Remarks at Human Rights Defenders Award Ceremony

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary of State
Baghdad, Iraq
June 29, 2013

Good afternoon. It is truly an honor to join all of you to present the 2012 Human Rights Defender Award to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization.

The Arab Awakening reminds us that no leaderships, and no governments, are exempt from their obligation to be accountable to their citizens and respect their rights. The promise of stability, when based on the denial of human dignity and universal rights, is a false promise.

When governments restrict political expression, violate human rights, and fail to provide economic opportunity, they sow the seeds of their own downfall. On the other hand, when governments respond to citizen demands, protect and promote their rights, and offer them equal opportunity, the result is stronger and more stable economic, political, and security partners.

This is why the promotion of human rights and democracy is not only the right thing to do -- it is also the smart thing to do. And this is why during a time of global tumult and continued challenges here in Iraq, we will remain steadfast in our commitment to human rights.

Each year, embassies across the world submit nominations for the State Department’s Human Rights Defender Award, presented to an individual or organization that best exemplifies a commitment to protecting and promoting human rights in the face of extreme adversity.

I can think of no group more deserving than the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization.

Despite continued intimidation and threats of violence, the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization has established itself as a defender of, and advocate for, Iraq’s most vulnerable populations, especially its religious minorities. To promote religious tolerance and multiculturalism, Hammurabi not only organized Iraq’s first public workshops on the subject, but also successfully advocated for changes to primary and secondary school curricula and Iraq’s Personal Status Law.

What makes Hammurabi truly remarkable is that it not only raises awareness about human rights problems -- it also proposes solutions. It understands that to change policies and achieve lasting reform requires working with the government and not just in opposition to it.

Hammurabi’s work with the Ministry of Human Rights to address systemic problems in Iraq’s correctional facilities exemplifies this approach. Thanks to Hammurabi’s efforts and partnership with the Government, separate parliamentary and judicial investigations into human rights abuses are ongoing.

Ultimately, it will be organizations like Hammurabi -- homegrown and grounded in the culture and history of their country -- who will lead the way to greater human dignity and ultimately to greater stability, peace and prosperity in Iraq and the region.

The State Department’s human rights officers live by the motto, “don’t just make a point, make a difference.” I want to thank the Embassy’s human rights officers -- Kristin Gilmore and Lucy Chang -- for their service and for the difference they have made in the lives of countless Iraqis.

Pascale and William: we are proud to stand with you and with Iraq’s human rights defenders. You all inspire us with your courage and humble us with your tireless dedication.

On behalf of Secretary Kerry and the American people, it is my great privilege to present you with the Human Rights Defender Award for your “unwavering and courageous advocacy for Iraq’s forgotten and most vulnerable citizens, championing the rights of the defenseless in the face of great odds, and building a better future for the people of Iraq.”