At an Organization of American States event commemorating Human Rights Day, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero opened her remarks by asking if we are making progress on human rights.
"[T]he world watched as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee delivered its annual award to an empty chair," she said. "The chair should have been occupied by one of this generation’s bravest individuals in the fight for human rights, Liu Xiaobo. The last time the award was presented to an empty chair, in 1935, the rightful honoree, Carl von Ossietzky, was also imprisoned. Surely we have made progress on human rights in the 75 years since that ceremony, but it is moments like this when we are called to uphold international human rights obligations and encourage countries to open political space for greater exchange of opinions.
"From the Far East to the Western Hemisphere, we face ongoing challenges that merit our attention," Under Secretary Otero said, while listing three priorities that she deemed as particularly pertinent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The first is to protect and empower vulnerable groups by eliminating violence and discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity; Under Secretary Otero explained. The second is to preserve the freedom of expression by protecting journalists and individuals who exercise this particular human right, because when there is no freedom of expression, opposition is silenced and democracy cannot govern through peaceful means. The third is to strengthen the role of civil society by addressing the growing trend in eliminating the citizen's basic rights, because when civil society is undermined, human rights, citizen safety, and democratic principles are all diminished.
"How we address these issues in the coming years — both domestically and internationally — will write the story of our success in human rights for generations to come," Under Secretary Otero concluded. "[T]he Western Hemisphere has the capacity to lead the world in human rights. Let us each be leaders in this work and models for other nations, working towards a future in which the Nobel Peace Prize chair is never again left empty."