Questions for Kerry on the 2017 Budget

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The Obama administration is preparing to defend its final State Department budget request at a time when democracy and human rights are under serious pressure around the world.

Freedom House compiled the following questions for Secretary of State John Kerry, who will testify this week regarding the U.S. State Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2017 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and both the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Agencies.

Elections: Voters in places like Myanmar and Venezuela turned out in record numbers last year, rejecting entrenched incumbents and giving opposition parties an opportunity to implement much-needed reforms. How will this budget provide support for further progress in these countries, and how will it enable voters in other countries to finally make their voices heard through free and fair elections? 

Civil society programs: In September 2013, President Obama launched the “Stand with Civil Society” initiative, but implementation has lagged, amounting to little more than rhetoric thus far. What concrete actions to support civil society will be taken through this budget?

Internet freedom: According to the Freedom on the Net report released last fall, internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year, and censorship and surveillance are on the rise. Online journalists and activists face attacks, imprisonment, and even death. How will this budget address ongoing threats to global internet freedom?

LGBTI: Since 2011, the United States has increasingly made LGBTI human rights issues a part of its diplomatic engagement and foreign assistance programs, including through funding to support the important work being done by LGBTI civil society groups globally. Despite the great progress that has been made, LGBTI people in many countries continue to encounter extreme violence, government persecution, and legislative efforts to ban LGBTI rights advocacy and criminalize same-sex conduct. How will this budget ensure that U.S. engagement and funding address the enduring challenges that LGBTI people face around the world?

Russian propaganda: Russia continues its propaganda offensive, disseminating blatantly false information through its state-run media outlets within Russia, across Ukraine and the surrounding region, and even in the United States. How does this budget address Russia’s so-called “information warfare”?

Ukraine: Two years after the Euromaidan revolution and the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine still faces numerous challenges, both internal and external. How will the budget request assist Ukraine in rooting out corruption, strengthening human rights protections and governance, defending itself against Russian aggression, and pushing its government to enact real and lasting reforms?

Turkey: As Turkey struggles to deal with attacks by the Islamic State (IS) militant group and growing tensions with Russia, it is also locked in a renewed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). How will this budget encourage the government and the PKK to return to the peace process—a necessary step both for Turkey’s long-term stability and for its viability as an effective partner in the fight against IS?

Azerbaijan: Since the summer of 2014, President Ilham Aliyev and his government have pursued the country’s most intense crackdown on human rights in decades. More than 100 journalists, religious activists, human rights defenders, civil society figures, and other prisoners of conscience are behind bars. Many have been beaten and denied medical treatment. Key U.S.-funded organizations are no longer able to operate in the country, and restrictive laws have essentially prohibited all civil society activity and independent media. How does this budget address the ongoing abuses in Azerbaijan?

Myanmar: Although last year’s elections handed a landmark victory to the reformist opposition, the Rohingya, Kachin, and other ethnic minorities continue to face violence and discrimination. How will the budget address such obstacles to further democratic progress in Myanmar?

China: Human rights conditions in China have deteriorated under President Xi Jinping. The persecution of writers, journalists, and religious and ethnic minorities has intensified, and China remains one of the world’s worst abusers of internet freedom. A crackdown on human rights lawyers is ongoing. Draconian national security and antiterrorism laws were recently passed, and pending laws would further restrict the work of civil society organizations and tighten controls on the internet. Combined with China’s economic slowdown, these developments pose serious challenges not only for the Chinese people, but also for U.S businesses and broader U.S. foreign policy goals. What concrete steps does the budget take to address these challenges?
Hong Kong: Five Hong Kong residents—two of whom hold dual citizenship in European countries—have been detained by the Chinese government in recent months after selling or publishing critical books on the Chinese Communist Party. Trials for the leaders of the prodemocracy Umbrella Movement are ongoing, and the underlying threats to democracy in Hong Kong that sparked the movement’s 2014 protests have only grown since then. How will this budget support the people of Hong Kong in seeking to protect the autonomy and realize the political freedoms promised under the Basic Law? 

Mexico: Violence against journalists in Mexico—particularly those who report on organized crime—continues unabated. Just weeks ago, investigative reporter Anabel Flores was kidnapped, and her naked body was later found on the side of the road. She was the third journalist killed in the country in 2016. How will this budget assist the Mexican government in addressing rampant violence and impunity, which are helping to drive migrants to the United States?

Cuba: Even as the United States and Cuba work to normalize bilateral relations, human rights conditions in Cuba remain grim. The number of detentions targeting dissidents have increased over the last year, voting rights are virtually nonexistent, and the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly remain severely restricted. How will this budget address ongoing human rights challenges in Cuba?

Burundi: Since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to defy term limits set out in the Arusha Peace Accords and won reelection in July 2015, many human rights activists and journalists have been forced into exile as a result of threats from the government, security forces, and other groups loyal to the regime. In the absence of independent media and civil society groups, the fundamental rights of Burundian citizens have severely eroded, and political violence has escalated. How does the budget address the need to rebuild the Burundian civil society sector and support international bodies working to fill the gap by documenting human rights abuses in Burundi?

Ethiopia: During President Obama’s visit in July and a follow-up trip by State Department officials in November, the Ethiopian government reportedly expressed willingness to receive U.S. assistance in promoting media freedom, independent civil society, and accountable governance. How does the 2017 budget address these commitments, particularly the proposal to create a U.S. fund for Ethiopian civil society organizations that is not subject to the 10 percent cap on foreign funding imposed by Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Proclamation?

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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