused by multiple injuring impacts of a blunt object that might be possibly be a rubber baton," the report stated.
Browder told The Cable that the report was part of a new Russian strategy to seem active on the investigation of Magnitsky's death while limiting blame to the medical staff only, rather than the government officials above them.
"From what we have seen in the last few days, the Russians are trying to change their spin from outright threats to being more ‘reasonable,'" Browder said. "They are saying things like ‘please don't rush our investigation' and ‘prosecutions in the Magnitsky case are beginning, we are going after the doctor."
Browder has consistently denied he and Magnitsky are guilty of tax fraud.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has promised to join the Magnitsky bill to another bill that would grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was meant to punish the Soviet Union for preventing Jewish emigration. His committee will mark up the PNTR bill July 18.
The Obama administration opposes the Magnitsky act, although it acknowledges that with it, Congress is unlikely to grant Russia PNTR status, which is needed for U.S. businesses to take full advantage of Russia's imminent accession to the WTO. The administration has warned that Russia will retaliate and disrupt various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation around the world.
Behind the scenes, GOP senators and congressional aides say, the administration is trying to water down the Magnitsky bill, for example by working to get the list of violators classified, and by trying to detach the Magnitsky bill from the PNTR legislation.
Classifying the list of violators would defeat the purpose of shaming them, McCain believes. As for the bill as a whole, "Hillary Clinton is trying to separate it completely. We're not going to let that happen," McCain told The Cable.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), told The Cable that there's no way the GOP caucus will back off its demand to pass the Magnitsky bill as part of any move to grant Russian PNTR status.
"I think we should stand with the Russia people and it's pretty clear that we would be helping the Russia people if we, to the extent that our pressure is meaningful at all with the Russian government, it causes them to rethink their policy of repression against the media and against lawyers like Magnitsky who are just trying to help people and do right," Kyl said. "It has to be part of the trade legislation."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the Magnitsky bill, did not meet with the Russian delegation. He said he was not even aware they were in town.
But Cardin told The Cable that he rejects the Russian senators' claims that there should be no human rights sanctions on those Russian officials who were connected to the Magnitsky case.
"I think Russia should take care of these human rights violators and hold them accountable," Cardin said. "They said they would do it. It's been over two years. They should take care of their own business."
At the press conference, the Russian senators claimed they had convinced those U.S. senators they met to alter their stance and consider the possibility of separating the Mangitsky bill from the PNTR legislation. A McCain spokesman told The Cable that's just not the case.
"He gave them a fair hearing and will consider what they had to say, but it will be a cold day in Gila Bend, Arizona, before he changes his position on this," the McCain spokesman said.
Josh Rogin/Foreign Policy
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday he is lifting the investment ban on Burma, allowing U.S. companies to enter Burma's lucrative energy sector, above the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a Wednesday statement. "President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma continue to make significant progress along the path to democracy, and the government has continued to make important economic and political reforms. Easing sanctions is a strong signal of our support for reform, and will provide immediate incentives for reformers and significant benefits to the people of Burma."
Obama said that that entities owned by the Burmese armed forces and the ministry of defense will not be covered by the general licenses to invest in Burma that the administration is issuing to U.S. companies today.
"Burma's political and economic reforms remain unfinished. The United States Government remains deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in Burma's investment environment and the military's role in the economy," he said.
He also noted that U.S. companies will be required to report on their new activities in Burma and adhere to international corporate governance standards. The president signed a new executive order expanding sanctions against human rights violators in Burma at the same time it repealed the investment ban, which has been in place since the Clinton administration.
Wednesday's announcement comes after an intense internal debate over whether to include Burma's energy and natural resource sectors in the new general licenses. Industry groups such as the U.S.-ASEAN business council, working with oil companies like Chevron, lobbied hard and successfully for a full repeal of the investment ban. They were supported by some lawmakers, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jim Webb (D-VA).
Human rights groups and other lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), cautioned the administration to go slow and issue only a partial repeal of the investment ban. They especially wanted the administration to retain bans on U.S. companies working with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) the state controlled entity through which all energy sector business flows, which they say is still heavily influenced by the Burmese military.
"We share Aung San Suu Kyi's concerns that MOGE's operations lack transparency, that it remains overly influenced by the Burmese military, and that the large amounts of foreign investment flowing into MOGE are not sufficiently accountable to the Burmese people or its parliament," the senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a July 3 letter.
"We are not opposed in principle to U.S. investment in Burma's oil and gas industry. However, it is critical that foreign investment in Burma be carefully structured to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen the political and economic reforms that are at last underway there."
Suu Kyi, who was elected to Burma's parliament in April after more than two decades of house arrest, last month specifically asked foreign governments not to allow their companies to partner with MOGE at this time.
"The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) ... with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present," she said June 14 in a speech in Geneva. "The [Myanmar] government needs to apply internationally recognized standards such as the IMF code of good practices on fiscal transparency. Other countries could help by not allowing their own companies to partner [with] MOGE unless it was signed up to such codes."
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it would follow Suu Kyi's lead while cautiously opening up to closer ties with the Burmese regime. The new U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell arrived there today.
But in this case, supporters of a more cautious path of easing Burma sanctions inside the administration lost out. They included the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), let by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, and those in the National Security Staff focused on human rights, such as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, according to sources familiar with the internal discussions.
Following a Deputies Committee meeting last week, the side that advocated for a broader repeal of the investment ban won out. That side included the State Department's East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau (EAP), led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, the economics office at State led by Undersecretary Robert Hormats, and the Treasury and Commerce departments. Hormats is set to travel to Burma next week with a contingent of business leaders in tow.
Human rights experts saw today's move as a change from the administraion's original promise to pursue targeted easing of the investment ban. Administration officials promised a sector-by-sector approach whereby the administration would have begun by focusing on sectors of the economy most likely to help the Burmese people, rather than the country's military.
The idea was to encourage development of tourism, banking, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, while maintaining investment bans on industries such as natural gas, mineral extracting, and timber, which are mostly controlled by the military.
"The pro-industry lobby convinced the administration to back off from the sector-by-sector approach and issue the general license which allows companies to go into any sector, including oil and gas," said Human Rights Watch Washington director Tom Malinowski.
He said that U.S. companies understandably don't want to lose out on market share due to the influx of European corporations now set to do business with Burma's energy and mining sectors, but opening up MOGE to vast new sources of financing could have a negative effect on Burmese political reform.
"All the money the Burmese military uses to finance their wars in the ethnic areas and their procurement of illicit materials from North Korea comes from MOGE. If the military wants to hold on to power and resist civilian oversight, this is what would finance their ability to do that. It represents the bulk of the regime's hard earnings," Malinowski said.
Once corporations make long-term investments in Burma's energy sector, it will be almost impossible to get those countries to abrogate those agreements if the tide turns in Burma and the U.S. government decides it wants to reinstate the investment ban. Chevron's stake in Burma was grandfathered in when the investment ban was originally instituted.
Overall, the concern in the human rights community is that the U.S. government is now making diplomatic decisions about Burma policy based on economic considerations, and not national security or the desire to see the Burmese people live a better life.
"For the last 20 years or so, U.S. policy on Burma was focused on promoting a democratic transition and nonproliferation. The desire of U.S. based companies to get contracts was never on the table until the last couple of months. The fact that is now being balanced against longstanding U.S. interests in Burma really does represent a shift in priorities," Malinowski said.
"The bottom line here is that you have Aung San Suu Kyi asking the administration to hold up on allowing unfettered investment in Burma, and the administration went with Chevron over Aung San Suu Kyi."
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable that the administration shares concerns about MOGE and views MOGE as meriting closer oversight than other firms in Burma. U.S. investors must alert the U.S. government within 60 days of entering into any contract with MOGE, he said
"We are working very hard with MOGE and the wider Government of Burma to quickly improve its operations. We have been pleased with MOGE's and the Government's commitments in this regard, which include engagement with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)," Vietor said. "While we share these concerns we believe that there will be benefits both to the people of Burma and to U.S. investors in allowing U.S. companies, in a careful, calibrated and responsible manner, to engage with MOGE."
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable today that Obama's action has freed the Burmese regime and military from any fear of being substantively sanctioned going forward.
