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U.N. , Human Rights: Standing up for the values we share

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by United States Ambassador Mary M. Ourisman 23.DEC.08

Sixty years ago the member states of the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration recognized the rights of all people to freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of religion and conscience. It also recognized the universal rights to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention and exile, the freedom to assemble, freedom to own property and the right for all persons to take part in their own government.{{more}}

From that time forward, the United States and our friends in the Eastern Caribbean have been leaders in the respect and promotion of basic human rights and freedoms around the world. Today, for example, countries such as Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda are leading the way with strong programs to combat human trafficking, the modern-day equivalent of slavery. These and other countries are also taking ever stronger stands against domestic violence and the mistreatment of children.

It is not surprising that countries in the Caribbean would want to play an active role in the defense of human rights at home and in the wider world. For this region’s history and culture reflect a past that knew too well the horrors of slavery and its suppression of the most basic of human rights.

The United States shares a similar history and bears some of the same historical burden of slavery. We were therefore honored to join with our CARICOM neighbors this year in co-sponsoring a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the creation of a permanent memorial to the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

The United States rightly holds itself to an extremely high standard when it comes to human rights – a standard that we admittedly struggle at times to uphold. Despite our shortcomings, we continue to strive for the ideal and, through open debate, transparent systems, and vigorous self-critique, we try to improve as a nation and as a people with every passing year.

Demanding much of ourselves, the United States also seeks to promote a high standard of human rights throughout the world. In this regard we share much in common with our Eastern Caribbean neighbors, who also uphold high standards for human rights in their own countries and have a tradition of supporting the cause of human rights abroad. This year, for example, St. Lucia joined a majority of countries at the United Nations to support debate and close scrutiny in the UN Third Committee (which has responsibility for human rights) of some of the world’s most egregious human rights violators: Iran, Burma, and North Korea. We applaud St. Lucia for its principled stance in joining a majority of states in the Western Hemisphere favoring open debate of the practices of repressive regimes and condemnation of governmental abuses against human dignity.

It was of course disappointing that no other country in the Eastern Caribbean followed St. Lucia’s lead in voting in the UN in a way that reflects their own proud traditions at home and abroad on human rights. On the contrary, most countries in this region of democratic nations abstained, and one even stood with Iran and Burma to try to block debate that would shed light on repressive acts. This follows a similar “diplomatic silence” from the region this summer over the abuses of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, which prompted criticism from The Nation newspaper for what it called “the appalling and cowardly silence shrouding the issue.” (Sunday Sun, June 22).

We agree with The Nation that countries in the Eastern Caribbean must “resist the easy convenience of silence and must instead stand on principle” when it comes to adding the voice of their people to speak out when governments stifle democracy and human rights.

Some governments have suggested that the United Nations General Assembly is not the right place for such discussions. We disagree. In fact, the Declaration of Human Rights was predicated on the U.N. serving exactly this role: a venue for all the countries of the world to come together and debate issues of the dignity of mankind for the betterment of all, and a space where the voice of those around the world who cannot defend themselves can be heard and defended.

So as we recognize on December 10 the commitment of the international community 60 years ago to declare the fundamental rights of all mankind, we hope that we can in the future join our voices with our democratic partners in the Eastern Caribbean to promote the ideals of the Universal Declaration. Only when all democratic countries are willing to stand up for the rights their people insist on at home, can these ideals become a reality.