Human Rights Day 2014
Secretary of State
Delegates from around the world came together 66 years ago amid the rubble of World War II to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articulating fundamental civil and political rights of all people, and reminding each of us of our responsibility to respect those rights.
This past September, I was reminded of the power and enduring relevance of the Universal Declaration when I stood at the United Nations with Shin Dong-hyuk, a courageous young man who had escaped from a North Korean prison camp and defied one of the world's most egregious dictatorships. He was a living, breathing example of our own duty to uphold justice and expose abuses wherever and whenever violations occur.
Keeping faith with that duty is the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do. When international human rights standards are observed, sustainable economic progress is more likely, terrorists and criminals find it harder to operate, and societies are better able to benefit from the skills and energy of their citizens. By contrast, when human rights standards are ignored, the result is often chaos and strife, leading to massive suffering that can impose high costs in both financial resources and lives. We see this today in Iraq, where a ruthless terrorist group has directed a campaign of murder, kidnapping, and theft at people of all religions and ethnic groups. We see it in Syria, where a dictator’s use of indiscriminate violence against his own people has triggered the largest humanitarian catastrophe of this century. And we see it many places where a failure to respect human rights, combined with other factors, has produced hostilities that weaken nations and put civilians, including children, at grave risk.
On this Human Rights Day, there are still too many people who struggle for freedom and too many who are punished in pursuit of that dream. Today we note the remarkable peaceful efforts of individuals like Liu Xiaobo of China, Ahmed Maher of Egypt, Eskinder Nega of Ethiopia, Azimjon Askarov of the Kyrgyz Republic, and other political prisoners on every continent; we call for their release, and we ask that in the meantime they are at least treated in full accordance with global norms.
We live at a time when democratic principles and respect for human rights have greater reach
than at any previous time in history. This is due not simply to what governments have done,
but to what people around the world have done to elevate, monitor, and enforce human rights standards. However, past progress is no guarantee of future gains. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the very opposite of a self-fulfilling document. It’s a promise to keep. Let’s all make sure we keep it.