"I am sure Obama will be appreciated by the Burmese generals, cronies and U.S. corporations, but not by the people of Burma," he said.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Technology and information penetration in China will eventually force the Great Firewall of China to crumble and even lead to the political opening of the Chinese system, according to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, who stepped down as Google's CEO last year, remains the head of Google's board and its chief spokesman. He roams the planet speaking to audiences and exploring countries where Google could expand its operations. He has been called Google's "Ambassador to the World," a moniker he doesn't promote but doesn't dispute. He sat down for a long interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival last week.
"I believe that ultimately censorship fails," said Schmidt, when asked about whether the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet can be sustained. "China's the only government that's engaged in active, dynamic censorship. They're not shy about it."
When the Chinese Internet censorship regime fails, the penetration of information throughout China will also cause political and social liberalization that will fundamentally change the nature of the Chinese government's relationship to its citizenry, Schmidt believes.
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."
The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.
"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The Chinese government is the most active state sponsor of cyber censorship and cyber espionage in the world, with startling effectiveness, Schmidt said. Google and Beijing have been at odds since 2010, when the company announced it would no longer censor search terms on Google.cn and moved the bulk of its Chinese operations to Hong Kong. That move followed a series of Gmail attacks in 2010, directed at Chinese human rights activists, which were widely suspected to be linked to the Chinese government.
More recently, Google has taken an aggressive approach to helping users combat government cyber censorship, by doing things such as warning Gmail users when Google suspects their accounts are being targeted by state-sponsored attacks and telling users when search terms they enter are likely to be rejected by Chinese government censorship filters.
Schmidt doesn't present Google's focus on state-sponsored cyber oppression as a fight between Google and China. Google's policy is focused on helping users understand what is happening to their accounts and giving them the tools to protect themselves, he explained.
"We believe in empowering people who care about freedom of expression," he said. "The evidence today is that Chinese attacks are primarily industrial espionage.... It's primarily trade secrets that they're trying to steal, and then the human rights issues, that obviously they're trying to violate people's human rights. So those are the two things that we know about, but I'm sure that there will be others."
Google still has hundreds of engineers working inside China and maintains a rapidly growing advertising business there. But the Chinese government is likewise doing a lot to make using Google difficult inside China. There are weeks when Gmail services run slow; then mysteriously, the service will begin running smoothly again, Schmidt said. The Chinese censors sometimes issue punitive timeouts to users who enter prohibited search terms. And YouTube, which is owned by Google, is not visible in China.
"It's probably the case where the Chinese government will continue to make it difficult to use Google services," said Schmidt. "The conflict there is at some basic level: We want that information [flowing] into China, and at some basic level the government doesn't want that to happen."
Meanwhile, Schmidt has been circling the globe looking for ways to expand Google's outer frontiers. His last international trip took him to four conflict or recently post-conflict states: Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
"I've become particularly interested in the expansion of Google in sort of wacky countries -- you know, countries that have problems," he said. "You can't really know stuff unless you travel and see it. It helps with your impressions and your judgment."
Schmidt believes that smartphone technology can have a revolutionary effect on how people in the developing world operate and he is researching how smartphone use can help fight corruption and bad governance in poor countries. He also sees Google's expansion into the emerging markets as a timely business move.
"The evidence is that the most profitable business in most countries initially is the telecom sector. The joke is that you know the Somali pirates have to use cellphones, and so the strongest and most fastest-growing legal business in Somalia is the telecom industry," he said.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that open information systems can encourage and enable political change, according to Schmidt.
"I think that the countries that we're talking about all had very active censorship regimes, and they failed to censor the Internet. They wired the phone systems, the television was controlled, the newspapers were controlled; it was very hard to find genuinely new dissident voices except on the Internet. So you can think of what happened there as a failure to fully censor, and so it's obvious why we feel so strongly about openness and transparency," he said.
Unlike in China, Google has taken a more active role in other parts of the world by developing tools to spread information that could be used to foster more active democracies, such as with its project to organize and disseminate election information and political candidate data in places like Egypt.
"We're helping with the elections. So we're trying to help them with getting information to the candidates, and these are countries where Google is central to the public sphere," Schmidt said.
Google is also expanding its role in compiling data on government actors and their actions to aid people in the fight against corruption, but here Schmidt warns that only when there is a legal system to prosecute bad actors will this data be transformative.
"You need the data, and then you need somebody who's willing to prosecute the person who lies," he said. "All you have to do is have the information and then the penalty that has to be applied in a fair way, and it would change these countries dramatically."
Information is not enough to topple regimes, but in the end, regimes that fight the openness of information are doomed to fail, he said.
"The worst case scenario is the citizens have enormous information and the government is completely unresponsive. That would be Iran, for example. At some point, that's unstable," said Schmidt. "At some point, it gets worse ... but before they overthrow the current leader, they have to have the information to do that. That's why transparency matters."
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved a bill to sanction human rights violators around the world, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after allegedly being tortured in prison by Russian officials.
The Cable has obtained the latest draft of the Senate version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Act of 2012, which passed the committee unanimously Tuesday afternoon by a voice vote after a short debate. The bill imposes restrictions on the financial activities and travel of foreign officials found to have been connected to various human rights violations in any country. The House version of the bill, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, targets only Russian human rights violators. That difference that will have to be worked out between the two chambers before the bill can become law.
"This bill is absolutely motivated by the circumstances of Sergei Magnitsky, but it is universal in its application," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the main sponsor of the bill, after the vote. "The sponsors of the House bill have encouraged me to keep it universal, so I think it will not be difficult to get the House to go along with the universality."
The de-emphasis of Russia in the bill is ostensibly meant to tamp down Russian anger over the legislation. The Russian government has promised widespread retaliation, saying that passage of the Magnitsky Act could negatively affect Russian cooperation with Washington on issues ranging from Afghanistan and Iran to nuclear weapons.
Cardin said the bill will now be joined with legislation introduced earlier this month to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, needed so that U.S. businesses can take advantage of Russia's pending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The PNTR bill introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) earlier this month and co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would also repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that sanctioned the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate.
"When PNTR comes to the floor, that's the driving force behind the timing [of passing the Magnitsky bill in the full Senate]," Cardin said. He added that if it was done in July that would also coincide with pending action by the Russian Duma to formally join the WTO. Whether Baucus would join the two bills in his committee or on the Senate floor is still unclear.
The bulk of the debate inside Tuesday's SFRC business meeting focused on Cardin's amendment to adjust the way the list of names of human rights violators is managed. Cardin's amendment would impose some more requirements on the administration if it wants to keep the names of the human rights violated secret in a classified annex, rather than publish them publicly.
SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) was the lone vote against the Cardin amendment and unsuccessfully tried to get Cardin to withdraw the amendment during the hearing. He is working to preserve more administration flexibility in administrating the classified list of human rights violators and said that there would be more changes in the bill before it reaches the Senate floor.
"We need to be very mindful of the need for the United States not to always be pointing fingers ... in some ways we could be doing better ourselves on a number of things," Kerry said. "Nevertheless, human rights are in our DNA and we will always be a nation that stands up for and fights for human rights."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) was set to offer an amendment that would sunset the penalties in the bill, meaning that they would expire after five years. Ultimately he decided not to offer the amendment because it was sure to fail, according to multiple Senate aides, but he might offer it at a later stage of the process.
The perception among Hill aides in both parties is that the administration is working hard behind the scenes to weaken the penalties in the Magnitsky bill and provide the State Department greater leeway to keep the names of the violators from becoming public. Kerry and Cardin tried to dispel that idea after the meeting.
"I want as strong a bill as possible," Kerry said, declining to go into specifics of what the administration was telling him about the bill.
Cardin said the administration is still not taking a public position on the Magnitsky Act or the changes being proposed by various senators as the bill moves forward.
"The administration chose not to comment and I think that's where they are," Cardin said.
Earlier Tuesday, McCain sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to use existing executive orders to sanction the Klyuev Group, a Russian crime organization alleged to be involved in Magnitsky's persecution.
In remarks Tuesday morning at a Freedom House event, McCain lashed out against the idea of keeping the names of the human rights violators subject to the Magnitsky bill secret.
"The fact is, our whole effort here is to make public the names and actions of the people that we think are engaged in these crimes, so I really have deep concerns about that," McCain said. "On the Magnitsky issue, the State Department has been less than enthusiastic... I think it's based on an unfounded assumption or optimism that things are going to improve between the United States and Russia. I have not seen that improvement."
Allison Good contributing reporting.
The bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) was introduced in the Senate Tuesday and the head of the Senate Finance Committee promised he will combine it with a bill to sanction Russian human rights violators.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), who is the main sponsor of the PNTR bill and who will shepherd the legislation through his Finance Committee and then on the floor, has agreed to link it to the Magnitsky bill and pledged to pass them both this year. In doing so, Baucus secured the support of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for the PNTR bill, which includes a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law that was set in place to punish the Soviet Union for refuses to let Jews emigrate.
"It is clear the Magnitsky Act has overwhelming support in the Senate and growing support in the House," Baucus wrote in a letter today to McCain, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). "It is equally clear that many of our colleagues are rallying around the position you have advanced -- that the repeal of Jackson-Vanik for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act. I am fully committed to ensuring that the Senate can act on both items this year."
After receiving that letter, McCain joined with Baucus, International Trade Subcommittee Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD), and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) in unveiling the PNTR legislation, which they said allows U.S. business to take full advantage of the Russian market when Russia officially joins the WTO later this summer.
"This is an opportunity to double our exports to Russia and create thousands of jobs across every sector of the U.S. economy, all at no cost to the U.S. whatsoever. We give up nothing as part of this process -- not one single tariff reduction -- so it's truly a one-sided benefit for the U.S.," Baucus said in a press release. "Jackson-Vanik served its purpose during the Cold War, but it's a relic of another era that now stands in the way of our farmers, ranchers and businesses pursuing opportunities to grow and create jobs... The clock is ticking for us to move, so we need to act now."
"As I and others have made clear, the extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment for Russia must be accompanied by passage of the Magnitsky Act," McCain said in the release. "I appreciate Senator Baucus's written commitment that he will work for Senate passage of both of these pieces of legislation as soon as possible this year. As we take steps to liberalize U.S. trade with Russia, as we should, we must also maintain our long-standing support for human rights and the fight against corruption in Russia."
The Obama administration has opposed the Magnitsky Act in public while working quietly with Cardin to make changes to the bill just in case its passage can't be avoided. The latest draft version of the bill, circulated by Cardin and obtained by The Cable, seeks to make it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill creates and adds ways for the administration to waive penalties against those violators.
By gaining McCain's support, Baucus has removed a major obstacle to the passage of PNTR for Russia. But now, with McCain on board, Baucus's PNTR bill is linked to the Magnitsky Act in such a way that if the administration opposes or seeks to water down the Magnitsky bill without McCain's agreement, both pieces of legislation could be in jeopardy.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved its own version, the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, last week. The legislation is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. But committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) doesn't support joining Magnitsky with the bill to grant PNTR status to Russia.
"Ros-Lehtinen considers PNTR separate from Magnistky and the issue of Russian human rights, and is opposed to linking Magnitsky to any effort to repeal Jackson-Vanik," her spokesperson Brad Goehner said.
It's not every day you see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharing a stage with neocon Bush administration official Elliott Abrams and liberal Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), but they all joined together this morning to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of State's bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).
"It is amazing to think how far DRL has come in 35 years," Clinton said, after being introduced by Assistant Secretary of State for DRL Michael Posner. "It did have a rocky childhood, plenty of critics at post and in this building who said we have no business pestering people about human rights, that it would only get in the way of real diplomacy."
When DRL got an office on the elite 7th floor of the State Department, there were "howls of protest," she said, but "no one questions the value of the human rights bureau anymore."
Clinton said that standing up for human rights gives the United States greater moral weight in the world and makes America more secure because countries that treat people with dignity are inherently more stable. She also alluded to the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to explain how human rights advocacy can cause diplomatic strife.
"Words do matter and when activists are harassed by their own governments, they turn to us for help. And I don't have to tell any of you what kinds of complications that can occasionally cause. But that's who we are and that's who we want to be," she said.
"Oh, to be 35 again," Clinton said with a sigh.
Abrams, who led the human rights bureau in the early days of the Reagan administration, talked about how the State Department wasn't active at all on human rights before the DRL bureau was formed.
"The last previous Republican view of human rights (before the Reagan administration) was Secretary [of State Henry] Kissinger in the Ford administration and Secretary Kissinger has never really understood human rights policy... to this day," he said. "So we had to create new policy and the argument we made was ‘opposing Communism is not enough.'"
McGovern, who leads the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted that the creation of the bureau was pushed on the State Department by Congress against its will.
"On occasion, Congress does some things right," he said. "I'll be honest with you, I want see a policy that reflects human rights even more than it does now. I think we can do better. We ought to stand out loud for human rights. This ought to be our priority."
He also revealed that there's still a lot of love inside the State Department for former Senator George McGovern, who received the Democratic primary presidential nomination in 1972, but whom Rep. McGovern is not related to.
"About a half a dozen people came up to me today and said ‘I've been a long time supporter of your father's," he said. "My father is Walter McGovern, not George McGovern, and he owns a liquor store in Worchester, Massachusetts.... If you've met him, please keep supporting him."
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
The House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a bill today to punish Russian human rights violators, moving that bill closer to passage in conjunction with another bill to grant Russia privileged trade with the United States.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) convened her committee on Thursday morning to approve the House version of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, legislation meant to promote human rights in Russia that is named for the anti-corruption lawyer who died in a Russian prison, after allegedly being tortured, two years ago. Her committee counterpart Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said during the markup he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with a coming bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which would include a repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, established to punish Russia for not allowing Jews to emigrate during the Soviet period.
"The entire world knows that the state of democracy and human rights in Russia, already bad, is getting worse," Ros-Lehtinen said at the markup. "Moscow devotes enormous resources and attention to persecuting political opponents and human rights activists, including forcibly breaking up rallies and jailing and beating those who dare to defy it. Instead of the rule of law, Russia is ruled by the lawless."
The Obama administration is publicly opposed to the Magnitsky bill, especially the effort to connect it to Jackson-Vanik repeal, and has been working behind the scenes with bill sponsors such as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) to alter the legislation. "From our point of view this legislation is redundant to what we're already doing," U.S. Ambassador Russia Mike McFaul said in March.
One of the administration ideas is to expand the Magnitsky bill to deal with human rights violators from all countries, but doing so wouldn't eliminate strong Russian objections to the bill. A short amendment added to the House version today by Ros-Lehtinen makes clear that the bill is directed only at Russia.Cardin even came up with a new draft version of the legislation in April. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill. For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create, potentially softening the bill's impact on Russian officials
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed consideration of the Magnitsky bill in April, so that the details inside the bill could be ironed out. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has promised to take up the bill in that committee at their as yet unscheduled next business meeting. He has also said he supports joining the Magnitsky bill with legislation to repeal Jackson-Vanik.
In both chambers, the bill faces cross jurisdiction with the finance and possible judiciary committees, which means they would also have to approve the legislation, because it deals with financial sanctions and criminal prosecutions. The Senate Finance Committee under chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is where the Russian PNTR bill would begin as well, although it's not clear whether the PNTR bill, which would include the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, would be joined with the Magnitsky bill in committee or on the floor.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also approved today a bill calling for the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence at the 2012 London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli Olympic team members in Munich. The IOC has thus far refused requests to hold a moment of silence, saying that it is unnecessary and would establish an unwelcome precedent. That drive is being led by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), and Steve Israel (D-NY).
Another bill approved today by the HFAC would express "sense of the House of Representatives with respect toward the establishment of a democratic and prosperous Republic of Georgia and the establishment of a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict with Georgia's internationally recognized borders."
The committee also approved a resolution expressing support for efforts to combat the Lord's Resistance Army and secure the imprisonment of Joseph Kony, a bill calling upon the Turkey to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's theological school at Halks, and the "Donald M. Payne International Food Assistance Act of 2012," which is mean to improve the quality and effectiveness of U.S. food assistance programs abroad.
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House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) participated in a candlelight vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul Thursday and chastised the Chinese government for forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees who flee to China.
"I too was a refugee," she said, standing beside Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) and South Korea Assemblywoman Park Sun Young. "Having fled communist totalitarianism in Cuba, I have walked their lonely road and have experienced both the fears and the hopes that combine to motivate their arduous journey toward freedom."
She compared the plight of North Korean refugees to the plight of Jews fleeing Egyptian slavery as told in the Old Testament of the Bible and compared Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II.
"To the cold-hearted regime in Beijing we call out, as Moses did to Pharaoh over three thousand years ago: Mr. Hu, let these people go! Mr. Hu, let all North Korean refugees have safe passage to South Korea and other democratic nations!" she said.
