This morning, Secretary Kerry released the Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013. Each year, these reports cover the human rights situation in 199 countries and territories. As the Secretary made clear, we stand with the courageous human rights defenders, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and everyday individuals whose struggles are documented in these reports. As Secretary Kerry said this morning, the United States “will continue to speak out, without a hint of arrogance or apology, on behalf of people who stand up for their universal rights.”
The number of democratic governments in the world has expanded greatly since we drafted the first Congressionally-mandated Human Rights Reports in 1977, but there are still too many countries around the world where governments fail to uphold and protect universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, religion, peaceful assembly, and association. In 2013, governments around the world clamped down on civil society and journalists using more violent and deadly tactics. Governments severely restricted freedom of expression, applying vague legislation to silence dissent and public opinion, and turning digital technologies into tools of repression. Governments also introduced new bills that oppress vulnerable groups, including members of religious and ethnic minorities, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, and persons with disabilities, and security forces committed gross violations of human rights with little or no accountability.
On behalf of the Secretary and with others across the U.S. government, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor uses a range of diplomatic tools to advance human rights around the world and to push back on governments’ attempts to stifle their societies. We discuss problems and progress in bilateral dialogues, raise specific cases in our daily government-to-government engagement, and partner multilaterally to bring international pressure to bear on repressive regimes. We sit down with NGOs and human rights defenders, civil society, businesses, and others to identify potential drivers of positive change. Through our Congressionally appropriated Human Rights and Democracy Fund (HRDF), we support civil societies’ documentation of human rights violations and abuses. We provide emergency assistance to embattled defenders, NGOs, and others through our rapid response funds. We also empower local NGOs and citizens to press for reforms and build foundations for accountable governance.
As we release these reports, I can’t help but think of the activists and ordinary people I met in Damascus, Syria, where I served as Human Rights Officer over 15 years ago, and particularly of the Syrian colleagues at U.S. Embassy Damascus with whom I worked. The 2013 Syria report documents one of the human tragedies of our time. Well over 100,000 people have died during the conflict in Syria, more than 6.5 million citizens have been internally displaced, and 2.5 million are refugees. Yet in the face of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, courageous Syrians continue their pursuit of justice and fundamental freedoms.
I am inspired by the strength and tenacity of civil society and the resilience of so many around the world who refuse to be silenced despite the oppressive practices highlighted in these reports. As human rights icon Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”
Learn more about U.S. government engagement on international human rights at www.HumanRights.gov, or follow the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at Facebook.com/stateDRL or @State_DRL on Twitter.
About the Author: Uzra Zeya is the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.