Remarks at the 2014 Human Rights Defenders Award Ceremony

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
July 16, 2015

DEPUTY SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you all very, very much. And if you’ll allow me, I just want to start before we get to our honorees with a few words about the good friend who just introduced me, Tom Malinowski. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Tom, working with Tom, for more than a couple of decades now, starting right here in this building. And there has not been a single day when I have not seen him fight with all his might and all his heart for the rights and dignity of all people. In a world where basic human values are more easily baked into rhetoric, not action, Tom’s unyielding commitment continues to hold all of us, leaders and citizens of every country, to a higher standard. And I have to say I’m grateful for that every day. Thank you.

It’s a profound privilege to join you this afternoon to honor Azimjan Askarov of Kyrgyzstan and the NGO Foro Penal of Venezuela with the 2014 Human Rights Defenders Award. It’s also a responsibility that I approach with deep humility and admiration for those in this room today and the communities that you represent: advocates, champions, defenders who turn to confront adversity when so many others turn away. Your voices, your persistence, your leadership is needed now more than ever, just as Tom said. As we meet today, the space for civil society is shrinking and the tolerance for free expression is contracting in many parts of the world. It’s under attack through restrictive laws, arbitrary arrests, sanctioned brutality. It’s under siege where power has become concentrated in the hands of a few and corruption has become a way of life. It is under threat by those who see independent media, free assembly, and open society as a source of insecurity instead of the essential guarantors of long-term strength, stability, progress, and prosperity, as we know them to be.

But against this tide, people are resisting. They’re affirming their rights and holding their leaders accountable through historic elections from Nigeria to Afghanistan. They’re making their voices heard and pressing for important reforms from Ukraine to Vietnam. They’ve seized cracks in authoritarian rule and widened them into democratic openings from Burma to Tunisia. And they’re fighting for peace, for dignity, for genuine democracy from Kyrgyzstan to Venezuela. Today we’re here to honor those individuals whose unflinching courage in even the most dangerous and despairing circumstances has advanced the cause of freedom and justice on which all of us depend.

Fifteen years ago, Azimjan Askarov became the first human rights activist to receive permission to monitor detention facilities in Kyrgyzstan, a task he undertook with firm commitment to defend the rights of the vulnerable and to uphold the truth. He exposed abuse within the prosecutor’s office, uncovered beatings of religious detainees, and founded the organization Vozduh, a beautifully apt name that means “air,” in order to monitor the conditions inside of prisons. When violence erupted between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, Askarov made it a priority to publicly report on the crisis and document violations of human rights.

But he didn’t stop there. It was not enough to sound the alarms. He also wanted to help heal the nation’s wounds by encouraging reconciliation between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. For his work during this crisis, a time when his nation needed him most, he was arrested, subjected to harsh mistreatment, judged in a trial rife with procedural irregularities, and sentenced to life imprisonment, where he remains to this day. Many would have given up then and there. Many would have been broken. Not Askarov. He continues the fight from the confines of his cell, undeterred by walls or barriers, as the name of his organization Vozduh suggests. He sends letters of encouragement to fellow activists and organizes cultural events to foster reconciliation. Perhaps most importantly, he continues to inspire and unite the entire human rights community in Kyrgyzstan, bringing together leaders from all ethnicities and backgrounds to help move their country forward, and he’s doing this from inside a prison.

Today, we are very honored that Askarov’s son Sherzod is here to accept this award on his father’s behalf, which we’ll present in a moment. We are grateful to you for being here and we’re so honored to have you. We only wish that your father could be with us as well.

More than 8,000 miles away, an impressive organization of 200 lawyers and 1,000 human rights defenders is leading a similar fight with fortitude, moral purpose, and a deep commitment to justice and political dialogue. Since its founding 2002, the Venezuelan NGO Foro Penal has provided the international community with insight into government impunity and political manipulation, publicized human rights abuses committed by government officials. It’s coordinated legal action and defense on several cases of political persecution, filed petitions about the deterioration of Venezuela’s rule of law and judicial independence before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and before the United Nations.

In 2014, the NGO provided critical information about the treatment and condition of those detained during nationwide protests, when calls for change were met with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Today a majority of these student demonstrators who have pending charges receive free counsel from Foro Penal. The risk to Foro Penal to the safety, to the property, to the freedom of its lawyers and defenders is very real. But their work carries on. Defenders have been harassed; they’ve been arrested. They have been physically intimidated. But their work carries on.

As we have engaged the government, political opposition, and civil society in Venezuela, we’ve underscored the importance of dialogue, the respect for accountable institutions, and our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. And we’ll continue to work with Foro Penal and groups just like it.

Today’s award to Foro Penal recognizes an important leader in this effort to nurture greater democratic ethos and advance the aspirations for all of Venezuela’s citizens. We’re very honored that Foro Penal’s executive director, Alfredo Romero, and its founder, Gonzalo Himiob, are here to accept the award on behalf of the organization and all of their remarkable colleagues. Thank you for being here.

We have a saying in America that one person of courage makes a majority. One voice of justice, one expression of compassion, one act of conscience can echo across lands and through generations to become more powerful than intolerance, more powerful than corruption, more powerful than indignity. And it begins with each of you.

On behalf of President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and the American people, it is my privilege to present Mr. Askarov, Mr. Himiob, and Mr. Romero with the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award. Thank you. (Applause.)