The United States recently honored those fighting for human rights in the Middle East with its annual Human Rights Defenders Award.
“The Arab Awakening,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, “reminds us that no leaderships, and no governments, are exempt from their obligation to be accountable to their citizens and respect their rights.”
The award is given to individuals or non-governmental organizations that have shown exceptional valor .
The award is given to individuals or non-governmental organizations that have shown exceptional valor and leadership in advocating for the protection of human rights and democracy in the face of government repression.
One such individual is this year’s awardee Hanadi Zahlout, who organized peaceful protests in the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Ms. Zahlout suffered arrest and detention in 2011 and 2012 for her pro-democracy work. She now resides in France where she continues to advocate for human rights and a peaceful, inclusive transition in Syria. Her outspoken activism on human rights is particularly poignant as she is a member of the Alawite minority.
The second awardee is the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, an Iraqi non-governmental organization. Hammurabi is being honored for its work on behalf of female detainees and religious minorities. On a recent visit to Iraq, Deputy Secretary Burns participated in the award ceremony recognizing Hammurabi's work.
“What makes Hammurabi truly remarkable,” said Deputy Secretary Burns, “is that it not only raises awareness about human rights problems, it proposes solutions.”
Hammurabi worked closely with the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights to address systemic problems in Iraq’s correctional facilities. Thanks to this partnership, separate parliamentary and judicial investigations into human rights abuses are ongoing.
Despite intimidation and threats of violence, Hammurabi organized Iraq’s first public workshops on religious tolerance and multiculturalism. The organization also successfully advocated for changes to the country’s primary and secondary school curriculums to promote religious freedom.
“Ultimately,” said Deputy Secretary Burns, “it will be organizations like Hammurabi – homegrown and grounded in the culture and history of their country – who will lead the way to greater human dignity and ultimately to greater stability, peace and prosperity in Iraq and the region.”
Deputy Secretary Burns noted that when governments restrict human rights, “they sow the seeds of their own downfall,” while states that protect and promote rights are “more stable economic, political and security partners.”
“This is why,” he said, “The promotion of human rights and democracy is not only the right thing to do – it is also the smart thing to do.”