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Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN
Statement before the Third Committee of the 62nd U.N. General Assembly
Washington, DC
October 31, 2007

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I appreciate this opportunity to reaffirm the deep commitment of the United States to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As President Bush emphasized in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, respect for the inherent rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

The core philosophical value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the human dignity of every individual. This is something that all members of free societies feel in their hearts. It is something that all those who live in oppression yearn for. These rights are truly universal, not the product of one civilization or one cultural tradition. They are part of what it means to be human.

I have observed this aspiration for human dignity in my personal experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. In meeting Afghans and Iraqis, one feels the compelling force of their desire to live and work under the rule of law, to establish humane societies and political orders, and to build a better life for their families in the prosperity that only comes through freedom.

We value these fundamental human rights not only for what they mean to our individual lives but also because they are instrumental to building successful societies:

  • The greatest advances in the sciences have come forth in those societies with freedom of thought and speech, where individuals with competing views can test the evidence, argue their views, and advance the pursuit of knowledge and truth.
  • Economic growth and progress have been inseparable from rights to own property, to benefit from the fruits of one’s labor and investment, and to be secure in the expectation that human affairs will be governed by the rule of law.
  • Good governance is inseparable from placing limits on state power. Only when the state respects human rights – and accepts the resulting limits on its power – can it win true legitimacy in the eyes of the people and provide for the needed accountability of leaders to the people.

As we look at the sweep of recent history, we see the reality of progress and the possibility for more.

In the span of a few generations freedom has spread across the world, totalitarian communist dictatorships have collapsed and new democracies have risen. According the analysis of Freedom House, the last quarter century has seen the proportion of the world’s countries that are “free” rise by more than 40 percent and the proportion that are “not free” decline by just over 40 percent. This is an enormous achievement.

Over the past year, we have seen important progress in individual countries.

Indonesia, the world’s third most populous democracy and home to the world’s largest Muslim population, continues to consolidate a pluralistic and representative democracy after four decades of repressive authoritarian rule.

In Sierra Leone, the recent peaceful and credible election of President Koroma led to the country’s first-ever democratic transition of power, thus turning the page on its post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

In August, Guatemala’s Congress ratified the agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan Government to establish the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, which will support the rule of law by enabling prosecutors to investigate human rights violations related to gangs, narcotrafficking and police corruption.

In the Middle East, women’s political rights are on an upward trajectory. As the result of the September legislative elections in Morocco, for example, seven women will serve in the government. And, despite many serious challenges that the Lebanese government faces today, the international community remains committed to supporting its efforts to lay the democratic foundations for an open, free and tolerant society to accompany the vibrant press and civil society that have taken hold over the last few years.

These are hopeful developments, indeed, yet we must also confront sobering realities.

Courageous men and women across the globe have continued to press for their rights, but have continued to meet with heavy resistance – and often harsh repression.

In every region of the world, there are governments that have oppressed those who advocate for human rights. These governments abuse their power and misuse the law against citizens seeking to exercise fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. NGOs, journalists and other civil society activists also are subjected to extralegal measures, often by unknown assailants.

In Zimbabwe, civil society – including NGOs, labor unions and religious organizations – remains under siege amid a continuing political and economic crisis. Over the past several months, the government has engaged in an intensified campaign of repression, characterized by harassment, intimidation, arrests of and violent assaults on opposition activists, professionals, labor leaders, and members of civil society. In March, security forces brutally attacked members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, killing one person and causing many to be hospitalized with severe injuries. Most recently, on October 15, members of the non-governmental organization “Women of Zimbabwe Arise!” were detained as they peacefully demonstrated against political violence. On October 16, the police brutally attacked democracy advocates as they marched for a new constitution.

In Cuba, some 250 political prisoners and detainees continue to be held in harsh and life-threatening conditions. The imprisoned include two dozen independent journalists – which means that Cuba has the highest number of detained journalists per capita in the world. Detainees are routinely sentenced in secret trials without legal representation. Some face sentences as steep as 25 years of imprisonment. Prisoners are held in cramped, filthy cells, given rotten food, deprived of sunlight, and denied medical treatment. Prisoners are moved far away to limit family visits and contact with the outside world. Government agents harass, beat, and make death threats with impunity against detainees and prisoners, and also harass the families of political prisoners. The Cuban government has denied prison visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross since 1989.

North Korea remains one of the world’s most isolated and repressive regimes. The regime controls almost all aspects of citizens’ lives, denying freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, and restricts freedom of movement and workers’ rights. The constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," but genuine religious freedom does not exist. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people, including political prisoners, are held in detention camps, and many prisoners have died from torture, starvation, disease, and exposure.

