Let’s Support Human Rights Champions

December 11, 2021

Op-Ed by Judith G. Garber, U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus

Last week, peoples and nations around the world commemorated International Human Rights Day and Anti-Corruption Day. This week, let us reflect on the role each one of us plays in safeguarding the ideals of democracy. President Biden made clear in his first foreign policy remarks on February 4, 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, upholding universal rights, respecting rule of law, and treating every person with dignity. That’s our inexhaustible source of strength.”

Any free, thriving society relies heavily on civil spaces in which people—all people—can advocate for their rights without recrimination. Across the globe, however, the most visible symbols of free expression are increasingly silenced. More and more, journalists are the victims of arbitrary imprisonment and state-sanctioned violence. Media outlets, both traditional and digital, are shuttered when critics voice their opposition to injustice. Individuals from all walks of life find themselves under pressure, leaving no space safe for democracy to flourish.

While frightening, this trend is by no means inevitable. The annual celebrations of International Human Rights Day and Anti-Corruption Day remind us of this. Today, scores of organizations such as the Turkish Cypriot Human Rights Foundation, the Refugee Rights Association, the Association of Women to Support Living (KAYAD), and the Turkish Cypriot Bar Association are already doing the immensely important work of promoting peace and defending civil liberties across the island. They are serving on the front lines in the ongoing fight to preserve and strengthen democracy. The United States urges all Cypriots to support civil activism, as the people of every community have both the right and the duty to demand justice and accountability from those in positions of power.

The efforts of everyday Cypriots can also go a long way in combatting one of the most significant challenges facing the world today—human trafficking. Far from being a problem unique to impoverished nations, human trafficking continues to thrive in nightclubs, factories, farms, and construction sites across the world, but also here in Cyprus. Ordinary mothers and fathers, sons and daughters from every corner of the globe are stripped of their most basic freedoms and forced into exploitative labor or sexual slavery. These victims deserve not only our collective compassion, but require very real protections once identified, including comprehensive legal, social, economic, and psychological support. This affront to human rights requires all of us to be vigilant, to be empathetic, and to be fearless in confronting and reporting the inequities we encounter in our communities.

In addition to the staggering human toll trafficking takes on our societies, the illicit finance it generates fuels another grave societal ill — corruption. In every measurable index, the costs of corruption are profound. In communities where a privileged few flout the rule of law, economies stagnate, inequality flourishes, and public trust in leaders erodes. According to UN data, bribes, fraud, and other forms of corruption drain an estimated $3.6 trillion from the global economy. In Cyprus, corruption siphons public resources away from education, health care, and effective infrastructure, enriching the coffers of criminals rather than improving the quality of life for all Cypriots.

Defending human rights, strengthening democracy, and rolling back the creeping tide of authoritarianism are cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, but they are also key priorities for Americans domestically. 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. Simultaneously, far too many Americans continue to suffer inequality, disenfranchisement, and other violations of their civil liberties solely on the basis of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. 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.

As the world continues to address unprecedented threats to our collective wellbeing, the United States remains firm in its belief that empowered, civically-minded societies are humanity’s best tools to confront even the gravest global challenges. 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.