The U.S. Department of State remains resolute in its commitment to putting human rights and democratic principles at the center of our foreign policy. A critical component to this commitment is placing frontline defenders of human rights and advocates for fundamental freedoms at the center of our efforts. Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) are integral to educating and promoting a vibrant civil society, access to justice, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability. This is why supporting and protecting these individuals, in lockstep with our likeminded partners, is integral to U.S. foreign policy. As Under Secretary Zeya said at the February 1 award ceremony, “the State Department works intensively with like-minded partners from government, civil society, and philanthropy to enable human rights defenders to conduct their work without hindrance or undue restriction, free from fear of retribution against them or their loved ones. Human rights defenders and their organizations are essential actors in thriving societies, and our support for them is fundamental to U.S. democratic renewal efforts, globally.”
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on HRDs have expressed concern for the situation of human rights defenders in all countries, including both emerging democracies and countries with long-established democratic institutions, practices, and traditions. Human rights defenders are often subject to intimidation, threats, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, and unfair trials. Authoritarian and other governments have even issued threats and reprisals when HRDs participate in international dialogues on human rights. Those working on land and environmental issues as well as labor rights, the rights of women and girls, LGBTQI+ and gender diverse persons, persons with disabilities, members of ethnic minorities, and Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable to attacks. Human rights abuses and violations most commonly target either HRDs themselves, their families, or those working in organizations and mechanisms that support their work.
Humbled to speak to the courageous Human Rights Defender Award recipients @StateDRL recognized today. @StateDept commends your awe-inspiring courage in elevating indigenous voices, supporting GBV survivors, representing imprisoned activists, defending worker rights & more. pic.twitter.com/PL68J9AV8o
— Under Secretary Uzra Zeya (@UnderSecStateJ) February 2, 2023
At a time when the liberal international order is being increasingly challenged, it is critical that we stand firmly behind those who, often at great risk to themselves, press their governments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and fulfill their international obligations and commitments. Defending and promoting democracy and human rights is a long-standing priority of the U.S. government and a security and foreign policy priority under the Department of State-USAID Joint Strategic Plan. As we welcome the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 25th Anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, we recognize we cannot combat human rights abuses and democratic backsliding alone. We should work together toward a world in which human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, and their defenders are supported, protected, and celebrated.
On February 1, the Department of State announced the winners of the Global Human Rights Defender Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated leadership and courage promoting human rights, defending fundamental freedoms, countering and exposing human rights abuses and businesses’ failure to respect human rights, and rallying action to protect the environment, improve governance, and secure accountability and an end to impunity. These awards provide an opportunity to celebrate courageous individuals who press every day for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and accountability.
We hope you will join us in celebrating these honorees, and in recognizing all those who press for respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a free world.
This year’s awardees are:
- Mohamed Ely El Her – Mauritania: Thanks to Mr. El Her’s hard work spanning several decades, his community has made monumental progress in securing land rights for former victims of slavery. He won hard-fought land battles in the years when the government of Mauritania refused to admit slavery existed, and today continues to educate and share best practices to help other communities of former slaves and Afro-Mauritanians to overcome their own land ownership and agricultural issues.
- Ekoue David Joseph Dosseh – Togo: Dr. Dosseh has been active in building capacity of Togolese civil society, fighting against injustice and impunity, and promoting democratic advancement across the region for over 15 years. As a doctor, Mr. Dosseh inspired unity and solidarity across medical professions and regions to present a united front, securing better working conditions for a range of medical staff. Dr. Dosseh’s recent activism centers around building a regional and international creative approach to enforce presidential term limits in West Africa.
- Chhim Sithar – Cambodia: Ms. Sithar leads the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at one of the most politically connected businesses in Cambodia, the lucrative NagaWorld Resort and Casino. In late 2021, Ms. Sithar led NagaWorld employees in a strike demanding higher wages and the reinstatement of eight jailed union leaders and nearly 370 others they said were unjustly fired from the casino. Amid harassment and her arrest in 2022, Ms. Sithar continues to speak out about labor rights. Chhim Pros accepted the award on behalf of his sister, Chhim Sithar, who remains in pre-trial detention.
- Ding Jiaxi – People’s Republic of China: Mr. Ding’s human rights advocacy in the People’s Republic of China goes back over a decade when he helped start the New Citizen’s Movement, which supported independent candidates to run in local elections, launched campaigns calling for government officials to disclose their personal finances, called for property rights, and demanded educational access for migrant children. Mr. Ding has reportedly been in pre-trial detention for his activism since 2019 and subject to inhumane and brutal treatment and according to reports was tried in secret in 2022 with no verdict announced. Sophie Luo accepted the award on behalf of her husband, Ding Jiaxi.
- Nino Lomjaria and Team – Georgia: Ms. Lomjaria served as Public Defender of Georgia from 2017 through 2022. Under her leadership, the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) was widely considered the most independent democratic institution in Georgia. Throughout her tenure, Nino and her team advocated strengthened human rights protections for all, at times under intense political pressure; they maintained their independence throughout. The PDO’s work to fight discrimination, and to defend the rights of children, persons with disabilities, prisoners, LGBTQI+ people, and members of religious minorities, without regard to political affiliation, has endeavored to build a democratic state that lives up to the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of its citizens.
- Nasrin Sotoudeh – Iran: Ms. Sotoudeh is a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and leading activist. She has represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and politicians following the disputed June 2009 pro-democracy protests, religious and ethnic minorities suffering persecution, as well as prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors. She has been frequently imprisoned since 2010, including in solitary confinement, and in March 2019 she was sentenced to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing a hijab. Ladan Boroumand, a fellow Human Rights Defender, accepted the award on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh.
- The legal team of the Badinan detainees, led by Bashdar Hasan – Iraq: Mr. Hasan is an Iraqi human rights lawyer who headed a group of lawyers who served as defense counsel for the “Badinan detainees” – a group of journalists, activists, and protesters that Amnesty International stated were “arbitrarily arrested” and “forcibly disappeared” in Badinan (Duhok Province) in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The team represented these high-profile cases at great personal and professional risk, facing intimidation efforts, harassment, and anonymous death threats.
- Mohammad Nur Khan – Bangladesh: Over the past three decades, Mr. Khan led two of Bangladesh’s best-known domestic rights organizations and partnered with international organizations to document human rights abuses and promote accountability in Bangladesh. His timely interventions, advocacy on behalf of families of victims of enforced disappearances, and leadership amongst active civil society networks, have saved lives and cleared innocent victims of politically motivated charges.
- Elaíze de Souza Farias – Brazil: Ms. De Souza Farias is a cutting edge Indigenous investigative journalist based in Manaus, Amazonas who co-founded in 2013 the independent news agency Amazônia Real, the first non-profit investigative journalism agency based in the Amazon. She reports on issues of the environment, agriculture, Indigenous and traditional peoples, ethnicity, race, gender, and the fight against violence in the Amazon, linking these themes to the larger issues of belonging and identity.
- Rosa Melania Reyes Velásquez – Honduras: Ms. Reyes Velásquez has spent decades fighting violence against women in Honduras, confronting aggressors, abusers, gang members, and at times, representatives of her own government. In her 28 years at the Women’s Movement for Colonia López Arellano and Surroundings, Ms. Reyes Velásquez has spurred action to secure accountability and end impunity, assisting more than 7,300 women in their fight for justice.
The Department of State continues its commitment to stand by HRDs around the world calling for greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. We proudly recognize all those across the world who take a stand against human rights abuses and violations, and who have sought to hold governments accountable.
About the Author: Lilly Calafell is a policy advisor in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.