By Amanda S. Jacobsen
U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires
On Human Rights Day, we reflect on the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), crafted in 1948 on the heels of the most destructive war in the history of the world. World War II was caused and characterized by a cruel disregard for humanity. The UDHR was an appeal to people of goodwill to build a world molded in the rights it enumerated. It serves as the catalyst for improving respect for human rights for all, including the most vulnerable. In Botswana, the United States is committed to upholding the universal tenants of Human Rights by supporting LGBTIQ+ freedoms, investing $1 billion in global health initiatives over the past 20 years, and supporting freedom of religion and tolerance. The U.S. prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, and sex including pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, and sex stereotyping.
Today, three-quarters of a century later, the international order that was created following the adoption of the UDHR is in peril. A war of aggression threatens peace and wellbeing in Europe and beyond. Botswana is engaged in important peacekeeping initiatives closer to home, in Mozambique. Autocracies threaten human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic governance. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, with some governments misusing emergency powers to restrict fundamental freedoms. Illiberal leaders use populist appeals related to income inequality and nationalism to consolidate power. Weak institutions enable these tactics, supported by newer means of disinformation.
Human rights defenders, journalists, and other members of civil society are on the frontlines of building a more free and just world for future generations, working tirelessly to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, advocating for government transparency and accountability, promoting equitable access to justice, and exposing and preventing corruption. Regrettably, they are often subjected to intimidation, threats, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, gender-based violence, and unfair trials for this very work. Repressive governments often issue threats and reprisals when these individuals participate in international dialogues on human rights. Those working on land and environmental issues as well as on the human rights of women and girls in all their diversity, LGBTQI+ and gender diverse persons, persons with disabilities, and indigenous persons are especially vulnerable to attacks. We commend the LGBTQI+ movement in Botswana, as we celebrate the one-year anniversary passage of the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relationships.
Globally, we are also seeing the expanded use of Internet shutdowns or slowdowns, the misuse of surveillance technologies, including spyware, and the application of onerous restrictions on civil society organizations, including the misuse of counterterrorism laws, to stifle civil society voices. In 2021, NGOs report that over 300 human rights defenders (HRDs) and over 50 media workers were killed and several hundreds more unjustly imprisoned for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Against this backdrop, the United States Biden-Harris Administration has remained resolute in its commitment to respect, promote, and champion human rights for all. At the first-ever Summit for Democracy in December of 2021, President Biden announced the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal – a landmark set of policy and assistance efforts to bolster democratic reformers, defend free and fair elections, support free and independent media, combat corruption, and advance technology for democracy. Through this effort, we have committed to protect journalists from spurious lawsuits, using seed funding for the International Fund for Public Interest Media, and expanding support for Lifeline, a multilateral initiative which supports civil society organizations under threat or attack. In Botswana we are working to uphold the rights of journalists and promote a free and fair press through a wide array of resources which include media training on data-driven reporting, professional media exchanges to the United States, support for the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s public engagement program on the media role, and through our partnership with the Office of the President’s Press Office. The U.S. Presidential Initiative and U.S. Mission Botswana’s ongoing support to build and promote a free and fair media environment demonstrates the U.S. commitment to champion human rights and be a leader in global efforts to strengthen democratic resilience and rights-respecting societies. The United States works to strengthen institutional frameworks for the promotion of human rights, HRDs protection systems, rule of law, and communications and collaboration between governments and civil society.
President Biden has made it clear, however, that together with our partners and allies, across multilateral fora and across the world, we must jointly call upon all countries to do more to promote respect for human rights, and protect human rights defenders, journalists, and civic activists on the frontlines of democracy and human rights promotion. Those on the front lines of this work can be likened to proverbial canaries in the coal mine; their fates, and the backlash or repression they face for their work promoting and protecting human rights, often presage even wider abuses in the societies they seek to protect. All governments should protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individuals under their authority. This concept is basic, but one we must continually reiterate. Respect for the human rights of individuals within states is an essential component of lasting peace and prosperity among states.
On this Human Rights Day, we must look inward and ask ourselves if we are doing enough to respect, promote, and protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all. We look forward to continuing to walk with Botswana down this path to achieve our shared goals and values.