On the Occasion of International Human Rights Day

An editorial by Assistant Secretary Robert Destro
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. State Department

In today’s splintered world, it would be easy to think that there is nothing upon which all nations can agree and all cultures can embrace as an integral part of their communities. But International Human Rights Day, celebrated on December 10, reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that the world came together to do exactly that. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a set of rights to which all individuals are entitled. Rights such as being free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Under the UDHR, every human being in the world can claim these rights as their own birthright, no matter their citizenship or allegiance.

The word “universal” in the UDHR’s title was a purposeful choice, showing that the UDHR was the product of consensus among a wide cross-section of global rights traditions. While we are proud that the United States’ own Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee, bringing with her the beliefs expressed in our Declaration of Independence that all persons are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” the drafters represented diverse national, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and intellectual traditions. For example, it was a Haitian delegate, Ambassador Emile Saint-Lot, who presented the final draft of the UDHR to the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Saint-Lot referred to the draft resolution on human rights as “the greatest effort yet made by mankind to give society new legal and moral foundations.”

The founders of the United Nations knew that peace could only be achieved when human rights were respected, and set out to create a common framework that all nations could embrace – a set of universal rights that recognized the primacy of individual human dignity.

Sadly, anyone reading the news today can see that the human rights and fundamental freedoms set forth in the UDHR are not respected by all nations. The Chinese government has forced more than one million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups into internment camps in the Xinjiang region of China since April 2017. The allegations of forced labor, torture, and other inhumane conditions in the camps belie the Chinese government’s false claims that the purpose of the camps is education. In Venezuela, Maduro having plundered one of the wealthiest nations on earth, has caused nearly 20 percent of the population to flee. Maduro’s response to political opposition has been to harass, threaten and target opposition leaders with violence through legal and extrajudicial means. When Venezuelans took to the streets to protest his misrule, Maduro savagely repressed protesters and shut down the Internet to hamper their ability to voice their grievances.

The UDHR’s diverse group of drafters understood that the nations of the world had a duty to one another: to stand up for human dignity and protect the human rights to which every person is entitled. It is not only governments that have this duty. Governments are, after all, composed of individuals. Every person has a role to play in protecting and standing up for human rights.

How can we do this? We can all educate ourselves about human rights. We can all stand against abuse and join the call for accountability, drawing attention to states that abuse human rights and urging them to uphold their commitments to respect human rights. We can demand that nations uphold the tenets of the UDHR.

In Haiti, we continue to urge the Haitian government to investigate all allegations of human rights abuses and prosecute offenders, including those implicated in the violent incidents in La Saline and Bel Air. The United States supports the right to peaceful protests and freedom of expression. While we commend the overall performance of the Haitian National Police (HNP) in maintaining order over recent months, we also urge the HNP Inspector General’s Office to investigate allegations of excessive use of force and extra-judicial killings committed by police officers. The United States recognizes that a free press and civil society are vital components of a free and democratic society and we call on the Government of Haiti to ensure the protection of journalists and civil society actors who are calling for accountability. We also continue to mourn the loss of Charlot Jeudy, who was a great champion of human rights in Haiti.

The United States and its people remain committed to human rights. We are on the frontlines, advocating for every person around the globe to enjoy their rights in the same way that Americans are so proud that we are able to do every day.

After all, these freedoms are the shared birthright of all persons, as declared by the community of nations on December 10, 1948.