The 20th century was marked by dark episodes of violence, repression and mass killing around world especially in Europe. Hitler killed between 11 to 14 million Jews and other minorities, and Stalin was responsible for the death of more than 20 million Soviet citizens. The exact numbers may never be known and the depth of individual suffering is also incomprehensible. Beyond what happened in wars, regimes themselves were responsible for massive human rights violations against their own people. Rule by fear was the order of the day.
On this 2012 International Human Rights Day, the final day of our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe continue to deal with the legacy of that history and continue to come to terms with it. Over the last several years, I have spoken with many USAID Foreign Service Nationals who have told me their stories of what happened to their grandparents or their parents or in some cases in Bosnia harrowing stories of their own families’ ordeals. They pointed out that 20 years ago we never would have been able to have such a conversation. Sadly, at the same time there are still far too many reports of human rights abuses in the region – of those who speak out against corruption, who speak up for their rights and whose political views still sometimes face peril – incarceration, beatings, or even death.
During the darkest times of the Soviet period, people still found a way to express dissent whether openly or through literature, art, and music. The same is true today – people will not be silenced, the human spirit is too strong. This morning I met activists from Belarus to discuss ongoing challenges. In Belarus, the government arbitrarily arrests and imprisons citizens for criticizing officials, for participating in demonstrations and for other political reasons. There are hundreds of politically motivated imprisonments and no accountability for past politically motivated disappearances. And yet brave Belarusians like those I just met continue to seek a way to press for protection of their rights and to improve the lives of their families.
A cadre of human rights activists across the former Soviet Union who devote their lives to bringing human rights protections to every individual remain active. As the Belorussian activists expressed concerns about the conditions of confinement of fellow activists in Belarus, it was clear that even today this is still a perilous endeavor to demand protections for the most fundamental rights. We admire the efforts of these individuals and are reminded of the special place that the U.S. possess in the hearts and minds of the human rights defenders from around the world.
The American people have long stood with repressed people in Europe and Eurasia and around the world. In the 21st Century, we will continue to support those who speak out for universal human rights, freedom and dignity.