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Washington Journal: U.S. Says Defending Human Rights A Democratic Necessity

Washington, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. State Department official says it is necessary for America to defend human rights around the world and encourage the growth of democracy.

Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, made the comment Friday during a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Rights. He presented the subcommittee with the State Department's 1998 report on human rights practices around the world.

During the hearing, Koh said the purpose of the annual report is simple: "To tell the truth about human conditions around the world." He added that in order to improve the situation of many people around the world, the U.S. must help foster the growth of a democratic culture wherever it has a chance of taking hold, while at the same time continuing to support established democracies.

"We focus particularly on providing support for countries in transition, defending democracies. We do so not just because it is right, but because it is necessary."

Koh said that history shows democracies are less likely to fight one another and more likely to cooperate on security issues, economic matters and legal initiatives. He added that America's own security depends on the expansion of democracy worldwide, without which "repression, corruption, and instability would almost inevitably engulf countries and even regions."

Koh said there are three ways the U.S. should promote democracy. First, he said, is the support of a free and independent media.

"Democracy depends not just on unfettered minds, but also on an informed electorate. If a government can control information or limit press freedom, it can preordain elections, stunt civil society and manipulate the judiciary."

He said that throughout the world, journalists risk harassment, arrest, imprisonment and even death just to get the story told. He added that according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, homicide is the leading cause of death on the job among journalists worldwide.

Second, Koh said the U.S. must support equal participation of all citizens in every aspect of democratic life.

"Democracy does not mean the tyranny of the majority. Governments that choose to ignore or repress the rights of individuals because of their race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status not only undermine the principle of democracy, but also risk violence and separatism."

Koh specifically mentioned the situation facing women in Afghanistan and said it represented the "most severe abuse of women's human rights in the world today."

Third, Koh said that 1998 proved that establishing a democracy takes much more than just holding elections.

"The slow development of democracy in some newly independent states in 1998 demonstrated that elections should be regarded not as an end to themselves, but as the means by which to establish a political system that fosters growth and self-fulfillment."

Koh also emphasized two important themes of this year's reports, namely religious freedom and labor issues.

On the issue of religious freedom, Koh said that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, considering them the fundamental human rights and essential components of a democratic society.

He said that while nearly all states acknowledge the principle of religious freedom, in far too many, governments refuse to respect this fundamental right. Koh said some governments continue to engage in discriminating against, restricting, persecuting and even killing those whose faith differs from that of the majority population.

Koh said the report also paid special attention to labor concerns. He notes that Article 23 of the Universal Declaration states that everyone has the right to work, to a free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Koh said free trade unions around the world have played a "critical role" in promoting and defending democracy in the Cold War era, working to eliminate exploitative forms of labor, and bringing about more equitable distribution of economic benefits.

Koh said that despite the fact that 50 years ago the Universal Declaration promised a world where "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," the reports show that a half century later, the world still has "a long way to go" before it can fulfill this promise.

Koh concluded: "The past year confirmed that the best path to accomplishing that goal remains through the establishment of democratic governments. The right to democracy thus stands both as a part of, and an essential means to guarantee, universal human rights principles."