As we mark Human Rights Day this month―the 61st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights―we are distressed to note that human rights and human rights defenders are under attack around the world. As their influence and impact grow, individuals and institutions that monitor rights are under pressure by a number of governments―and not only traditionally repressive ones.
We observe this trend because today Human Rights Watch works in some 80 countries, in every corner of the globe. Sometimes we address entrenched problems, as in Burma or North Korea. Other times we respond to crises, as when riots erupted this year in Xinjiang province in northwestern China, or when war broke out in Gaza and Sri Lanka. Often, by the time these emergencies make headlines, researchers from our staff will already be there on the ground. We make every effort to expose abuses as events unfold―because that's the best way to save lives.
We focus not just on a few individual cases, but on patterns of abuse. Our aim is to secure long-term changes in laws and policies―to make societies more respectful of the rights of all.
Sometimes it takes years to make a real impact, which is why persistence is so important. Sometimes we’re working outside the spotlight, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which you don’t read about on the front pages every day. Or places like Ethiopia, or even Russia, a big and important country, where a territory like Chechnya seems virtually forgotten.
At other times we’re working on issues that are ripped from the headlines. We have to keep up the pressure on President Barack Obama to close Guantanamo―not just physically, but what it represents. That means prosecuting detainees in regular federal courts, not just in the slightly updated version of the Bush administration’s military commissions. And it means releasing people when there’s no evidence against them, not continuing to hold them without charge or trial.
As implied in the very name of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are universal―they apply equally to everyone. So on Human Rights Day, it is useful to reaffirm the principle guiding our work that no government is ever exempt from its human rights obligations. No matter who the abuser is, no matter how compelling its reasons for violating human rights, no matter how urgently it pleads to be judged by different standards, Human Rights Watch will continue to uphold global standards without exception.
That is true whether the abuser is a rebel group or a prime minister, and whether rights violations are perpetrated in open societies or closed ones. Among allies or foes, we apply the same human rights law. I am proud of the way that Human Rights Watch implements this principle. I’m proud of our staff who have dedicated their lives to upholding it. And I’m grateful to the many people around the world--donors, partners, allies, and friends--for standing with us.