Ros-Lehtinen and McCotter posed for photos holding up a framed copy of the James R. Lilley and Stephen J. Solarz North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act, named after the former ambassador and former congressman who were active on the issue of North Korean refugees. The bill passed the House May 15.
"The Chinese regime has proven to be consistently tone deaf to the appeals of these two great men and other voices, including our own, calling on Beijing to meet its humanitarian obligations to North Korean refugees. And so we stand here today to appeal directly to the Chinese people to hear the cries of the oppressed in their midst," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen also called on the Chinese government to end its harassment of the friends and associates of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. She said the fight to press Pyongyang and Beijing to halt its persecution of refugees would take a long time.
"We cannot achieve this in one day or perhaps not even in a decade. But an old Asian proverb states that a journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step," she said. "Another Asian proverb states that it is better to light a candle, as we have done tonight, than to curse the darkness. And so we lift our candles tonight."
China's record on human rights deteriorated as the Chinese government engaged in widespread and expanding severe repression of its own people and ethnic minorities in 2011, the State Department said in a new report released today.
"Deterioration in key aspects of the country's human rights situation continued. Repression and coercion, particularly against organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, were routine," reads the State Department's new Human Rights Report on China.
"Individuals and groups seen as politically sensitive by the authorities continued to face tight restrictions on their freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel. Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and, increasingly, authorities resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, ‘soft detention,' and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions," the report stated.
The Chinese government harassed public interest law firms, increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and control the Internet, and continued "severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas," the State Department determined.
The report listed dozens of ways the Chinese government represses its people, including: extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearance; "black jails"; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of lawyers, journalists, writers, dissidents, and petitioners; restrictions on freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylum seekers; a coercive birth limitation policy that in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; and the use of forced labor, including prison labor.
"Corruption remained widespread," the report said.
The report also dings the Chinese government for its failure to account for the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
"At year's end the government had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations," the report said.
More than 40,000 people have been admitted to 22 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane in China run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and those patients have no means to contest their status as mentally ill, according to the report.
"Patients in these hospitals reportedly were medicated against their will and forcibly subjected to electric shock treatment," the State Department said.
As for criminal trials in China, "There was no presumption of innocence, and the criminal justice system was biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases," the report explained. "According to statistics released on the Supreme People's Court (SPC) official Web site, in 2010 the combined conviction rate for first- and second-instance criminal trials was 99.9 percent."
Of more than 1 million criminal defendants tried in 2010, less than 1,000 were acquitted.
Tibet and Tibetan populated areas of China found themselves under "under increasingly intense and formalized systems of controls, many of which appeared to be aimed at facilitating enforcement of ‘social stability' and undermining the religious authority of the Dalai Lama," the report said.
"There was severe repression of the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement. Authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests. The preservation and development of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage and unique high plateau environment remained a concern," it said.
President George W. Bush predicted Tuesday that the remaining authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are unsustainable and will give way to movements driven by the quest for freedom and human rights.
"These are extraordinary times in the history of freedom," Bush said in Tuesday morning remarks. "In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever."
Bush was speaking at an event to celebrate and publicize the "Freedom Collection," a set of artifacts from democratic struggles around the world, collected by the George W. Bush Institute, run by former magazine editor and State Department official James Glassman.
Bush cautioned that there were risks to democratic change and that sometime overthrowing authoritarian regimes leads to periods of instability, but argued that American had to always support those fighting against oppression.
"Some look at the risks inherent in democratic change -- particularly in the Middle East and North Africa -- and find the dangers too great. America, they argue, should be content with supporting the flawed leaders they know in the name of stability," he said. "But in the long run, this foreign-policy approach is not realistic. It is not realistic to presume that so-called stability enhances our national security. Nor is it within the power of America to indefinitely preserve the old order, which is inherently unstable."
In a return to the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address, Bush said that America's role in each country undergoing change in the Arab world will be different but that the United States must always side with people against dictators and should do everything it can to help emerging democracies build civic institutions and a pluralist political culture.
"America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East, or elsewhere. It only gets to choose what side it is on. The tactics of promoting freedom will vary, case by case," he said. "But America's message should ring clear and strong: We stand for freedom -- and for the institutions and habits that make freedom work for everyone. The day when a dictator falls or yields to a democratic movement is glorious."
Bush was introduced by Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "All of us here today join you in hoping and praying for the end of violence and the advance of freedom in Syria," Bush said to him, joking, "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington."
Chinese activist Bob Fu spoke after Bush. He was followed by Laura Bush, who introduced Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who answered questions live via Skype.
Suu Kyi said that while she favored a non-violent approach to confronting dictatorships, she understood that the Syrian people had no choice but to meet the government's violence with violence of their own.
"We should all help people's struggle for freedom around the world," she said. "I would like to say to the people of Syria, we are with you in your struggle for freedom."
Suu Kyi will soon go on her first trip abroad in 24 years after recently being released from house arrest and elected to the Burmese parliament. She will travel to London and Oslo, Norway, where she will formally accept her peace prize, granted in 1991 while she was under house arrest.
Suu Kyi could not confirm rumors that a large number of Burmese government ministers are about to resign. She did say that she supports Sen. John McCain's idea to "suspend" some sanctions against the Burmese state as further incentive for the military government to continue reforms.
"This is a possible first step," she said. "That is a way of sending a strong message that we will try to help the process of democratization but if this is not maintained we will have to think of other ways of making sure the aspirations of the Burmese people for democracy is respected."
"I believe that sanctions have been effective in persuading this government to go for change," she said. "I do advocate caution, though. I sometimes feel that people are too optimistic about what we are seeing in Burma. You have to remember that the change in Burma is not irreversible."
Syrian government forces continue to attack opposition forces, civilians, and aid volunteers, preventing the international community from getting emergency aid to the Syrian people, USAID has detailed in a series of internal reports obtained by The Cable.
In its latest "humanitarian update," written at the end of April, USAID reported in detail the extensive attacks perpetrated by Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops, despite an ongoing U.N. monitoring mission and in direct violation of the "cease-fire" there. The USAID report, marked "sensitive but unclassified," sourced its findings to U.N. representatives in Syria as well as representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), and other aid groups on the ground.
"U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan expressed concerns regarding reports of SARG reprisal attacks in areas where Syrian civilians met with U.N. observers, including in Hamah and Damascus governorates," the report stated. "The observers report that SARG forces have not withdrawn heavy weapons from urban centers -- a condition of the U.N. and Arab League supported ceasefire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12."
Although the U.N. Security Council has authorized the deployment of 300 monitors, the report could only confirm that "at least 11" U.N. monitors had arrived in Syria as of April 24. (Additional monitors have reportedly arrived since then.)
Meanwhile, USAID reported that government forces attacked an SARC vehicle April 24 that was evacuating wounded civilians in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. Twenty-six aid workers were trapped in an SARC building following the attack and the SARC had to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between opposition and government forces to get them out, USAID reported.
Following a request from SARC, USAID contractors have suspended the deployment of mobile medical units that were providing health-care services in and around Damascus, the report said.
"In addition to emergency medical needs resulting from ongoing violence, a USAID/OFDA partner report increasing constraints on the availability of medications for chronic diseases, which are prohibitively expensive for Syrians without financial assistance," the report stated. "In addition, the U.N. World Health Organization representatives have expressed concern about the health of displaced Syrians in Jordan."
A USAID contractor is working to train Syrian doctors in Jordan so they can return to Syria and provide life saving medical care there, and a USAID contractor has procured 10,000 kg of medical supplies for use in Syria and is trying to get those supplies into the country, according to the report.
In an April 26 press briefing, USAD Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Christa Capozzola criticized the Syrian regime for not allowing emergency aid supplies to reach the Syrian people and called for more help.
"While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other U.N. agencies, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort," she said. "After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
The U.S. government has spent $39.4 million on assistance for Syria in fiscal 2012, the report stated. The report noted that only $33 million of this assistance has been publicly reported before now.
Overall, the USAID report concluded that there had been at least 9,000 civilian deaths in Syria as of March 27, according to U.N. figures, although the current number is likely higher. There are between 300,000 and 500,000 internally displaced Syrians, according to the report, 610,000 estimated refuges inside Syria, and approximately 66,000 Syrian refuges who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
The USAID report was marked sensitive but unclassified (SBU).
