On Saturday, we celebrate Human Rights Day, the 63rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Declaration “one of the great accomplishments of the last century.” Its strength is the simplicity: that all people are born with basic, inalienable rights. In addition to celebrating the document, we pay tribute to the people and organizations that take these principles and put them in to practice, working tirelessly to promote human rights in our societies, oftentimes under intense pressure. These are the activists we saw pushing for dramatic change in the Middle East, where citizens seek to build sustainable democracies with governments that respect their rights. And also the activists and human rights defenders we see right here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, fighting for the protection of the rights of the disabled, children, ethnic and religious minorities, displaced persons, the victims and families of victims of the war, for the right of ordinary citizens and the media to speak out as they choose, and more.
It is unfortunate to see these and many other examples of basic human rights denied or under pressure in BiH. And while at times the challenges can seem insurmountable, there are a few, concrete steps BiH can take to move forward on its human rights agenda. First, BiH needs to bring its electoral system into line with the European Court of Human Rights ruling by allowing all of its citizens to run for presidential and House of Peoples state-level elections. Dignity and human rights are a person’s birthright, but the current system discriminates against non-represented minorities from the day they are born. Second, BiH should meet its obligations to the 100,000 persons still displaced after the war, especially to the 8,000 still in collective centers, by facilitating their return or providing them a lasting solution with just compensation. Meeting these obligations can start now, by funding legislation already passed by the BiH Parliament that begins to address these issues. Third, BiH should fully and energetically implement its laws on gender equality and banning discrimination, harmonize its state and entity criminal codes relating to human trafficking, and strengthen its commitment to the Roma Decade. Protecting the rights of groups that are more vulnerable, including minorities and women, needs to be a priority.
We must also focus on an area of human rights that is often overlooked — the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender people. This issue is sensitive for many people and many obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of gay people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is addressed to all people, not just a few. Being a woman, being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, or being lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender person does not make you less human. No matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we are, we are all equally entitled to our human rights and dignity. You may disagree with how others live but it is essential to the functioning of a modern society that you allow others to live free from the fear of reprisal. Homosexuality is not illegal in Bosnia and Herzegovina: nevertheless, the lives of gay people, particularly those who are young, are extremely difficult and at times even dangerous. It is the duty of the government to protect these individuals and give them the dignity they deserve.
We see our friends, neighbors and colleagues working to make BiH a more tolerant society, respectful of others, united in the ideals and values so eloquently captured in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As the U.S. Ambassador, I have had the opportunity to visit with many of human rights activists, all over BiH and to see their relentless efforts and good work. There are so many organizations and people doing good work, there are simply too many to list here. But there is certainly more work to be done.
Saturday, as we celebrate Human Rights Day, I urge you to think about what human rights mean to you and what you can do to promote tolerance and understanding in your community. I hope you will start by taking a few minutes to read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights — it represents our best ideals. You can find a copy in your language at Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website. I also urge you to take action, by participating in a human rights event or program that resonates for you.
In exhorting people to support human rights, Secretary Clinton invokes others to: “Be on the right side of history.” The United States is a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. Slavery was a central issue in the U.S. Civil War. Later in our history, people from coast to coast joined in campaigns to recognize the rights of women, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, children, people with disabilities, immigrants, workers, and on and on. And the march toward equality and justice continues even in the United States.
Ordinary citizens are using social media and the Internet to become human rights activists. I hope this trend continues, and that people harness the power of modern technology both to make sure that their voices are heard and that their human rights are protected. Regardless of your cause, or your methods, please make the decision to get educated, and get involved.
Cross-posted from U.S. Embassy Sarajevo.