Remarks at Organization of American States Human Rights Event

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Washington, DC
December 15, 2010

It is a pleasure to speak today with such a distinguished audience here at the Organization of American States. I would like to thank the OAS for hosting this event to commemorate human rights day, and particularly to Secretary General Insulza for being here today. Your presence exemplifies the OAS strong commitment to promoting human rights. To my distinguished panelists, I want to thank you for your tireless efforts in strengthening democracy and human rights across the Americas.

The United States’ approach to human rights promotion has been one of partnership with many of you here today. And through such partnership, we intend to lead by deeds, not just words.

Human rights in the 21st century manifests through wide and varied actions, begging the question, are we making progress? Just last week, the world watched as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee delivered its annual award to an empty chair. The chair should have been occupied by one of this generation’s bravest individuals in the fight for human rights, Liu Xiaobo. The last time the award was presented to an empty chair, in 1935, the rightful honoree, Carl von Ossietzky, was also imprisoned. Surely we have made progress on human rights in the 75 years since that ceremony, but it is moments like this when we are called to uphold international human rights obligations and encourage countries to open political space for greater exchange of opinions. There remain several countries in this region, some that refused to attend today’s discussion, that continue to violate human rights and diminish the potential of democratic processes. As members of the OAS, we should continue to engage our neighbors and encourage them to open their societies and embrace democratic principles.

From the Far East to the Western Hemisphere, we face ongoing challenges that merit our attention. Let me touch on three that are particularly pertinent in Latin America and the Caribbean: the protection and empowerment of vulnerable groups, the preservation of freedom of expression, and strengthening democracies through the role of civil society.

First, to protect and empower vulnerable groups, we must work to eliminate violence and discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Let me start with gender: women across the Americas' continue to drive democratic change and social equality. I have met with women leaders in Brazil who are fighting the scourge of human trafficking. Women in Honduras are raising their voices in the name of freedom of speech, and protecting the place of human rights defenders in society. In Colombia, women are defending the rights of the 3 million internally displaced people. And in Cuba, the Damas de Blanco were recently honored for their work fighting for basic freedoms.

Yet, despite these heroic examples, women still suffer the brunt of violence and discrimination because they are not empowered by legislation and law enforcement. Likewise, cultural norms have been slow to change, further impeding the realization of women’s rights as human rights in Latin America.

But women are not the only victims. In many Western Hemisphere countries, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are threatened, tortured, and even killed due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The United States is committed to ending discrimination and hate crimes against LGBT individuals. We need to eliminate laws that criminalize same sex relationships, and we are ready to partner the OAS and the Inter-American system to promote respect for the human rights of LGBT persons across the region. These are issues I have addressed at the highest levels with many African nations that struggle with this issue and where gay persons suffer from extreme violence and fear for their lives.

Lastly, we must not be blind to the racial discrimination that exists within our nations. Indigenous, African descendent, and other minority communities still face discrimination in employment, voting, and identification in Latin America. These groups also struggle to maintain historic possession of lands and should be held in closer consultation when government or the private takes steps that will affect their life and land.

We also continue to support the independent Inter American human rights system through practical measures such as funding the important work of the special rapporteurs. We are also preparing to support the United Nations International Year for African Descendants, and work with the OAS to highlight the contributions of women, men and youth of African Descent.

The second human rights issue of utmost concern in our hemisphere is the preservation of freedom of expression — as well as the protection of journalists and individuals who exercise this human right. The erosion of freedom of expression in many areas of our region undermines the democratic institutions that we have fought to build and preserve for generations. Without this freedom, opposition is silenced and democracy becomes a vehicle for derision rather than peaceful and stable governance. The United States continues to support the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the Commission's Unit for Human Rights Defenders. And in many nations, including Haiti, and Nicaragua, we have collaborated to support a healthy, free media through training journalist in human rights, unbiased reporting, and the importance of a free press.

Our ability to preserve the foundations of democracy, such as freedom of expression, directly relates to the third priority: strengthening the role of civil society. Secretary Clinton has made engagement with civil society a defining feature of our democracy agenda. Our embassies and missions around the world are charged with developing strategies to support and protect of civil society. And last week, Secretary Clinton announced the launch of a new strategic dialogue with civil society, bringing together representatives from government and civic groups for regular consultations, just as we do in our strategic dialogues with partner governments.

Our engagement with civil society focuses on addressing the growing trend in many regions of crackdown and isolation of civil society organizations. Even in nations that call themselves democracies, fear of opposition and agitation has resulted in the elimination of citizen's rights to advocate, organize and even exercise basic freedoms such as the right to vote. We know that when civil society is intimidated and undermined, human rights, citizen safety, and democratic principles are diminished.

An independent legislature has an essential role to play in the political system in order to meet the principles laid out in the Charter. Despite the fact that millions of Venezuelans exercised their democratic right to vote in the legislative elections, President Chavez requested the power to legislate by decree thereby weakening the democratic process that voted in new leadership. The September elections represented an opportunity for Venezuelans to deepen their dialogue within an institution that has an essential role to play in Venezuela's democracy. This situation calls us to remember our commitment to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which underscores the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government as an essential element of representative democracy.

Just as President Obama has made U.S. cooperation in the hemisphere a priority, individual nations must make it a priority to cooperate with civil society. Government and civil engagement must be a relationship of equals, driven by the common desire to achieve what is best for the people of the nation – even if that means ceding power to newly elected representatives. This does not always mean agreement on all matters. In building and engaging civil society, we create the space for a stable society fostered by distinct perspectives, governed by values that reflect the rights of individuals.

Here at the OAS, many of our governments are working together to forge a consensus on ways we can better work together to support and deepen democracy, and to promote and protect human rights more effectively. With regard to our own performance and efforts to strengthen participation of civil society, the United States supports a set of NGO principles, based on universally recognized ideals which define the way governments should behave in relation to its NGOs partners.

Of course, a strong democracy also means holding yourself accountable. Which is why the United States participated in the Universal Periodic Review this year. One example of this approach is the Obama Administration’s year-long engagement with civil society throughout the United States in review of our human rights record, which was presented at the Universal Periodic Review last month. Through the review, we shared the United States’ own struggle for a more perfect union. And thanks to the UPR process, we have strengthened our ties with civil society organizations. By recognizing our country’s imperfections, we are better able to find ways to improve our domestic policies in areas such as immigration, homelessness, and healthcare, in conjunction with our protection of human rights.

How we address these issues in the coming years — both domestically and internationally — will write the story of our success in human rights for generations to come. The documents that we celebrate today — the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — laid out a framework for nations to follow. Likewise, the Inter American Democratic Charter is an important resource as we seek to preserve democracy in the region. Through these renown blueprints, we know that the social, economic and political participation of all citizens is our best means of ensuring peace, prosperity, liberty for this hemisphere.

The challenges are daunting, yet we have seen the rewards of progress. Despite the economic crisis, our region boasts indications of economic development and stable, accountable democratic institutions. Through the protection of vulnerable groups, promotion of freedom of expression, and committed, open engagement of civil society, the Western Hemisphere has the capacity to lead the world in human rights. Let us each be leaders in this work and models for other nations, working towards a future in which the Nobel Peace Prize chair is never again left empty.