About the Author: María Otero serves as Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. As Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, María Otero oversees U.S. foreign policy on democracy, human rights, population, refugees, health, environment, trafficking in persons, and Tibetan issues.
From the Far East to the Western Hemisphere, we face ongoing human rights challenges that merit our attention. This week, I spoke about these issues in Latin America at a Human Rights Day event at the Organization of American States (OAS). Three areas that are particularly important to the region are the protection and empowerment of vulnerable groups, the preservation of freedom of expression, and strengthening democracies through the role of civil society.
To protect and empower vulnerable groups, we must work to eliminate violence and discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. Women across the Americas continue to drive democratic change and social equality yet in many places they still suffer the brunt of violence and discrimination because they are not empowered by legislation and law enforcement. Likewise, cultural norms have been slow to change, further impeding the realization of women's rights as human rights in Latin America.
But women are not the only victims. In many Western Hemisphere countries, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are threatened, tortured, and even killed due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The United States is committed to ending discrimination and hate crimes against LGBT individuals.
We also must not be blind to the racial discrimination that exists within our nations. Indigenous, African descendent, and other minority communities still face discrimination in employment, voting, and identification in Latin America. In Colombia, for example, indigenous communities are among the most at risk of being displaced from their homes. This is why President Obama's announcement of U.S. support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples this week is so important. It is also why the United States co-sponsored this year's OAS Resolution on the prevention and reduction of statelessness and protection of stateless persons in the Americas. Without recognition as citizens by any government, stateless persons are especially vulnerable to violence and discrimination because they are denied the right to a nationality that lends access to many other human rights, including freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, and education for children.
Another human rights issue of utmost concern in our hemisphere is the preservation of freedom of expression -- as well as the protection of journalists and individuals who exercise this human right. The erosion of freedom of expression in many areas of our region undermines the democratic institutions that we have fought to build and preserve for generations. Without this freedom, opposition is silenced and democracy becomes a vehicle for derision rather than peaceful and stable governance.
Our ability to preserve the foundations of democracy, such as freedom of expression, directly relates to a third priority: strengthening the role of civil society. Secretary Clinton has made engagement with civil society a defining feature of our democracy agenda. Just last week, she announced the launch of a new strategic dialogue with civil society, bringing together representatives from government and civic groups for regular consultations. We must focus on addressing the growing trend in many regions of crackdown and isolation of civil society organizations. Even in nations that call themselves democracies, fear of opposition and agitation has resulted in the elimination of citizen's rights to advocate, organize and even exercise basic freedoms such as the right to vote. We know that when civil society is intimidated and undermined, human rights, citizen safety, and democratic principles are diminished.
How we address these issues in the coming years -- both domestically and internationally -- will write the story of our success in human rights for generations to come. Through the protection of vulnerable groups, promotion of freedom of expression, and committed, open engagement of civil society, the Western Hemisphere has the capacity to lead the world in human rights.