In Burma, the 45-year-long military dictatorship has dramatically curtailed basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and worship. Before the recent crackdown against peaceful marchers, there were an estimated 1,200 political prisoners, including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was elected by an overwhelming majority in 1990. According to the government, the latest crackdown resulted in ten deaths and the imprisonment of 4,000. However, non-official sources estimate the numbers killed, injured, and imprisoned to be much higher. Despite recent releases, the government continues to arrest and detain more activists. We urge the government to give full cooperation to Special Advisor Gambari, who is expected to travel there in the coming days.

In Belarus, authorities have stepped up intimidation of the opposition and ordinary citizens seeking to exercise their right of peaceful assembly. Press and academic freedoms have been curtailed. The few NGOs not already closed down by the government struggle to operate legally under arbitrary registration requirements. Politically motivated arrests and detentions continue, and political parties planning to take part in next year’s parliamentary elections have been threatened with deregistration. Former opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kazulin, whose plight was brought to the attention of the UN Security Council last December, remains in prison. And, in July, opposition politician Andrey Klimov was sentenced to two years of imprisonment after a closed trial for publishing opposing views on the Internet.

In Iran this year, the harassment, arrest and, in some cases, torture of journalists, dissidents, academics, and writers increased notably. The recent, violent crackdown on labor leaders including Mansour Osanloo and Mahmoud Salehi has been particularly egregious. Human rights defenders such as Emad Baghi and dissident clerics such as Ayatollah Boroujerdi remain imprisoned. The authorities also targeted for persecution women's rights activists and persons advocating for an end to discrimination based on religion and ethnicity.

In Syria, political prisoners, including writers and activists, are arbitrarily arrested, detained without trial, and tortured and abused for expressing their views. Included among those is Riad Seif, a former member of parliament and prisoner of conscience, whom the government continues to prohibit from leaving the country to receive desperately needed medical care. The human rights situation has further deteriorated since 2005 when the government began further limiting its citizens’ rights to privacy and imposed even greater restrictions on basic freedoms, such as speech, press, and assembly.

These are just some prominent examples. There are many other, serious concerns about human rights in countries around the world.

Many other countries are undergoing difficult transitions from totalitarian orders, and their peoples have experienced progress and set backs in terms of human rights. We stand with the people of these countries who seek an evolution toward political order fully respectful of these rights. Regarding Russia, the United States has expressed its concerns about developments that have undermined the democratic order. This trend is not in the interest of Russians or of Russia. In the modern world, a strong state cannot be built without the legitimacy derived from upholding individual rights.

In China, no one can doubt the progress that has been made from the era of Mao, when the Chinese people were cut off from the world and the heavy burden of an oppressive totalitarian order stifled all freedoms. We still have concerns about human rights in China, and we and other friends of China are engaged in human rights discussions on these issues. We urge China’s leaders to understand that their country’s continuing success depends on making more progress to protect human rights and to establish the rule of law. And we urge both Russia and China to join with other countries in the effort to address the most egregious violators of human rights.

Colleagues, when human rights and democracy defenders are under siege, freedom and peace are undermined.

Nine years have now passed since the General Assembly finalized and this Committee endorsed the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. It is incumbent upon this body to breathe life into that document by our words and by our actions.

First: We must advance and adopt country-specific resolutions when governments grossly and systematically violate the human rights set forth in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Second: We must vigorously oppose no-action motions designed to thwart efforts to hold repressive governments accountable for their human rights violations.

Third: We must preserve the special mandates of the UN system that perform the vital work of reporting on specific country situations and on the status of fundamental freedoms worldwide. To cite a timely example, we must maintain the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and ensure that its mission remains unpoliticized.

And fourth: We must focus international attention on the plight of imprisoned human rights and democracy defenders – here at the global level and also at regional and national levels – and to work for their immediate release.

Many in the General Assembly represent countries that have recently become free and democratic and, indeed, that are led by former prisoners of conscience. These historic figures were once persecuted by their own governments and maligned as parasites, criminals, foreign agents and traitors – just for acting upon the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Today, they are recognized for what they always had been – men and women of courage and of conscience, impatient patriots who were prepared to press for change at great risk and against all odds, heroes who not only inspired their fellow citizens, but whose examples give hope to people everywhere who live in fear yet dream of freedom.

Colleagues, if the great promise of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to be fulfilled, we the members of this body must align ourselves with those who sacrifice and suffer for the cause of freedom. We must defend the defenders, for they are the agents of peaceful, democratic change.

The progress of freedom is a vital interest of the international community. Countries that respect the rights of their people are more likely to uphold peace and to work toward an international order based on law. Those who enjoy the benefits of free and democratic orders understand that those values are universal aspirations. We aspire to a world in which all human beings, regardless of their race, culture, or religion, see their fundamental rights respected and enjoy the progress and prosperity that protection of those rights make possible.

Released on October 16, 2008

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