Why Human Rights Matter

December 10, marks the 68th annual Human Rights Day in which the United States and countries around the world recall the ideals of freedom enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On that day in 1948, governments came together to say that human rights are universal to all people and that governments have a responsibility to respect and actively protect them. Secretary Kerry commented that the declaration “holds the promise of hope for the civilians who are caught in the crossfire of conflict, the citizens who fight against repressive governments, the families that are driven out of their homes and displaced by conflict, and the workers who are exploited for the profit of others.”


Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster in Spanish. November 1949. [UN Photo]

That is why today we are called to recommit ourselves to the promise that, regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability, all people will live in the confidence that they may speak openly, come together with others, organize peacefully, believe and worship as they see fit, and be protected by the rule of law. We recommit ourselves to the international covenants and agreements that guarantee these rights. And we remind ourselves why we and our partners fight every day to make these rights attainable for millions of people who are unjustly denied them.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that human rights are “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” We know that countries cannot be secure when minorities and other segments of the population are marginalized, discriminated against, or left outside the spheres of development or political discourse. We know that economies cannot be prosperous when information is not freely exchanged and civil society is not free to associate and organize. We know that communities are most resilient to the challenges of violent extremism and organized crime where there is trust between citizens and local authorities because the authorities work to address the legitimate economic and political grievances of the community they serve. As President Obama said, “Every person is entitled to the freedoms of thought, conscience, expression, and assembly. When unjust distinctions are made on the basis of race or religion, human dignity is jeopardized.” 

A young woman signs a peace mural near Nairobi, Kenya. [ Stephine Ogutu, Global Communities/USAID]


This year the United States has worked to promote these ideals in so many ways. We have used our voice in the United Nations and the UN Human Rights Council to call attention to the worst human rights abusers in the world. We have expanded the use the use of sanctions against human rights abusers. We have joined the chorus of countries and international NGOs who have pressured for the release of thousands of political prisoners around the world. We have enacted the world’s first ever national policy on civilian casualties to mitigate, investigate, and remediate civilian casualties.  We have worked to expand the Open Government Partnership which calls on governments to commit to transparency, making corruption in all sectors more difficult to hide. We have used our Presidency in the Community of Democracies to support civil society and push back on the global narrowing of space for civic institutions. We have worked to expand the Global Equality Fund which supports civil society efforts to advance the human rights of LGBTI persons. We have expanded the Freedom Online Coalition which ensures that the internet continues to develop as a medium for free exchange of information across borders, rather than one that is controlled by governments. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds a news conference following an address to UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. [State Department photo]


And we have accomplished all of this together with our partners in the international community, including governments, civil society, and human rights defenders. As Secretary Kerry said, “We stand in solidarity with those working to secure better and brighter futures, and commit to safeguarding their inalienable human rights in the pursuit of freedom, justice, and peace.”

About the Author: Mario Crifo serves in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the Department's Foggy Bottom publication on Medium.com.

For more information: 

A protester holds a poster during a demonstration on International Human Rights Day in Berlin. [AP Photo]
Posted by Mario Crifo
December 10, 2016


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