Some 15 years ago, I had the distinct privilege of serving as the Human Rights Officer in Damascus, Syria. My responsibilities were much like those of the hundreds of colleagues who contributed to the 2012 Human Rights Reports at U.S. missions worldwide. I met with local civil society leaders and human rights defenders as well as government officials and the media in order to provide an accurate, honest picture of the human rights situation on the ground. We pride ourselves on this objective reporting, and it was a great honor to stand beside Secretary of State John Kerry as he released the 2012 Human Rights Reports today.
The Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are the single most exhaustive set of reports on human rights practices globally. This year, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the reports and decades of U.S. engagement on human rights as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy. The world has changed dramatically since the first reports were published at the request of the U.S. Congress in 1977. Dictators have fallen and democracies born, and yet many human rights challenges and opportunities remain. Today, we release our reports covering 199 countries and territories.
Human rights challenges are at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy concerns for a reason. Countries that respect the human rights of their citizens tend to be the most stable, and our most natural partners. Accordingly, we are particularly concerned by the shrinking space for civil society and the increased frequency of threats against media both new and traditional. All too frequently, these reports once again document the discrimination and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, women, persons with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, informal sector workers, and other vulnerable groups around the world. And as we work to solve these challenges we look to partner with like-minded nations and civil society in advancing a stronger human rights future.
2012 was also a year of human rights developments and growth. We commend steps towards emerging democracy and a tentative opening for civil society in Burma. Georgia held parliamentary elections resulting in the first constitutional transfer of power since the country's independence, and Egypt and Libya held their first round of elections since the Arab Awakening.
I witnessed these transitions, and many more, from various perspectives throughout my career in the Foreign Service. And yet, as we release the human rights reports today, I am particularly thinking of the brave human rights defenders and civil society leaders with whom I worked so many years ago. Bashar Al-Asad's brutality against his own people continues, yet they, and others like them around the world, remain a testament to human strength in the struggle for dignity and justice. After all, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reaffirmed, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."Editor's Note: The photograph accompanying this entry shows the author, Uzra Zeya, meeting with Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East Ignatius IV in Syria in 1997.