Working With Allies on Human Rights a 'High Priority For This Administration': Interview

2021-03-31
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Working With Allies on Human Rights a 'High Priority For This Administration':  Interview U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Scott Busby speaks to RFA on March 30, 2021.
Photo: RFA

 In an annual human rights report released on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department pointed to what it called significant human rights issues in China, including Tibet, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang. Abuses noted in the report included arbitrary arrests and detentions, the torture of prisoners, restrictions on the freedom of expression and freedom of movement, forced labor, and restrictions on religious freedoms.

On March 30, Kalden Lodoe of RFA’s Tibetan Service interviewed Scott Busby—Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor—to ask about the declining human rights situation in China, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and expectations for U.S. policy under the administration of President Joe Biden:

RFA: The State Department just released its human rights reports for 2020. Can you give us a brief outline of what is significant in that report in terms of Asia, and particularly in China, Tibet, and Xinjiang?

Busby:  As the Secretary [of State] noted, I think we’re concerned about backsliding on human rights around the world. And that includes in Asia and in China, specifically in places like Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere. I think that is one of the trends that is remarkable at this point.

RFA: Based on the human rights report that was released today, what concrete actions will the United States under the new Administration coming in take against the backdrop of this worsening human rights situation in China, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and even in Hong Kong?

Busby: As the Secretary highlighted today, one of the priorities for the Biden-Harris Administration is not only to take action ourselves, but to work in combination with other like-minded countries. And I think we’ve seen that so far with regard to Burma and with regard to China.

We’ve seen concerted efforts made in a coordinated fashion to speak out on human rights abuses in China and in Burma, and also to take concrete action, such as the sanctions that have been invoked in China by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, and a similar imposition of sanctions by a group of countries with regard to those responsible for human rights abuses in Burma.

RFA:  Do you think these concerted efforts bringing allies together will be a new focus of foreign policy for the United States, for the U.S. Administration?

Busby: I think it’s a very, very high priority for this administration, for the United States, not to be acting alone but to be acting in concert with our allies. That will continue to be a very high priority for the administration.

RFA: You have seen the reports today in Hong Kong, about the vetted information you have to provide to the Chinese government if you run for the parliament in Hong Kong. People are very concerned that almost everything is now controlled by Communist China and that there’s no way a true democracy will ever exist there. How concerned are you, and what are you going to do about it?

Busby: We’re extremely concerned about the backsliding in Hong Kong, and we’ve indicated on many occasions that we think the actions taken by Beijing contravene the agreements previously made on the autonomous status of Hong Kong.

So we’re very, very concerned, and to date we’ve taken a number of actions, including sanctions against officials responsible for those policies in Hong Kong and for abuses committed by those individuals. So those of the sorts of actions we have taken so far.

RFA: Do you think these sanctions will work? What reactions do you expect to come from China? They have already started reciprocating with sanctions of their own against the United States and other countries. What would be the second step that the United States would take?

Busby: Well, I think that in the short term, sometimes you don’t see changes in behavior. But I think over the long term, when there are sanctions like these imposed, you do see changes. And again, the priority for this administration will not be simply to act on our own, but to act in combination with our allies—like the UK, like Canada, like the European Union. And I think by acting together we can have a much greater impact on Chinese thinking, and now on Chinese behavior.

RFA: Now particularly on Tibet, a new Special Coordinator for Tibet in the State Department has not been appointed yet. For the previous administration, it took more than three and a half years to appoint one, and Tibetan Americans as well as other Tibetans were concerned about that situation, hoping the administration would actually act sooner than later. What should people expect now in terms of the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibet Issues?

Busby: The Secretary has indicated his firm commitment to appoint a Special Coordinator on Tibetan Issues, so I think there’s no question that he will be making that appointment. It’s still early in the administration, so I don’t think we can say when and who that person will be, but the Secretary of State has made crystal clear that he intends to appoint such a person.

RFA: The previous administration’s appointment was an assistant secretary instead of an undersecretary, but in administrations before that, they were all undersecretaries. So people are concerned now that this symbolizes some sort of diminished position. If there is an appointment, would it be in the position of undersecretary?

Busby: I can’t speak to who would be appointed in that position going forward. That would be a decision for the Secretary to make, but I’m confident that the Secretary will appoint someone who is capable and competent in carrying out this role.

RFA: In terms of labor-related issues, in 2020 there were reports that more than half a million Tibetans were forced to work in the commune system in China, or in Tibet. As you know, the current Party leader in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, was the Party Secretary before that in the Tibet Autonomous Region, and many of the hardline practices he enforced in Tibet were then copied in Xinjiang. Now, the programs in Xinjiang are being copied again in Tibet. What can the United States government do about this? And would you consider sending a fact-finding mission to Tibet?

Busby: We’re very concerned about the reports about forced labor in Tibet. And frankly we’re concerned about reports of forced labor wherever it may be occurring. When those reports came out, we were deeply concerned to read about this. As you may know, there are laws in the United States addressing the issue of forced labor, precluding the importation of goods made with forced labor, so I think we will be looking at some of these authorities in deciding how we are going to respond to the allegations of forced labor in Tibet.

RFA: Finally, how hopeful are you that during the term of this administration the situation all over the world—and particularly in China, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang—will improve?

Busby: I think that those of us who are committed to human rights always have to be hopeful in our actions—be they reporting on human rights abuses around the world, be they imposing sanctions, be they adopting other policies that will lead to improvements in human rights. So yes, I would say that we have to be hopeful in order to continue with our important work.

RFA: Would you or the Secretary of State consider, or the president consider if he went to India, meeting with the Dalai Lama?

Busby: I don’t want to get out ahead of any trip that I or the president or the Secretary might make. But we do recognize the important role played by the Dalai Lama. And we continue to urge the Chinese government to engage in a direct and constructive dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

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