U.S. Agency for International Development
Senators from both parties are now urging the Obama administration to drastically scale back U.S. sanctions on Burma in light of that country's moves toward reform and democratization.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), who has traveled to Burma twice in the past year, announced Monday morning that he now support the "suspension" of a host of sanctions against Burma and the ruling regime.
"Another major test for U.S. diplomacy is Burma," McCain said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I have traveled to Burma twice over the past year. And to be sure, they still have a long way to go, especially in stopping the violence and pursuing genuine reconciliation with the country's ethnic minority communities. But the Burmese President and his allies in the government I believe are sincere about reform, and they are making real progress."
McCain praised the April elections that brought Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and many members of the National League for Democracy into power, despite some irregularities, and said they warranted U.S. temporary lifting of all economic sanctions except for the arms embargo against the Burmese military and targeted sanctions against individuals who have undermined human rights and the rule of law there.
"This would not be a lifting of sanctions, just a suspension. And this step, as well as any additional easing of sanctions, would depend on continued progress and reform in Burma," McCain cautioned.
He said the United States also must set up a regime for ensuring corporate responsibility in Burma as its economy opens and argued that U.S. businesses should still be barred from interacting with Burmese state-owned enterprises due to the risk of enriching hard-liners inside the Burmese system who are resisting reforms.
"U.S. businesses will never win a race to the bottom with some of their Asian, or even European, competitors. And they should not try," McCain said. "Rather, they should align themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people -- who want the kinds of responsible investment, high labor and environmental standards, and support for human rights and national sovereignty that define American business at its best."
McCain joins Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, who came out May 4 for lifting all economic sanctions against Burma in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that was also signed by his subcommittee counterpart Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Webb made his third trip to Burma in April.
"At this critical moment, it is imperative that our policy toward Burma be forward thinking, providing incentives for further reforms and building the capacity of reformers in the government to push for additional change," Webb and Inhofe wrote. "We urge the Administration to take action under its own authority, and seize this opportunity to support the Burmese people in their efforts to form an open, democratic government that respects and protects the rights of all."
The administration has made several small concessions to the Burmese following Clinton's trip there last December, such as nominating Derek Mitchell to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in more than 20 years and restarting U.S.-Burmese cooperation on some development and counternarcotics programs.
In testimony before Webb's subcommittee on April 26, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Yun detailed the administration's actions to date, noting ongoing concern about the Burmese regime's failings in the areas of human rights, and said the administration would take a slow but steady approach to easing sanctions further.
"We continue to emphasize that much work remains to be done in Burma and that easing sanctions will remain a step-by-step process. We have pursued a carefully calibrated posture, retaining as much flexibility as possible should reforms slow or reverse, while pressing the Burmese government for further progress in key areas," Yun said.
"We have serious and continuing concerns with respect to human rights, democracy, and nonproliferation, and our policy continues to blend both pressure and engagement to encourage progress in all areas."
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's best friend in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), told The Cable on Tuesday that the Obama administration has failed to stand up for Chen's cause, the abuse of women under China's one-child policy.
In an interview in the Capitol building, Smith said he intends to hold another congressional hearing on May 15 on the Chen case -- to follow up on the hearing he held May 3, which Chen actually phoned into. Smith has invited Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and State Department Counselor Harold Koh to the hearing, but those officials have yet to RSVP.
"I don't think they want the hearing frankly. But we need to keep the focus on this," Smith said.
If and when administration officials do show up to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, Smith plans to press them on two things: The fight against forced abortion and forced sterilization that led to Chen's initial imprisonment and the plight of Chen's friends and extended family members who are undergoing government harassment in China.
"The administration has hermetically sealed his message, the man and why he was in trouble, from this incident," Smith told The Cable. "Have you heard anybody talk about that he was defending women from forced abortion? Hillary Clinton? Not a word. I Googled it."
Smith said that the administration has been avoiding any reference to the issue, which they haven't done for similar human-rights related cases in countries other than China.
"Can you imagine the president saying ‘no comment' on Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi? He would launch into what they stood for as well as their personal plight," Smith said. "They say his name but they don't talk about his message. It's more than troubling."
The State Department feels confident the Chinese government will honor its pledge to allow Chen study in the United States and bring his wife and son in tow. But Chen's mother, nephew, and several activists who supported him are still in legal limbo and facing increasingly violent retribution, Smith said.
Smith referred to the case of Jiang Tianyong, Chen's lawyer, who was arrested and beaten badly last week on the way to visit Chen in the hospital. Jiang remains under house arrest. Other figures in Chinese government hands include Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, and He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy.
Smith said he can't get answers from the administration on what's being done to secure the safety of those individuals.
"I've conveyed that to everybody at the State Department. They know about it. But what are they doing about it? That's the question."
Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week in such poor medical condition that U.S. officials suspected he might have advanced colon cancer, pushing them to speed up his exit from the embassy and into a local hospital, a senior administration official told The Cable.
Following Chen's harrowing escape from house arrest and what U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke called a "Mission: Impossible"-style rescue by to get him into the U.S. Embassy, U.S. officials found Chen to be in much worse health that has previously been disclosed, according to the official, who had first-hand knowledge of the episode. Chen's severe medical condition was a factor in the embassy's desire to get him to the local hospital as quickly as possible and was also a reason U.S. officials left Chen alone during a portion of his hospital stay, because he had to undergo extensive testing to determine whether or not he had a fatal disease.
"When Chen entered the embassy and was examined by our doctor, he was found to be bleeding profusely from his rectum," the official said, adding that the American doctor on site concluded that Chen either had a severe case of gastroenteritis or an advanced case of untreated colon cancer. "This gave us a lot of anxiety."
The Chinese were not about to allow any medical equipment to come into the embassy, however, so the need to get Chen to the nearest hospital became a priority throughout the negotiations that eventually saw him walk out of the U.S. Embassy and arrive at a local hospital, where he remains.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that Chen does in fact have a case of gastroenteritis, but U.S officials didn't know that at the time Chen was inside the embassy, the official said. It was clear, however, that his foot was badly damaged, and that Chen had entered the embassy in a state of disorientation, fatigue, and a great deal of pain. The embassy wasn't properly equipped to diagnose his internal ailment or treat his foot properly, the official said.
The U.S. official said that after the Chinese government agreed to a set of understandings that led Chen to walk out of the U.S. Embassy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was prepared to make a public statement detailing all of those understandings, to include the Chinese government's promises to allow Chen to study law and to investigate local officials' treatment of him and his family.
"We were going to use her high-level statement as a way to lock in [the understandings]. That was the game plan," the official said.
But when Chen arrived at the hospital, he had the chance to speak with several activists who urged him to scuttle the deal and leave China for his own safety. Chen's wife also gave him new details of the harassment she had endured since his escape, prompting Chen to change his mind and decide he had to get out of the country.
"We didn't think that he would rethink it all and request to leave China," the official said. "Once that happened, the Chinese went ballistic and we had to start all over again."
The U.S. officials then re-entered intense negotiations with the Chinese government to strike a new set of understandings, under which Chen would be allowed to apply for a visa to study in the United States with his immediate family in tow.
The official's account matches that of Jerome Cohen, Chen's legal mentor and confidant, who explained in detail last week Chen's account of his change of heart.
At the beginning of his hospital stay, Chen's statements to the media expressing dismay that U.S. officials had left him alone in his hospital created the impression that the U.S. officials had been cut off from access to Chen. The official said that in fact there was more direct contact with Chen than has been publicly disclosed but there were some miscommunications that resulted in confusion over the issue.
"For example, on Thursday [May 3] it was always planned that he would have a full day of medical tests," the official said, explaining why U.S. officials had less concern about not being in direct contact with Chen on that day.
Throughout the ordeal, the U.S. officials working on the case believed they were pushing the Chinese government as hard as they could to grant concessions to Chen. They argue that the Chinese government went beyond what it had done in previous such cases, by agreeing to the first and then the second set of understandings about how Chen was to be treated.
Outside commentators have speculated that the impending high-level dialogue involving 200 U.S officials who were in Beijing, called the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, put the United States at a negotiating disadvantage. But the official said the S&ED's existence actually put the Chinese government under more pressure to make a deal that it knew would be supported by the endorsement of senior American officials during a time of intense focus on the U.S.-China relationship.
