Defending Human RightsBarry F. Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Remarks to the UN Third Committee
New York, NY
October 27, 2006
Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:
We live in an age of paradox. The obligation of governments to protect and nurture human rights and democratic freedoms has become one of the central issues within regional organizations and this very body.
At the same time, this has been a difficult year for human rights and the courageous men and women who defend them. In every region, there are governments who responded to growing demands for personal and political rights not by accepting their obligations, but by oppressing those who advocate for their rights.
Over the past year, we have seen disturbing attempts to intimidate human rights defenders and civil society organizations and to restrict or shut down their human rights and democracy efforts.
Unjust laws have been wielded as political weapons against those with independent views. There also have been attempts to silence independent voices by extralegal means. Human rights defenders not only must defend others who suffer repression for exercising basic rights, they must now defend themselves and their families from harassment, and worse.
Here in the General Assembly we spent 13 years – 13 years – negotiating the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. That declaration was endorsed 8 years ago by this body. Despite the principled, innovative and energetic efforts of Special Representative Jilani and of many democratic nations represented here, the universal precepts of the Declaration are not universally applied.
The answer is not to dismiss this body as cynical or ineffective or to rationalize away lack of progress. Those who are oppressed do not need excuses or sympathy. They need action. Simply put, we must press forward with our work to ensure that the words of the Declaration on Human Right’s Defenders are transformed into deeds.
Human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations are essential to the success of free nations. They raise awareness among publics about their rights, expose abuses, push for reform and hold governments accountable.
Some have argued that the best approach to ensuring human dignity is development first, democracy will follow. By this logic, NGOs that focus on "non-political" issues are tolerated; those that focus on "political" issues are silenced. This should raise a key question: why should people have to choose? Can they not participate in economic development and exercise their most fundamental rights withina vibrant civil society? Constricting the political space for human rights defenders and other elements of civil society only limits a country’s economic and political growth.
Colleagues, when human rights defenders and NGOs are under siege, democracy is undermined.
From Cuba to North Korea, Burma to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, those who seek to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly face unrelenting reprisals.
In Iran, the harassment and imprisonment of opposition activists, journalists and scholars continues, and in August, Noble Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s legal center was forcibly closed.
In Belarus, human rights and democracy activists, opposition politicians, independent trade union leaders and journalists continue to be targets of repression. Ever-changing registration requirements complicate or deny the ability of NGOs, independent media, political parties and minority and religious organizations to operate legally.
The Mugabe regime’s crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders continues. Just last month, leaders and supporters of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions were arrested and beaten as they prepared to march in a peaceful protest against worsening economic conditions.
The Sudanese governmentcontinues to harass international and local humanitarian personnel in Darfur by denying visas, subjecting humanitarian organizations to lengthy registration and documentation procedures and arbitrarily removing them from their lifesaving work in IDP camps.
Over the past year in China, authorities intensified the crackdown on citizens with independent views seeking to exercise their rights under Chinese and international law. We have seen a spate of arrests of lawyers, journalists, and political and religious activists and believers. There also have been new restrictions on NGOs and the media, including the Internet. Family members of some activists have been harassed, detained or put under house arrest.
In Russia, the new NGO law’s reporting and re-registration requirements and pressure on journalists raise concerns. While a number of prominent NGOs have been re-registered, others have had to suspend work as they await a decision on their applications for re-registration.
Venezuela’s National Assembly is considering legislation reportedly modeled on the Russia NGO law. Meanwhile, members of NGOs face harassment and, in some cases, even criminal charges for simply exercising their civic rights.
Colleagues, our commitment to protect the noble men and women who serve the cause of human rights must be as determined as the efforts of those who persecute them.
We must help countries develop the democratic institutions that will ensure human rights are respected over the long term. We must help fragile democracies deliver on the high hopes of their citizens for a better life. We must call countries to account when they retreat from their international human rights commitments.
Mr. Chairman, these are not the calls of teachers to pupils, or calls of the West to the East or the North to the South. They must be the calls of all to stand in solidarity with the courageous men and women who live in fear yet dream of freedom.
When we support and defend the work of human rights advocates and civil society organizations, we are helping men and women in countries across the globe shape their own destinies in freedom. And by so doing, we are helping to build a safer, better world for all of us.