Good morning. I am honored to participate in DRL’s Global Human Rights Defender Awards. The Department is proud to re-launch this ceremony in 2023, which is also the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders – a resolution which, following fourteen years of negotiations, provides for the support and protection of human rights defenders in the context of their work.
This award ceremony provides a platform to recognize the courage, determination, and resilience displayed by human rights defenders from around the globe. For your brave and impactful work, I want to thank and honor you. It is not just you, the defenders who have joined us here today, who have sacrificed so much to safeguard fundamental human rights. It is also your families, your friends, and your colleagues who have endured significant hardships due to reprisals against your work. For that, we celebrate and honor them today and every day.
I am proud to be able to say today that supporting and protecting human rights defenders, in lockstep with our likeminded partners, is integral to U.S. foreign policy. 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.
A prime example of our commitment to supporting human rights defenders is President Biden’s Summit for Democracy and its ongoing Year of Action, where over 100 partner governments, thousands of civil society actors, and private sector leaders are uniting to build more resilient democracies and safeguard human rights.
At the first Summit for Democracy in 2021, participating governments announced over 750 commitments to strengthen democracy at home and abroad. As part of our own Summit Commitments, the U.S. launched the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, pledging to bolster democratic reformers, including by expanding our 22-nation, multistakeholder Lifeline fund, which provides emergency assistance to at-risk defenders around the world.
Like-minded governments have made similar pledges through the Summit for Democracy. For instance, Canada committed to providing a safe haven to human rights defenders, while Costa Rica vowed to work through the Organization of American States to strengthen its framework to protect and promote human rights. The Czech Republic pledged to increase funding to civil society and human rights defenders through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “Transition Promotion Program,” a critical democracy assistance funding mechanism.
Looking beyond the March 2023 Summit, here are three ways the Department of State will continue to support human rights defenders globally.
First, the United States will champion the inclusion and elevation of human rights defenders in multilateral fora. At the Human Rights Council, we work to provide human rights defenders a space to tell their stories, so that we can listen and learn from them, taking these lessons and applying them to our work to rally the international community in support of defenders.
Throughout 2022, we convened side events in collaboration with likeminded partners including a March HRC side event on Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders Online with our EU Colleagues, and another that same month on Environmental Defenders, with Sweden. In September, during the UN General Assembly High Level Week, the United States and Sweden co-hosted a side event on defenders operating in closed political spaces – to amplify the myriad ways in which defenders are stigmatized, and the challenges they face.
We have also joined valued allies and partners—some of whom are here today with us—to co-sponsor key resolutions supporting human rights defenders. These included a March 2022 Human Rights Council resolution recognizing the contributions of human rights defenders in conflict and post-conflict situations. A few months later, in June, we co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution on protecting rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association globally – a freedom routinely taken away from individuals, like today’s honorees, who, boldly seek to hold governments accountable.
We also continue to work with many governments represented in this room to advance multilateral accountability for attacks on civil society, including the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests in the wake of the death in custody of Mahsa Amini in September. In response to this unspeakable tragedy, the United States supported the Human Rights Council Special Session last November wherein we and 51 countries co-sponsored the resolution establishing a Fact-Finding Mission on Iran to investigate alleged human rights violations in the ongoing crackdown on the protests, especially with respect to women and children.
As brutal Iranian government attacks on civil society intensified last fall, the U.S. led a successful multilateral effort that removed Iran from the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in partnership with a cross-regional group of partners. Additionally, as long-time members of the ECOSOC NGO Committee, we continue our work to ensure that civil society organizations can obtain UN accreditation and have a voice in the UN body meetings.
A second way the United States will sustain support for human rights defenders is by promoting accountability for human rights abuses and violations through tools such as visa restrictions and financial sanctions. Human rights defenders are crucial allies in this effort, as your on-the-ground reporting helps shed light on violations and how we can take action. In turn, our accountability mechanisms allow the United States to contribute to a world order in which we make clear that impunity is unacceptable.
Since the start of the Biden-Harris Administration, the Department has imposed visa restrictions on over 6,000 individuals for undermining the security and stability of democratic states. We further imposed visa restrictions on 40 foreign government officials specifically for their involvement in gross violations of human rights. The State Department has also designated 38 persons under Global Magnitsky financial sanctions for their connection to serious human rights abuses.
Pursuing multilateral action and holding perpetrators accountable, while vital, are not enough to keep human rights defenders out of harm’s way. This is why, third, and lastly, the U.S. government is committed to protecting human rights defenders by offering direct assistance where we can do so without doing harm. The State Department funds numerous rapid response and emergency assistance programs designed to benefit civil society organizations and human rights defenders at risk, whether they are uncovering grave human rights abuses or fighting for the right to freedom of assembly.
Through these very programs over the last decade, the Department has provided $60 million to directly support almost 10,000 human rights defenders from more than 130 countries and territories. This includes over 300 environment, land, indigenous rights, and climate groups who have been on the front lines of some of today’s most daunting challenges and have paid a heavy price for their activism.
While we have these various tools and platforms to support the critical work done by human rights defenders, we know that grave challenges remain. Over the past year, violent attacks on human rights defenders increased, further complicating an already dangerous and precarious global situation. Despite the barrage of threats you face daily, you, the human rights defenders are undeterred. Today’s awards highlight just that: your resilience and your strength.
We honor you; we support you; and we remain resolute in our commitment and conviction to ensuring that you can continue to carry on your life-saving work as defenders of human rights. Thank you.