There were also signs of an internal struggle within the Chinese system between the Foreign Ministry and the organs of state security over how to deal with the Chen case, the official said. But the understandings between the United States and China over Chen were endorsed at the highest levels of the Chinese government at every juncture, the official insisted.
"It's in our interest that this be handled by the Foreign Ministry, because then within the Chinese system it's treated as an issue of foreign policy and not as an issue of internal security," the official explained.
The official said he expects the process of Chen applying for permission to visit the United States to move quickly and that his application will be approved by the Chinese government. The U.S. government is already working with private foundations to secure the financial support Chen and his family will need to live in the United States.
"We think the first set of understandings would have held and we think the second set of understandings will hold as well," the official said.
On Sunday's Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden went even further.
"The Chinese have told us that if he files the papers to be able to go abroad, that would be grand. And we're prepared to give a visa right away," Biden said. "He's going to be able to take his family. We expect the Chinese to stick to that commitment."
Chen Guangcheng's friend Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, told a congressional commission Thursday that Chen only agreed to leave the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after U.S. officials conveyed a threat from the Chinese government that Chen would never see his wife again if he didn't leave the embassy that day.
Fu has been in contact with Chen directly throughout the ordeal and told the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) today that he had spoken to Chen Wednesday night as Chen and his family remained in a Beijing hospital, unable to leave or receive visitors. U.S. officials have insisted that Chen left the embassy of his own volition after agreeing to the terms of a deal U.S. officials struck with the Chinese government.
But Fu said Chen's real motivation was fear.
"According to my conversations last night with Mr. Chen," Fu testified, "the U.S. officials relayed to Chen a message from the Chinese side that they would harm his wife. And it was in response to this threat that Chen reluctantly agreed to leave the embassy."
He continued: "Chen was talked to by a U.S. government official before he left the embassy and he was told it was a Chinese government message, that the Chinese government wanted to convey the message through the U.S. government official that if he did not leave the embassy on May 2, he will not be able to see his wife and children again."
"Chen said, after hearing that message from the Chinese government, conveyed by U.S. officials, his heart was heavy and he felt he had no other choice but to walk out of the U.S. embassy," said Fu.
U.S. officials deny that they conveyed any physical or legal threats to Chen. In a statement issued Wednesday and repeated Thursday by the White House, however, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland acknowledged, "U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Chen may have interpreted those comments as an implicit threat, observers said.
According to Fu, after Chen arrived at the hospital, he heard from his wife that she was abused in recent days at their Shandong home. She was tied to a chair and beaten, Fu said. Upon hearing that, Chen no longer had faith in the Chinese government to honor any deal to keep his family safe and decided to plea for U.S. assistance in leaving China.
"The interrogator told her that if her husband did not walk out of the U.S. Embassy, they would kill her. It should be clear to anyone who uses logic that constitutes a threat," Fu said, adding that Chen has not asked for "amnesty" per se but wants to leave China.
"Secretary Clinton, at least deliver what you have promised and repeatedly said over the last two years: that you want to see Chen and his family in freedom and safety," Fu said.
In an interview with CBS, U.S. Amb. to China Gary Locke said that the United States had worked hard to negotiate a package of concessions from the Chinese government, and that Chen was enthusiastic about the arrangement. Locke also said that Chen's wife and children were brought to Beijing at Chen's request.
"Why can't the Chinese just do something first as a sign of good faith? Why must I trust them to do various things after I leave the Embassy?" Chen told U.S. officials, according to Locke. "Why can't they bring the family from the village to the hospital first so that I can know that they're safe, so I can talk to them on the phone? And if, after that conversation, I'm satisfied, I will leave the embassy and rejoin them."
Locke said that Chen was never pressured to leave the embassy, never expressed a desire to leave China when at the embassy, and rejected other offers from the Chinese government before eventually agreeing to the final offer.
"We were able to get the Chinese government to offer an unprecedented package of care for him -- family reunification. He hadn't seen his son in over two years. They were going to give him a full scholarship at one of seven universities of his choosing with full housing and living expenses for him and his family, and they would conduct an investigation of the abuses that he had suffered," Locke said. "If he had stayed in the embassy, his family still would have been in the village where they have suffered abuse."
Nevertheless, Locke noted that Chen was obviously having a change of heart and said that U.S. officials were working Thursday to determine Chen's wishes and how they could assist him. Chen's wife came out of the hospital to meet with U.S. officials Thursday and officials have had two conversations with Chen over the phone, Locke said.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the U.S. government had no choice but to relay the Chinese government's implicit threat to Chen and allow Chen to use that information to make the best decision for him and his family.
"The State Department said there was a particular threat made that they duly informed him about. They did what they had to do in conveying that to Chen," he said. "It would have been wrong if it was the case that they pressed him on that basis in one direction or another, but I don't have any information that they did."
The CECC is chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the congressman to whom Chen appealed directly for help Wednesday after saying he felt abandoned by the U.S. government. At today's hearing, Smith referred to Chen's comments in an interview with CNN from his hospital bed, during which he said that administration officials lobbied him repeatedly to leave the embassy, kept him from communicating with friends, and reneged on promises to stay with him at the hospital.
"I'm very disappointed in the U.S. government. I don't think U.S. officials protected human rights in this case," Chen said in the interview. (In a more recent interview with the network, Chen chalked some of his earlier comments up to a "misunderstanding.")
Smith said he intends to hold another hearing on the issue next week with U.S. officials.
"Chen's comments portray the U.S. as manipulating him, cutting him off from outside communication, and encouraging him to leave the embassy rather than seek asylum," said Smith. "He said he was denied requests to call friends. He said he felt the embassy officials had lied to him."
There are several questions left unanswered, Smith said, including: How will the U.S. enforce the agreement with the Chinese government on Chen? What happens if Chen or his family suffer retaliation? Where is Chen's nephew Chen Kegui? What happens now to He Peirong, the woman who drove Chen to the embassy?
Smith detailed Chen's fight against alleged abuses of China's family planning laws in Shandong and the abuses he and his wife have endured at the hands of Chinese officials, including beatings and various other forms of intimidation. CECC has been documenting these abuses in detail and held a hearing about Chen's case last November.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," CECC's 2011 Annual Report stated. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
As the world watches the saga of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng unfold in a Beijing hospital, the White House is disputing a Tuesday report that claimed the staff of Vice President Joe Biden overruled the State Department to reject the asylum case of Wang Lijun, the local Chinese official who fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February.
Unlike in the Chen case, when Wang sought refuge with U.S. authorities, he was not a human rights activist fleeing persecution for his advocacy on behalf of China's abused masses. Wang was the police chief of a major Chinese city and a key deputy to provincial boss Bo Xilai. Wang was embroiled in an alleged corruption and murder scandal involving Bo's wife and a British national and was fleeing Bo's wrath. He eventually left the embassy of his own volition, according to the State Department, after which he was scooped up by Beijing authorities and has not been heard from since.
In Washington, some critics accused the Obama administration of rejecting Wang's reported asylum request out of concern it would disrupt the impending visit by Chinese heir apparent Xi Jinping, whom Biden was hosting.
On Tuesday, the Washington Free Beacon, citing unnamed officials, reported that Biden's office overruled State Department and Justice Department officials to dictate that Wang's asylum request should be denied.
"In the end, Antony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, successfully prevailed over other officials in arguing that Wang's asylum appeal should be rejected," the report stated. "Blinken, according to the officials, feared China would cancel the upcoming visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, whose visit was to be hosted by Biden, unless Wang was sent away from the consulate as soon as possible."
National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable flatly that the story was false and that neither Blinken nor anyone in Biden's office was involved in the Wang case in any way.
"This is complete fiction. No one from the office of the vice president, including specifically Tony, was involved in any way shape or form," Vietor said. "This was a consular matter handled by the State Department."
"I stand by the facts of my story," Free Beacon reporter Bill Gertz told The Cable.
This week, State Department officials also took the lead in the Chen case. State Department counsel Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, and Ambassador Gary Locke led the negotiations with the Chinese that found Chen in a Beijing hospital fearing for his safety and that of his family.
In a Wednesday interview with CNN, Campbell emphasized that the United States adhered to Chen's wishes in negotiating a deal with the Chinese government that allows Chen to reunite with his family and start a new life inside China.
"I think everyone felt that we had served his interests and we'd worked closely with him in a manner that brought his family together that had been torn apart years ago and really had done something that gives him a chance to have a productive life," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but that's what he wanted, and we were very grateful to be able to support him."
