Remarks at a UN General Assembly High-Level Plenary Meeting on the 20th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

Ambassador Kelley Currie
U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs
U.S. Mission to the United Nations

New York City
December 18, 2018


The United States is thankful for the opportunity to provide remarks on the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Twenty years ago, we collectively passed this Declaration to demonstrate to the world the vital role that human rights defenders play in the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Declaration reminds us that human rights defenders should be able to enjoy the same rights that all individuals enjoy, rights that all governments must respect.

While this Declaration was important then, it is even more important now as the status of human rights defenders and the conditions in which they operate continue to worsen.

The U.S. position on human rights defenders remains steadfast: states can do more and should do more to uphold the ability of human rights defenders and all individuals to fully exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression, association, movement and peaceful assembly without undue interference.

Let us be clear: human rights advocacy, advocacy that advances the promotion of fundamental freedoms, whether domestically or within the auspices of the UN, is to be protected and respected, by all governments. It is with alarm that the international community regularly observes reprisals against human rights defenders by state actors.

The United States condemns measures taken to suppress the voice of victims and witnesses to horrific violations and abuses of human rights. We call attention to the plight of human rights defenders in China, where individuals such as Jiang Tianyong are prevented from fully exercising the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, movement and peaceful assembly due to state sponsored acts of reprisal.

In Cuba, state authorities arbitrarily detained more than 5,000 individuals last year, 2017, and dissidents and activists are routinely beaten and jailed for purely political reasons.

In Iran, the government continues to arbitrarily detain an estimated 800-900 prisoners of conscience for daring to advocate for human rights or for respect for their religious beliefs.

In Venezuela, we highlight the suspicious death of Fernando Alban, whose tragedy highlights a continuing pattern of human rights violations, abuses, and repression of the democratic political opposition by the Maduro regime in its desperate attempt to hold onto to power by any means necessary.

The United States firmly believes that people should not be harassed, imprisoned, or executed just because they don’t agree with a repressive regime.

While there are worsening conditions in some places, we are also happy to highlight important positive improvements.

The international community’s awareness of human rights defenders has grown significantly due to digital technology and increased attention to these issues within domestic and international forums.

Within the UN, Special Rapporteurs and others have reported with increased frequency on the role of human rights defenders within their thematic mandate—we applaud this development and the establishment of a position at the Assistant Secretary General level for addressing reprisals.

This fall, the United States presented a new resolution in Third Committee addressing the increase in governments violating human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly freedom of assembly and association. This resolution, adopted with the co-sponsorship of 86 UN member states, urges governments and non-state actors to immediately end threats and attacks on civil society and human rights defenders, among others.

In addition, we also strongly support domestic and international efforts to document, investigate and provide accountability for, acts of reprisal against human rights defenders. Specifically, we, along with member-states in this room, support the multilateral Lifeline: Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, which provides emergency financial assistance to civil society organizations and human rights defenders facing threats or attacks for their work to promote human rights and democracy.

As we reflect on the 20th anniversary of this important Declaration, we ask member-states to consider what further can be done, whether through domestic policy or in concert with like-minded member-states and others, to establish real consequence and accountability for state-sponsored acts of reprisal against human rights defenders.

Finally, we appreciate the work of the Office of the President of the General Assembly to organize this important event, which rightfully recognizes the significant contributions that human rights defenders make to a freer, more just, and peaceful world. We regret that changes were made to the modalities of the event in an attempt to restrict civil society participation and we urge the General Assembly to reflect upon how poorly such tactics reflect upon this body.

Thank you.