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Remarks At the 2008 International Human Rights Day Awards Ceremony

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Treaty Room
Washington, DC
December 8, 2008

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SECRETARY RICE: Well, thank you, David. And thank you for your excellent leadership of the bureau.

This week, we are joining in solidarity with human rights defenders across the globe in marking the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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. It transcends political and ethnic differences and national boundaries, even as it embraces humanity in all of its diversity. Indeed, the Declaration speaks directly to the desire inherent in every human heart for freedom.

Over the past six decades, democracy has spread across the globe, accompanied by remarkable gains for the rights that the Declaration enumerates. Yet, we are sobered by the fact that hundreds of millions of people are still denied fundamental freedoms by their governments.

The United States remains committed to championing what President Bush has called “the non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” To that end, and in commemoration of International Human Rights Week, I have the pleasure to bestow three awards today. The recipients were chosen out of an impressive group of nominees.

The Freedom Defenders Award is given each year to a foreign individual or nongovernmental organization that has shown exceptional courage and leadership. This year, the honoree is Yulia Latynina, an independent journalist, writer and radio host from Russia. In Russia, we are seeing disturbing efforts to increase control over, and pressure, the media, as part of the emergence of clearly authoritarian trends.

Members of the independent media have been the victims of violent – and even deadly – attacks committed by perpetrators, most of whom are yet to be brought to justice. In September, the owner of an opposition website in Ingushetia was shot to death while in police custody. And just last month, the editor-in-chief of a Khimki-based independent newspaper that had exposed environmental abuses was brutally assaulted. In the last fifteen years, some 300 journalists have been killed in Russia, making it the third deadliest country for journalists worldwide. In her investigative reporting and hard-hitting commentary, Yulia has exposed corruption and abuses of authority among government officials as well as egregious human rights violations by both government authorities and private actors, particularly in the North Caucasus. With great bravery, she has been outspoken in the defense of besieged fellow journalists at a time of growing self-censorship or forced silence, and I am deeply honored to present to Yulia Latynina the 2008 Freedom Defenders Award. (Applause.)

(The Award was presented.)

SECRETARY RICE: The Diplomacy for Freedom Award is given annually to a U.S. Head of Mission for his or her work to end tyranny and promote democracy. This year’s honoree is James D. McGee, our Ambassador to Zimbabwe. At a time of deepening crisis in Zimbabwe, Ambassador McGee has developed a strategy for his Embassy that is designed to support the Zimbabwean peoples’ demand for democratic change, to train a spotlight on the mounting human rights abuses, and to press for free and fair presidential elections.

In the aftermath of the presidential election in March and in anticipation of the run-off vote in June, the Mugabe regime unleashed a reign of terror against the political opposition and barred most international media from Zimbabwe. Ambassador McGee personally led convoys of diplomats from like-minded countries and the U.S. Embassy personnel to rural hotspots to talk with victims of persecution and witness to violence, to be able – they were stopped on several occasions by armed people. Ambassador McGee’s strategy of exposing regime violence helped to establish a truth that could not be ignored and contributed to mounting international pressure on Mugabe and his party to enter into a power-sharing arrangement. Thus far, the Mugabe government has refused to implement this agreement in good faith.

I said in Denmark that it is high time for President Mugabe to go. And Ambassador McGee, I know that you have tried to work to make the electoral process fair and then to make the power-sharing arrangements work. But ultimately, you are working with and for the United States Government to make life better for the Zimbabwean people, and we deeply hope that that will soon come. It will come only, though, if there is a concerted international response, especially by the countries of the region, to the terrible, terrible humanitarian disaster that has now broken out, a cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe, but also to the terrible and outrageous behavior of the Mugabe government. And you are leading that effort internationally.

So to Ambassador McGee and his outstanding Embassy team who are continuing to support the courageous people of Zimbabwe as they want and work for peaceful and democratic change, I am pleased to you with the 2008 Diplomacy for Freedom Award. (Applause.)

(The Award was presented.)

SECRETARY RICE: Our diplomatic effort to advance human rights is not just a job for ambassadors, and that is why annually we confer the Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award upon an outstanding officer serving at one of our posts abroad. This year’s recipient is Michael DeTar, the chief of the Political Section of our Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s 25-year conflict has escalated over the last two years, triggering a sharp increase in human rights violations by the warring parties – the government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil, and paramilitary organizations. Michael found creative and pragmatic ways to engage constructively with Sri Lanka while underscoring our human rights concerns. Michael helped position the United States to play a leading role in the stabilization and recovery of the conflict-torn Eastern Province, focusing on disarming and demobilizing paramilitaries there. He was also a key actor in the international effort to monitor an official Commission of Inquiry investigating high-profile cases of human rights abuse, and he has responded quickly and effectively when journalists and other activists have been threatened or arrested. The Sri Lankan Government adopted Michael’s proposed road map to induce a paramilitary aligned with the government to begin to release its child soldiers. So using his extensive network of civil society and media leaders, Michael has enriched our reporting on human rights conditions in Sri Lanka. And he has not only reported, he has acted. And so I am delighted to bestow the 2008 Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award on Michael De Tar. (Applause.)

(The Award was presented.)

SECRETARY RICE: Well, let me again join in congratulating all of our outstanding award winners and thanking them for their selfless work as they’re working to spread the blessings of liberty. And as long as men and women around the globe remain deprived of their basic rights, we, who live in freedom, have an obligation to give our strong support to the cause of human liberty, and to those who courageously advance it.

This is my last ceremony as Secretary of State on International Human Rights to make these awards. I just want to say that in doing so, I myself have been inspired by the stories of these extraordinary people. It is one thing to sit in the halls of Washington or in the halls of Congress or even in the White House and to talk about the importance of liberty and freedom, to talk about the God-given right to it, and to express, as the President did, that America can never rest as long as any man, woman, or child lives in tyranny. But all of us, whether we are in the White House or in the State Department or in the halls of Congress, are inspired by the true stories of those who take great risks to advance the cause of freedom. And that is why we created these awards, because we wanted to give a face and a story to the struggle for human rights around the world. And what better faces and what better stories than these. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

2008/1019


Released on December 8, 2008

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