But Campbell also acknowledged that there was no guarantee the Chinese government would adhere to the deal and that Chen's safety may be at risk.
"Now, time will tell," he said. "And what we have been able to do is provide the base, but it will be important for the U.S. government, for non-profits, for his many friends, admirers, and supporters to create a support network for him that protects him, that supports him, that encourages him in the way ahead."
The State Department insists that blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. Embassy of his own volition Wednesday and that U.S. officials in Beijing did not convey threats to harm his family by Chinese officials, as Chen claims.
"At no time did any US official speak to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did Chinese officials make any such threats to us," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to [their home in] Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification."
Nuland was responding to accounts by Chen supporters, now repeated by Chen himself to the Associated Press, that said Chen was pressured into leaving the embassy via threats to the safety of his wife and family. Chen told the AP that U.S. officials told him the Chinese would take his family back to their home province in Shandong, where they had been under extrajudicial house arrest and in some cases physically abused, if he didn't leave the embassy.
Chen also said a U.S. official told him the Chinese government would beat his wife to death if he didn't leave the embassy and agree to the terms of the deal struck by U.S. and Chinese negotiators, according to the AP's account.
The State Department disputed that version of events.
"I was there. Chen made the decision to leave the Embassy after he knew his family was safe and at the hospital waiting for him, and after twice being asked by Ambassador Locke if he [was] ready to go," said Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who was a key negotiator in the deal. "He said, ‘zou,' -- let's go. We were all there as witnesses to his decision, and he hugged and thanked us all."
The deal, detailed by Foreign Policy's Editor Susan Glasser from Beijing, included a reunion between Chen and his family at a hospital where he could receive attention to the foot he damaged by scaling a wall during his daring escape last week.
The deal also stipulates that the Chinese government would treat Chen and his family humanely, that they would be relocated, and that Chen would be allowed to study at a university. Senior administration officials told reporters in a background briefing in Beijing that Chen called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from the car to the hospital and said, "I want to kiss you."
Glasser noted that Zeng Jinyan, the wife of well-known activist Hu Jia, contradicted that account on Twitter, saying Chen told her he had asked to "see" Clinton, not to kiss her.
Clinton, in a statement, said, "I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values."
Chen, according to the AP, said that it was true he had expressed his desire to stay in China. But now that U.S. officials have left him alone in his hospital room, he is having second thoughts.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," he said. He then asked to relay a message to Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ). "Help my family and I leave safely."
President Barack Obama declined to confirm or deny Monday that blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng is hiding in the U.S. embassy following a daring escape from house arrest, but he did call on China to improve its behavior on human rights.
"Obviously I'm aware of the press reports on the situation in China, but I'm not going to make a statement on the issue," Obama said Monday during a press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. "What I would like to emphasize is that every time we meet with China, the issue of human rights comes up. It is our belief that not only is that the right thing to do because it comports with our principles and our belief in freedom and human rights, but also because we actually think China will be stronger as it opens up and liberalizes its own system."
"We want China to be strong and we want it to be prosperous, and we're very pleased with all the areas of cooperation that we've been able to engage in," Obama said. "But we also believe that that relationship will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country."
The State Department declined to confirm that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell was dispatched earlier than scheduled to Beijing to deal with the issue, although Campbell was photographed Sunday night arriving at his hotel in Beijing.
"It is not uncommon for Assistant Secretary Campbell or other assistant secretaries to travel in advance of the secretary's trips. So he is involved in preparing the trip," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Monday's press briefing.
Nuland repeated her mantra from Friday's briefing to decline to say anything substantive on the Chen case, such as where he is, whether the U.S. would offer him asylum, or whether the U.S. and Chinese governments are discussing the matter.
"Again, I have nothing for you on anything having to do with that matter," Nuland said.
The State Department again postponed a briefing to preview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to Beijing to attend the May 3 and 4 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and Nuland refused to say if the Chen incident would impact those talks.
"Well, as you know, the secretary is looking forward to her trip to Beijing. We've leaving this evening. This is the fourth round of the S&ED. And further than that, I don't have anything for you," she said. "The plan is that it will go forward."
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to at least repeat past statements in support of Chen and his family or to acknowledge that Chen's family has been subjected to additional abuses since Clinton last publicly spoke out about the case last November.
Nuland wouldn't even mention Chen's name out loud and eventually got fed up with the repeated questioning and shut down the discussion.
"I have nothing further for you on this subject," she said. "I think that was the eighth time I've said that. I want to learn how to say it in Chinese, but I couldn't get a good, clear translation."
The State Department has been silent about what it will do about Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist and self-taught lawyer reported to have fled house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. But Chen had good reason to believe America was on his side.
Dating back years before his Thursday escape, the State Department has repeatedly and publicly demanded Chen's release while carefully documenting the Chinese government's abuses of him and his family.
Most recently, in a November speech in Honolulu, entitled, "America's Pacific Century," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out Chen's house arrest to complain about China's human rights practices.
"We have made very clear our serious concerns about China's record on human rights," she said. "When we see reports of lawyers, artists, and others who are detained or disappeared, the United States speaks up both publicly and privately. We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest, as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path."
Clinton raised the issue of Chen's treatment directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their bilateral meeting that same day, according to a senior State Department official speaking to reporters at the time.
Administration officials won't say anything right now about Chen, shown at left above with dissident Hu Jia, as rumors fly that the U.S. and Chinese governments are having top-level discussions about the case, which threatens to disrupt Clinton's trip to China next week for a major security and economic dialogue. The AP reported that Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was dispatched to Beijing earlier than planned to deal with the crisis.
At Friday's State Department press briefing, Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated variations of the same phrase six times to avoid saying anything substantive about the potential asylum case. "I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said.
A senior White House official repeated that same line on a Friday afternoon conference call to preview Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiki Noda's visit to Washington on Monday. The State Department abruptly cancelled a conference call to preview Clinton's trip to China next week.
Reporters at the briefing pressed Nuland to acknowledge that Clinton had spoken out several times about Chen in the past, but Nuland refused to repeat past calls for Chen's release or say anything substantive about his situation.
"I don't have anything for you on that subject," she said. "I don't have anything on this issue at all."
The State Department has used Chen as a premier example of China's human rights shortfalls, and several U.S. government reports have documented what they see as the unlawfulness and unfairness of Chen's imprisonment and house arrest.
In a press availability at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last April, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights Michael Posner criticized the Chinese government's treatment of Chen and said it was part of a much broader pattern of oppression dispensed on those whose speech or activism run afoul of the Chinese government.
"A particular concern is what seems to be a range of interferences with the work of lawyers who are often courageously working to defend others from charges or to help citizens register their concerns. Lawyers like Teng Biao who has been missing since February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who with his wife Yuan Weijing is under house arrest since his release from prison last year," Posner said.
"Our discussions these last two days focused on these lawyers, but also bloggers, artists, NGO activists, journalists, representatives of minority religious communities and others who were asserting their rights and calling for reform... Societies need to give their own people an opportunity to voice and pursue their aspirations."
In a January 2011 speech at the State Department, Clinton pledged to advocate for human rights progress in China despite Chinese government objections, and invoked Chen as a problematic example of Chinese repression.
"America will continue to speak out and to press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists; when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship; when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions; and when some, like Chen Guangcheng, are persecuted even after they are released," she said.
"Now, I know that many in China, not just in the government, but in the population at large resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on sovereignty. But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens. These are universal rights recognized by the international community."
The 2011 Annual Report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China detailed the conditions of Chen's confinement and treatment by Chinese authorities.
"Hu Jia, a human rights and environmental advocate, and Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal advocate who publicized population planning abuses, were released from prison this year only to face, along with their families, onerous conditions of detention and abuse with little or no basis in Chinese law," the report said. "In Chen's case, authorities kept him and his wife under extralegal house arrest and allegedly beat them after video footage of their conditions was smuggled out of the house and released on an overseas Web site."
The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report on China alleges that Chen's arrest and three year imprisonment was trumped up and politically motivated.
"On September 9, blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng was released after completing a prison sentence of three years and four months on politically motivated charges of ‘disrupting traffic,'" the State Department paper stated. "Since his release, Chen, his wife, and his mother have been under house arrest and prevented from communicating with others. Chen was not allowed to seek medical attention for a gastrointestinal condition he developed in prison."
