The United States State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in late February. After examining data from the past year, the U.S. named Syria as the country with the worst human rights violation in 2013 for its chemical weapons attack in August 2013.

In the introduction to the report, Secretary of State John Kerry specifically names Syria, Russia, China, Ukraine, Cuba, Egypt and South Sudan as nations in which extreme human rights violations are taking place.

Kerry also reflects on the fact that this year is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kerry notes the commitment of not only the State Department and U.S. government agencies to improving human rights, but also “U.S. citizens, international nongovernmental organizations, foreign governments, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, scholars and others.”

Furthermore, Kerry notes, “As Secretary of State, I meet with many brave individuals who risk their lives daily to advance human rights, in spite of the threat of violence and government attempts to silence their voice.”

There has been a noticeable reaction to the release of the Human Rights Report, especially the emphasis on human rights violations in Syria. The chemical attack on August 21, 2013 resulted in the deaths of over 1,400 people, including about 400 children. These figures are a product of U.S. intelligence, but the British-run Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported data that suggested the death toll may have actually been under 1,000.

The great deal of violence in Syria appears to have become intensified n 2012, after a number of groups boycotted the May 2012 parliamentary elections, sparking a civil war. Syrian President Bashar Asad’s authoritarian regime has used force to put down protests, as well as air and ground military assaults on a wide of range of areas including cities and residential areas.

In terms of the number of the abuses in the country, the reports cites rape and domestic violence against women, genital mutilation, reproductive rights, child abuse, forced and early marriage, sexual exploitation of children, human trafficking, discrimination against persons with disabilities, discrimination against national, racial and ethnic minorities as well as abuses against people because of sexual orientation or gender. Activists also believe that there has been discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, but that these cases may not be reported.

The Human Rights Report also seems to foreshadow the recent crisis that has broken out in Ukraine, due to the people’s desire to have more of a say in their government and refusal to live under a government so strongly influenced by Russia.

In 2013, the Ukrainian government used violence against journalists and other members of the media. Furthermore, the governments of both countries have recently started implementing a harsher punishment for any peaceful protests against human rights violations.

More recently, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev, the capital, and was reported to have taken refuge at a Kremlin sanatorium located outside of Moscow.

Finally, Kerry highlighted the connection between issues of national security and human rights, citing that, “The places where we face some of the greatest national security challenges today are also places where governments deny basic human rights to their nations’ people, and that is no coincidence.”

Julie Guacci

Sources: ABC News, BBC News, U.S. State Department, CBS News
Photo: US News

December 10th, 2013 is the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the World Conference on Human Rights.

The UN General Assembly first proclaimed Human Rights Day in 1948. However, the efforts were renewed in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna through The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. It consists of a preamble and 30 articles.

The Declaration has been translated into more than 380 languages and dialects: making it the most translated document.

This universal document defines fundamental human rights and freedoms that are to be applied to protect anyone, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.

The human rights theme this year is Working For Your Rights, with an emphasis on looking forward to looming challenges.

At this time, let us reflect on and celebrate the achievements in human rights over the past 20 years. Broadly, there have been notable advancements in the areas of women’s rights, the development of law to achieve accountability for human rights abuses, the protection and promotion of the rights of marginalized groups and a much greater understanding of the universality and indivisibility of human rights.

The UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) provides 20 specific accomplishments.

1.Economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights and the right to development are recognized as universal, indivisible, and mutually reinforcing rights of all human beings, without distinction.

2. Human rights have become central to the global conversation regarding peace, security and development.

3. New human rights standards have built on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the implementation of international human rights treaties is significantly improved.

4. Additional explicit protections in international law now exist covering, among others, children, women, victims of torture, persons with disabilities, and regional institutions. Where there are allegations of breaches, individuals can bring complaints to the international human rights treaty bodies.

5. Women’s rights are now acknowledged as fundamental human rights. Discrimination and acts of violence against women are at the forefront of the human rights discourse.

6. There is global consensus that serious violations of human rights must not go unpunished. Victims have the right to claim justice, including within processes to restore the rule of law following conflicts. The International Criminal Court brings perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.

7. There has been a paradigm shift in the recognition of the human rights of people with disabilities, especially and crucially, their right to effective participation in all spheres of life on an equal basis with others.

8. There is now an international framework that recognizes the challenges facing migrants and their families which guarantees their rights and those of undocumented migrants.

9. The rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals have been placed on the international agenda.

10. The challenges facing indigenous peoples and minorities are increasingly being identified and addressed by the international human rights mechanisms, especially with respect to their right to non-discrimination.

11. The Human Rights Council, set up in 2006, has addressed vital and sensitive issues and its Universal Periodic Review, established in the same year, has allowed countries to assess each other’s human rights records, make recommendations and provide assistance for improvement.

12. Independent human rights experts and bodies monitor and investigate from a thematic or country-specific perspective. They cover all rights in all regions, producing hard-hitting public reports that increase accountability and help fight impunity.

13. States and the United Nations recognize the pivotal role of civil society in the advancement of human rights. Civil society has been at the forefront of human rights promotion and protection, pinpointing problems and proposing innovative solutions, pushing for new standards, contributing to public policies, giving voice to the powerless, building worldwide awareness about rights and freedoms and helping to build sustainable change on the ground.

14. There is heightened awareness and growing demand by people worldwide for greater transparency and accountability from government and for the right to participate fully in public life.

15. National human rights institutions have become more independent and authoritative and have a powerful influence on governance. Over a third of all countries have established one or more such institutions.

16. The United Nations Fund for Victims of Torture has assisted hundreds of thousands of victims of torture to rebuild their lives. Likewise, the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, with its unique victim-oriented approach, has provided humanitarian, legal, and financial aid to individuals whose human rights have been violated through more than 500 projects.

17. Victims of trafficking are now regarded as entitled to the full range of human rights and are no longer perceived to be criminals.

18. A growing consensus is emerging that business enterprises have human rights responsibilities.

19. There are now guidelines for States which support freedom of expression while defining where speech constitutes a direct incitement to hatred or violence.

20. The body of international human rights law continues to evolve and expand, to address emerging human rights issues such as the rights of older persons, the right to the truth, a clean environment, water and sanitation, and food.

There is much to be celebrated. However, many people continue to not have a voice.

How can you participate?

-Support education through programs such as UNICEF’s Education First, as education is an empowering tool.

-Protect and use your freedom of speech. Journalists work to give a voice to oppressed people, and are often oppressed themselves while doing this valuable work. Find ways of supporting journalists and using your own voice to protect the human rights of oppressed communities.

-Use social media to raise awareness of Human Rights Day and human rights accomplishments or concerns that interest you.

-Contact your congressional leaders and ask them to support USAID or specific bills dealing with human rights issues, such as the Global Food Security Act of 2013 (H.R. 2822). For additional human rights related bills visit:

– Caressa Kruth

Sources: UNOHCHR, UN, Huffington Post, USAID