Human Rights Day: Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All

Human Rights Day: Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All
(By U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Natalie E. Brown)

Ambassador Natalie E. Brown
Ambassador Natalie E. Brown

Each December 10 we celebrate Human Rights Day, which recognizes the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that enshrines the rights and freedoms of all people around the world.  The UDHR remains a major milestone in establishing an agreement among the world’s nations on freedoms and rights that deserve universal protection in order for every individual to live their lives freely, equally, and in dignity.  We can best protect our rights tomorrow by protecting the rights of others today.

In the years following the adoption of the UDHR, Uganda played a key role in the international community by signing additional treaties declaring that human rights are universal without regard to gender, age, disability, political affiliation, or poverty.  In 1986, in an effort to further codify human rights around the world, Uganda signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, one of the first countries to do so.

But human rights are not just practiced in rooms where treaties are negotiated – they must be actively protected every day for all citizens.  That is why recurring credible accounts in Uganda of forced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and the use of physical and mental torture of citizens by the security forces reflect poorly on the government.  We commend the media and civil society organizations for persevering, despite harassment and intimidation, and raising awareness of these abuses.

As part of its review of individual countries every four years, the UN Committee Against Torture (UN CAT) released its conclusions concerning Uganda on November 25.  The committee, which includes 10 independent experts from around the world, including Africa, concluded that Uganda should take steps to ensure that all forms of torture are prohibited and that all complaints of torture and ill treatment are promptly investigated.  The UN CAT also called upon Uganda to ensure the full independence, impartiality, and effectiveness of the judiciary and to abolish the use of “ungazetted” or unauthorized places of detention or “safe houses,” and immediately provide information about all places of detention.

Because human rights are universal and therefore apply to all countries, the UN CAT also focused on the United States recently, and declared that my government should further address instances of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officers.  The U.S. Department of Justice has now secured convictions for more than 200 police officers, and we will continue looking for new ways to fulfill our own human rights commitments.

The need for governments to respect human rights is not just based on altruism.  It also makes good business sense.  Countries that respect human rights are seen as safer investment destinations.  Investors fear that if people’s human rights are not respected, then their companies’ rights may not be enforced either.  Put simply, countries can develop fastest and most equitably by protecting the rights and freedoms of all its people.

To advance human rights, meet international commitments, and, as a global community, fulfill our obligations to our people, structural change involving a whole-of-government effort is required, from government leadership and the highest courts to police and local officials serving in our communities.  The benefits of advancing human rights – to our economies, our development, and our democracies – are within reach, but all countries and each of us must do the hard work to change the ways of the past.

As Nelson Mandela said, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”  So today, we should all reflect on what more needs to be done, and how we can work together to ensure that all human beings can live with dignity and respect.

Cited reports from UN Committee Against Torture:

Concluding observations on the 2nd periodic report of Uganda, 2022

Concluding observations on the combined 3rd to 5th periodic reports of the United States of America, 2014