Remarks delivered under Item 3, General Debate
Thank you, Madame President.
The United States is glad to have to the opportunity to affirm our unwavering commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights.
People around the world continue to demonstrate their desire for democratic government. We are inspired by the strength, courage, and innovation shown by peaceful demonstrators across the Middle East, and we support transitions to genuine democracies that reflect the aspirations of people across the region.
Against the backdrop of dramatic developments from Cairo to Tripoli to Damascus, we would like to emphasize in particular the essential role that civil society plays in the protection and promotion of human rights, and in the transition to genuine, vibrant democracies.
Civil society provides a critical foundation for holding governments accountable, ensuring good governance, and promoting all human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. Citizens, activists, organizations, congregations, writers, journalists and reporters each play a vital role in encouraging governments to respect human rights. The mandate of this Council acknowledges the importance of these groups in creating and maintaining a healthy, vibrant society. Our commitment to civil society is renewed every time NGOs and national human rights institutions are given a voice in this chamber.
We call upon emerging democracies to recognize and publicly defend the vital role civil society plays in the transition to healthy and vibrant democracies. New governments must recognize this important role through their laws and their actions. To allow civil society to develop and flourish, governments must respect the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. In this light, we especially appreciated the timely and informative panel on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests earlier this week.
Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have demonstrated the importance of peaceful assembly, the time-honored right to come together in public to demonstrate demands, as a vital tool for civil society. This Council has acknowledged its importance in the appointment of a Special Rapporteur for Peaceful Assembly and Freedom of Association.
Likewise, civil society members must be able to express themselves in person, in the media, and over the internet. The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our bedrock document, showed great wisdom when they emphasized that freedom of expression applies equally “through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
States using the excuses of security, order, or stability as a justification to unduly restrict these rights do so at their peril. The permissible scope of restrictions under international human rights law is very narrow and should only be used when absolutely necessary. The former governments of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt used these arguments to justify restricting basic rights and freedoms. But they had to answer to their people in the end. In Syria, we are again seeing what happens when a government tries to silence its people for too long.
Civil society must be able to make its voice heard in government and have a meaningful role in the conduct of public affairs. In many parts of the world we have seen civil society work effectively to demand transparency, protect the environment, battle corruption, promote charity and relief work, and defend the rights of the poor and disenfranchised elements of societies. We strongly support these efforts. As Secretary Clinton recently stated, “We have to protect civil society…They are the ones going to prison, they are the ones being beaten up, they are the ones on the front lines of democracy.”
We call upon this Council to continue its work with vigor and purpose, paying special attention to the important role that civil society plays in political transition. We have been heartened to see how this Council has responded to repression and widespread human rights violations in the Middle East. We urge the Council to continue to address human rights violations as they occur in other parts of the world. We look forward to working collaboratively to achieve these goals.
Thank you, Madame President.