Two top Obama administration officials said today that the diplomatic initiative to end the violence in Syria, led by U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, "is failing."
Under intense questioning during Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, both Kathleen Hicks, the current deputy under secretary of defense for policy, and Derek Chollet, National Security Council senior director for strategy, said that the Annan plan was headed toward collapse and that new options for confronting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were being prepared.
Asked by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, if Assad had complied with the six points of the Annan plan for Syria, which charts a path away from violence toward political negotiations, Chollet acknowledged that violence is actually increasing.
"Do you believe the Annan plan has succeeded or failed?" McCain asked both officials.
"I would say it is failing," Chollet said.
"I would say it is failing and that Annan himself is extremely worried about the plan," Hicks concurred.
Annan lamented reports of increased violence Wednesday but said he still wanted to increase the number of monitors on the ground.
"If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible," said Annan."Equally, a credible political process is required if we are to sustain any long-term calm on the ground."
As The Cable reported last week, Chollet was added recently to the senior leadership of the Syria policy team and is coordinating the interagency process to look for a "Plan B" for U.S. policy for if and when the diplomatic initiatives break down.
Several times during the hearing, McCain complained that the United States was not leading in Syria, waiting for others to request more assertive action and hiding behind the excuse that there was no international consensus on the way forward.
"My view is that the United States is leading diplomatically," said Hicks, pointing to the Friends of Syria group of countries that meets periodically to discuss the issue as well as repeated action at the U.N. Security Council.
"Actually, we have not led the Friends of Syria, at least according to the Friends of Syria, because I have met with them, so that's not a fact," McCain said.
The Pentagon is planning for the possibility that the U.S. military might be called upon to participate in a mission to establish safe zones along the Turkey-Syria border, according to Hicks.
"We are doing a significant amount of planning for a wide range of scenarios, including our ability to assist allies and partners along the borders," she said.
But Chollet said that Turkey has not yet requested a discussion within NATO about setting up safe zones inside Syria, which would require military support. He added that if Turkey did request such a discussion, NATO would be obliged to take up the matter.
"I am unaware of any official or any serious discussions for that matter about how NATO might help Turkey in that regard," Chollet said.
McCain said that expanding the U.N. observer mission, which only has 15 people on the ground right now, would likely not solve the problem. He referred to Thursday's Washington Post editorial, "Where U.N. monitors go in Syria, killings follow."
The editorial noted reports that the Assad regime is sweeping into villages and towns as soon as the monitors leave, killing civilians and punishing those who are suspected of cooperating with the U.N. mission.
McCain was scolding and sometimes sarcastic about what he regards as a feckless U.S. Syria policy.
"I'm glad to hear that we are playing such a ‘leadership role'," McCain said. "I can guarantee you nobody in the Middle East thinks that. I can guarantee you that this is a shameful situation where people are being slaughtered. We are talking about economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions. We should be helping these people."
Hicks has been nominated to be principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, succeeding acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, and Chollet has been nominated to be assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, succeeding Sandy Vershbow, who is now NATO's deputy secretary-general.
On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe raised the idea of intervening militarily against the Assad regime in Syria and said that the Security Council might have to consider a Chapter 7 resolution, which could authorize the use of force. "We cannot allow the [Assad] regime to defy us," he said.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
A bill to sanction Russian human rights violators will not be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week after the Obama administration urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) to keep it off the committee's agenda, The Cable has learned.
Last month, Kerry indicated that the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 would be brought up for a vote at the April 26 SFRC business meeting and he also endorsed the idea of combining the Magnitsky bill with a bill to grant Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status and repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law. "In good faith, we will move as rapidly as we can, hopefully the minute we're back, but certainly shortly thereafter," Kerry said March 27, just before the last Senate recess.
But after what several Senate aides described as intense lobbying from top Obama administration officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Kerry decided not to put the bill on the agenda of the next business meeting, delaying consideration of the bill until May at the earliest, after the visit to the U.S. of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin.
In a statement to The Cable, Kerry said he still supports quick passage of the Magnitsky bill and its linkage to the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, but that he needed more time to iron out differences over the details of the legislation.
"I support this effort and, as I said at the last business meeting, passing the Magnitsky legislation out of our committee is not a question of if, only when. I've been trying to get everyone on the same page because that's how you get the best legislative result, and everyone was explicitly very comfortable with where we were. My goal here is to get the best result," Kerry said.
But several aides told The Cable that not everybody was comfortable with the delay. The Cable obtained an e-mail sent late last week from the staff of committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) to several Democratic Senate offices including that of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill's main sponsor, in which Lugar protests the delay strongly.
"We want to reiterate Senator Lugar's position, as he stated at the last business meeting, that he strongly supports having the Magnitsky Act taken up at the next business meeting (i.e. next week)," the e-mail reads.
"As we understand the situation, the White House and State Department have been frantic over the last 24 hours in trying to head off consideration of the bill next week by contacting numerous Democratic offices," Lugar's staff wrote. "Thus, our position remains as it has been: Senator Lugar supports immediate consideration of the Magnitsky bill-next week. If Senators Kerry and/or Cardin do not wish to have it taken up then, that is prerogative of the SFRC Majority, but it is not the position of Senator Lugar."
The Obama administration is on the record opposing the Magnitsky bill and believes that its passage could imperil U.S.-Russian cooperation on a range of issues. The Russian government has even threatened to scuttle the New START nuclear reductions treaty if the Magnitsky bill is passed, which would erase the signature accomplishment of the administration's U.S.-Russia reset policy.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the administration said in its official comments on the bill last July. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said Monday at a lunch with reporters in Washington that passage of the Magnitsky bill would have a "significant negative impact" on the U.S.-Russia relationship and said it was unacceptable for the United States to interfere in the Magnitsky case, which he said was an internal Russian issue.
"It's artificially attached to the whole issue of Jackson Vanik... It's politically motivated," he said. "We do not want to be told what to do within the limits of Russian law."
Kislyak then said there were human rights violations in the United States that Russia could raise in the context of trade negotiations, but chooses not to.
"I could bring up one example that is very much on our minds. Three years of long investigation of the killing of children adopted from Russia, with absolute immunity, but we do not bring that issue into the economic realm," he said.
Cardin, meanwhile, has been working with administration behind the scenes to make changes to the Magnitsky bill, and even came up with a new draft version of the legislation last week, before the delay. The Cable obtained an internal document showing exactly what changed in the bill.
For example, the new version makes it more difficult to add names to the list of human rights violators that the bill would create. In the previous version, any member of Congress could request to add the name of an alleged human rights violator to the bill. In the new version, both the chair and ranking member of a relevant committee must jointly request someone be added to the list, a high bar in a partisan Congress.
Cardin is caught by between his desire to see his legislation passed without being gutted and his desire to work with the administration. In a brief interview with The Cable last week, he insisted he still wants the Magnitsky bill joined with the legislation that will repeal Jackson-Vanik and grant Russia PNTR.
"There's a growing support in the Senate to make sure it's part of the PNTR debate," he said. "We'd like SFRC to mark it up and then take it to the Senate Finance Committee and make it part of the PNTR bill."
The exact logistics for how the Magnitsky bill is moved in conjunction with the PNTR bill are up in the air. It could be joined in the Senate Finance Committee, or on the Senate floor, or just passed at the same time. But what's clear is that there are several senators ready to hold up PNTR for Russia if the Magnitsky bill isn't considered in conjunction.
Among Capitol Hill staffers, there's also concern that the administration may be negotiating to water down the Magnitsky bill now, only to ultimately oppose it later. A similar dynamic played out over sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran last December. Then, it was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who carried water for the administration before discovering they would ultimately oppose the bill no matter what. Menendez was livid. That bill passed the Senate 100-0.
"The last thing the Obama administration wants is Magnitsky to pass and not PNTR, but at the rate they are going, it could be likely that neither moves," one senior Senate GOP aide told The Cable. "The administration's strategy is to delay as long as possible any SFRC consideration, in hopes that in a year with few legislative days the window for Magnitsky passage narrows and disappears."
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon, Kerry's Communications Director Jodi Seth sent the following statement on the delay to The Cable:
"The decision not to put the Magnitsky bill on the agenda for the business meeting on April 26 was made only after consultations with relevant committee offices. At no time during the decision-making process did Lugar staff raise any objection to not adding the bill to the agenda."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.