About the Author: David J. Kramer serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Today is International Human Rights Day, the date sixty years ago when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I have the privilege of serving as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, so this occasion is especially meaningful to me and to the men and women in my office. We see it as an opportunity to reflect on and rededicate ourselves to the work of protecting and promoting the rights enshrined in the Declaration. President Bush and Secretary Rice have made the promotion of human rights a priority not just for my bureau, but for the entire State Department and our embassies around the world.
Those who charge that the championing of international human rights standards is just an attempt to impose alien values on other countries or meddle in their internal affairs conveniently forget the words of the Universal Declaration: “Every individual and every organ of society … shall strive…to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…”.
Earlier this week, Secretary Rice said: “The Universal Declaration is celebrated by men and women of every culture and creed, every race and religion, in countries large and small, developed and developing. The Declaration transcends political and ethnic differences and national boundaries, even as it embraces humanity in all of its diversity. The Declaration speaks directly to the desire inherent in every human heart for freedom.”
Across the globe, men and women have invoked the Declaration to press for their rights to be respected and their governments to be responsive. They have used it to demand that their voices be heard and their votes count, to advocate for just laws and justice for all. There also has been a growing recognition that democracy is the only form of government that protects the human rights and fundamental freedoms set forth in the Declaration.
I fully recognize that no democracy, including my own, is perfect. The United States’ national journey toward liberty and justice for all has been long and difficult, and it is still far from complete. Yet, over time, our independent branches of government, our free media, our vibrant civil society and our openness to the world have helped us keep faith with our Bill of Rights, our international obligations and the precepts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the international commission that produced the Declaration, emphasized that it was intended to be a tool placed in the hands of ordinary citizens to help them secure their liberty and dignity. And that is exactly what the Declaration has been for six decades.
Over the sixty years since the Declaration’s adoption, there have been remarkable gains on every continent for the rights that it enumerates. Yet, in every region of the globe, there are governments that respond to the growing demands for fundamental freedoms not by accepting their obligations to their people, but by oppressing them. In many countries, brave individuals who peacefully press for the rights of their fellow countrymen and women are targets of persecution and imprisonment by state authorities.
Since assuming my current position, I have traveled the globe and have had the privilege and honor to meet many of these courageous defenders of freedom and liberty. They are a true inspiration to all of us who advocate for basic, universal rights: inter alia, the right of every person to think, act, worship and shape his or her future without fear of repression. It is they whom we salute today.
On Monday, I participated in a ceremony hosted by Secretary Rice in commemoration of International Human Rights Day. Like others in the room – leaders of non-governmental human rights and democracy groups, the press and the men and women of the State Department – I was deeply moved when the Secretary recounted the experiences of the three people to whom she presented the annual Human Rights awards.
Two of the honorees were diplomats. Our Ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee received an award “for his inspiring leadership in demonstrating U.S. and international solidarity with Zimbabwe’s besieged defenders of democracy as they bravely pressed a brutal regime to respect the rights of their fellow citizens.” And the chief of the political section at our embassy in Sri Lanka, Michael DeTar received an award “for his creative and compassionate work at Embassy Colombo, crafting strategies for exposing and ending human rights abuses, holding abusers to account and protecting the persecuted.”
The third award, the Freedom Defenders Award, went to Yulia Latynina, an independent journalist, writer and radio host from Russia, a country I know well from more than two decades of work in the area. It is a country in which members of the independent media have been the victims of violent – and even deadly – attacks committed by perpetrators, most of whom have yet to be brought to justice. Latynina received the award “for fearlessly using the power of her fiercely independent pen under conditions of great personal risk to report on serious human rights violations, expose gross abuses of authority, combat corruption and defend the silenced.”
The examples of the three outstanding award winners remind us that the Universal Declaration is much more than a catalogue of rights – it is a call to action. The most fitting way to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration is for all of us who are lucky to live in freedom to work in support of the courageous men and women across the globe who serve, and sacrifice for, the cause of human rights every day.