Ambassador Kierscht op-ed on Human Rights Day

Ambassador Cynthia Kierscht
Ambassador Cynthia Kierscht

On Human Rights Day, we reflect on the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was drafted in 1948 on the heels of the most devastating war in world history. World War II was caused and characterized by a cruel disregard for humanity. The Convention on Human Rights was a call to build a better world, and it continues to act as a catalyst to improve respect for human rights for all, including the most vulnerable.

Today, three quarters of a century later, the international order created after the adoption of the UDHR is in danger. A war of aggression threatens peace and well-being in and outside Europe. Autocracies threaten human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic governance. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, with some governments abusing emergency powers to curtail basic freedoms. Illiberal leaders use populist appeals related to income inequality and nationalism to consolidate power. Weak institutions enable these tactics, supported by newer means of disinformation. In the Sahel region, non-state actors such as the Wagner group and terrorist groups use fear and intimidation to achieve their goals, often harming the very populations they claim to protect.

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Human rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society are on the front lines of building a freer and more just world for future generations, working tirelessly to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, advocating for government transparency and accountability, promoting equal access to justice and disclosure and prevention of corruption. Unfortunately, they are often subjected to intimidation, threats, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, gender-based violence and unfair trials for this very work. Repressive governments often issue threats and reprisals when these individuals participate in international human rights dialogues. Those working on land and environmental issues and the human rights of women and girls in all their diversity, persons with disabilities, indigenous people and other members of marginalized and minority groups are particularly vulnerable to attack.

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Globally, we are also seeing the expanded use of internet shutdowns or slowdowns, the misuse of surveillance technologies, including spyware, and the application of burdensome restrictions on civil society organizations, including the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, to stifle civil society voices. In 2021, NGOs report that over 300 human rights defenders (HRDs) and over 50 media workers were killed and hundreds more unjustly imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms around the world.

Against this background, the Biden-Harris Administration has been resolute in its commitment to respect, promote and champion human rights for all. Here in Mauritania, the United States will continue to work together with both the government and civil society to promote respect for human rights by, among other things, combating human trafficking, modern slavery and restrictions on freedom of expression.

President Biden has made it clear that, together with our partners and allies, across multilateral fora and around the world, we must jointly call on all countries to do more to promote respect for human rights and protect human rights defenders, journalists and civil activists on the front lines of democracy and the promotion of human rights. All governments should protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals within their territory and subject to their jurisdiction. This concept is basic, but one we must constantly repeat. Respect for the human rights of individuals within States are an essential component of lasting peace and prosperity among states. On this Human Rights Day, we must look inward and ask ourselves if we are doing enough to respect, promote and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all.

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