Friday, December 10, 2:00 p.m.
Professor Hocanin, Professor Demirel, VOIS Cyprus, Professors Sozen and Bozkurt – thank you for inviting me to join you today to mark International Human Rights Day. Why is today important? Today is a day that gives us the opportunity to reflect on human rights and efforts to create more just and fair societies and to recommit ourselves to supporting human rights defenders and their efforts.
Human Rights Day is celebrated annually on the 10th of December to mark the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this day in 1948. The Declaration is a milestone document, which proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Available in more than 500 languages, according to the UN, the declaration is the most translated document in the world.
This year’s Human Rights Day theme is equality. This theme recognizes Article 1 of the Declaration, which states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights. We must address and find solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people in societies, including women and girls, indigenous peoples, people of color, LGBTQI+ individuals, migrants, and people with disabilities, among others.
The United States is committed to putting human rights and democratic principles at the center of our foreign policy. In his first foreign policy remarks, President Biden made clear that if the United States is to succeed in meeting the many challenges we face today, “we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, and upholding universal rights.” An open, inclusive, empowered, and fully functioning civil society is vital to healthy democracies, prosperous economies, and resilient societies. The United States is committed to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The work of civil society, including human rights defenders such as VOIS Cyprus, to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and support good governance is a critical safeguard against threats from autocratic regimes and backsliding democracies. Where civil society and human rights defenders’ ability to work freely is weakened, human rights abuses and violations, discrimination, and corruption flourish.
That’s why I am proud of our embassy’s affiliation with VOIS, which has a longstanding track record of working to hold authorities accountable for protecting universally recognized human rights and standing up for international students and other vulnerable groups. VOIS has provided a stronger voice for student complaints over rising xenophobia and hate speech, landlord abuses, gender-based violence, and lack of police enforcement. In the first half of this year, VOIS recorded 21 human rights violations, including 14 related to unfair housing practices, two related to gender-based violence, and others regarding unsafe working conditions, access to health care, and police mistreatment.
I’m told there are around 50 active VOIS members here today. I applaud your efforts. The work of brave individuals and groups, such as VOIS Cyprus, is an integral part of a vibrant civil society. Our support for you is an investment in the rule of law and democracy.
This year we awarded VOIS a Human Rights Engagement Fund grant that will support a project, co-funded by the EU, aimed at enhancing human rights protections for international students. I understand the project formally launched yesterday. I want to wish Achiri Emmanuel and Samuel Akoni and your project team well as you embark on this important effort.
Democracy and human rights are under threat around the world. The world has been in a sustained democratic recession for more than a decade, which includes a consistent reduction in the space for civil society to operate. Many countries have passed laws restricting funding and operations. Some governments misuse national security laws to clamp down on the ability of civil society actors to exercise their freedoms of expression, association, movement, and peaceful assembly. Instead, governments should enable civil society and expand civic space, as civic groups play a unique and positive role in society.
The United States recognizes that the work of human rights defenders and civil society organizations can often expose them to danger. Human rights defenders are often subject to intimidation. They face threats, arbitrary detentions, and unfair trails. Human rights defenders have suffered disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence. Governments should recognize that promoting and protecting fundamental freedoms builds societal trust.
The United States is committed to supporting and encouraging civil society, human rights defenders, the private sector, and partner nations that seek to respond to human rights threats. Ultimately, human rights-respecting democracies are more peaceful, prosperous, stable, and make stronger bilateral partners.
At home, we are working to confront serious challenges to our own democracy, including political polarization, disinformation and misinformation, and low levels of trust in our public institutions. Far too many Americans continue to suffer inequality, disenfranchisement, and other violations of their civil liberties. While we recognize there is much work to do, we also have full confidence in democracy’s intrinsic capacity to self-correct towards equity and inclusion for all.
I would like to end today by sharing the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. Appointed to the United Nations General Assembly in 1945 by President Harry Truman, she served as chair of the Human Rights Commission and worked tirelessly to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and secure its adoption on this day 73 years ago:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
We should all consider those words carefully and take them to heart. Cypriots, Americans, and all peoples of the world deserve nothing less than the ability to live peaceful, dignified lives. It is up to us—all human rights-respecting individuals—to transform that ideal into reality.