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Top U.S. Human Rights Diplomat: 'Democracy Takes Time'

Michael Posner: 'The same standard applies to every government, including ourselves.'
WASHINGTON -- Following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip last week to Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, RFE/RL’s Washington correspondent Heather Maher asked U.S Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, the top U.S. diplomat for human rights and democracy, for an assessment of what Clinton accomplished and of the rights situation throughout the region as a whole.

RFE/RL: How is Secretary Clinton's trip to Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus being assessed within the State Department?

Michael Posner: I would say, in general, I think people felt very good about the trip. It was a chance -- and in cases, her first [chance] as secretary of state -- to visit some key countries in the region, both to discuss shared interests and concerns and to strengthen relationships, but at the same time, to reach out to civil society and to express concerns about differences.

So I think she accomplished both. I think there was a sense that the visit and the personal contacts served a purpose in strengthening relationships and the shared agenda, but also there was a clear theme throughout: that we do believe strongly in, and are going to keep pressing on, the human rights and democracy and civil society issues as a routine part of the relationship.

RFE/RL: In her "Community of Democracies" speech in Krakow, Clinton said the following: "In Russia, while we welcome President [Dmitry] Medvedev's statements in support of the rule of law, human rights [activists] and journalists have been targeted for assassination, and virtually none of these crimes have been solved." In view of the success of the U.S.-led “reset” in relations with Russia, what is the White House prepared to do to keep the pressure on Moscow to bring the people responsible for these crimes to justice?

About a month ago, I was in Moscow and Vladimir for a civil society dialogue that Mike McFaul [the special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council] and the National Security Council co-chaired with [Vladislav] Surkov [Medvedev’s deputy chief of staff and a top aide to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.] And in the context of that dialogue, we raised cases, but I also met with people in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow following the dialogue.

I think the answer is, whether it's the [Anna] Politkovskaya case or the Natalya Estemirova case, we have and we will continue to raise concerns both privately and diplomatically, but also publicly. And also, on a third track, to continue to work with Russian civil society, human rights groups like Memorial, and the Sakharov Center and others to continue to press our concerns.

I think the Committee to Protect Journalists identified 16 cases in the last few years of journalists who've been killed. So this is not just one case. Politkovskaya has gotten probably the most attention, and she was a U.S. citizen, so we've raised that consistently. But I think it's imperative that we keep raising our concerns, again, privately and publicly. We are engaged. We have a range of issues and interests with the Russians, and we will continue to be engaged, but part of our engagement is on human rights.

RFE/RL: In that same speech, Clinton also announced a new U.S. initiative to, as she described it, “support the work of embattled NGOs.” The United States is contributing an initial $2 million to the fund and has invited other governments and private grant-making organizations to contribute as well. Can you give us any more details?

We've had, for a long time, what we call a “human rights defenders' fund,” which is small amounts of money to individual human rights advocates and their families when they get in trouble, or are put on trial, forced into exile, that sort of thing. That's really been a longstanding piece of what we support. And the idea here is to have a broader mandate, to have funds set aside to support civil society organizations, both in rapidly changing situations, but also to give them the opportunity to seek funds for projects and initiatives that are looking at broader issues.

So we're in the process now of sort of designing the criteria and so forth, but the commitment is $2 million from [the State Department's Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor budget,] and we hope that others in the [U.S.] government may also contribute and that other governments will also come in beside us and work in the same direction.

RFE/RL: Five years ago, the region Clinton just visited frankly seemed a little better off than it does today. A series of revolutions had brought reformers into power and there was hope that the old authoritarian ways had been shaken off for good. Today a glance around the region reveals that democratic progress seems to have slid backwards. What's your assessment of the progress, or lack thereof, in the region?

I'm reluctant to grade or rate countries. As a general matter I would say some of the exuberance about the “colored revolutions” -- certainly, there were very high expectations, some of which haven't been met.

But I think the lesson I draw is rather that the process of building democracy is not determined by a moment in time, or an election. It's building blocks over time that build sustainable democracies that endure. And maybe what we're seeing now, I think it is what we're seeing, the realization that it takes time and hard work and it's institution building. It's something you have to do, as the secretary said in Krakow, it's something you have to do 365 days a year.

So if you have an election but you don't have strong political parties, and you don't have a truly independent and open media, and you don't have Internet access for a huge percentage of the population, and you don't have an environment where, you know, empowerment of women is part of the picture, then all of the challenges that we've seen in some of these countries become more obvious.

And I sort of feel we're at a point now where everybody's taking a deep breath -- we're certainly doing that -- and saying, let's think practically about those building blocks, and what do we need to do to build something that's more sustainable over time?

RFE/RL: In the wake of Clinton's visit to Azerbaijan, opposition groups have complained that she didn't speak out as forcefully for civil society and media freedom as she did elsewhere. There's even a new joke going around the dissident community: President Ilham Aliyev is now saying, “Yes we can!” -- which is President Obama's old campaign slogan -- only Aliyev means, yes, Baku can imprison journalists and opponents of the government without suffering repercussions from Washington. The continued detention of the bloggers Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli for publishing satire of the government and the extension of journalist Eynulla Fatullayev's prison sentence just two days after Clinton left the country makes it seem that he's right. Is he?

I know she raised [Fatullayev's] case and the case of the bloggers. She expressed concerns about human rights in both private meetings and publicly. But I wasn't there, so it really probably would be better to talk to people who were actually with her in Baku.

RFE/RL: Staying on Azerbaijan, the United States has been making noticeable overtures toward Azerbaijan for its continued and possibly increased support as a key transit point for military supplies flowing into Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates paid a visit to Baku this spring that was seen as an attempt to warm up relations. How does the State Department square its efforts to press Aliyev on things like human rights and civil society with the Pentagon's apparently growing need for Aliyev’s cooperation with the war in Afghanistan?

Well, look, you know Azerbaijan is not unique in the sense that we both have military security interests and we also have a human rights agenda and concerns about violations. [Obama] has said [and] the secretary [Clinton] has said, “Our policy is going to be one of principled engagement.” Principled engagement means that we're going to be talking to and working with and have mutual interests with a number of countries where it's in our national interest to be engaged, but at the same time principled engagement means, where there are human rights problems and abuses, we're going to call them out and we're going to have those discussions in a straightforward way.

We can and need to be doing both, and we are doing both. And the nature of my job is that I'm either with the secretary or visiting places, supporting broad U.S. interests. But part of our interests, central to our interests, is the fact that we have a commitment to human rights and a universal set of standards. The same standard applies to every government, including ourselves.