December 11, 2023
I am honored to be here this morning to commemorate International Human Rights Day, which fell yesterday and also marked the conclusion of the annual commemoration of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. This year marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a transformative global pledge that established a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.
For Americans, the Universal Declaration will always be associated with Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd president. After she became a widow in 1945, Mrs. Roosevelt had the option of living a life of comfort, honor, and leisure. However, at the urging of her husband’s successor, President Harry S. Truman, she agreed to serve on the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations. This ultimately led to her chairing the UN Human Rights Commission and the multi-national effort to draft and reach agreement on the Universal Declaration. Mrs. Roosevelt believed strongly in human rights and its importance for every individual, for every country, and for the world. She also recognized the inherent, inseparable linkage between human rights and peace. She wrote about the deliberations about the Declaration that “many of us thought that lack of standards for human rights the world over was one of the greatest causes of friction among the nations. . . and that recognition of human rights might become one of the cornerstones on which peace could eventually be based.”
The first sentence of the Universal Declaration speaks volumes. It states that the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world is grounded in the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. This statement reflects a belief that is also among the foundational values that have driven U.S. engagement with the people of South Sudan which began decades before this country’s independence.
When we speak of human rights, we refer to the equal and inalienable rights of all – including women, girls, refugees, people with disabilities, people of all communities, everybody. Respect for human rights is fundamentally important for a peaceful and prosperous society. It benefits each of us and all of us.
Human rights include women’s rights. Worldwide, nearly one-third of women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. According to UNICEF, that figure stands at more than 65 percent in South Sudan. That is two out of every three women. That statistic is abhorrent and it must be unacceptable to all South Sudanese people. Ongoing subnational conflict, worsening humanitarian crises, and hunger further perpetuate insecurity and gender-based violence.
We are deeply troubled by the numerous reports of sexual and gender-based violence in South Sudan and the lack of accountability that persists. These include the unacceptable practices of conflict sexual violence, domestic violence, and early and forced marriage.
Addressing sexual- and gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, is vital to promoting accountability and achieving sustainable peace. Central to this is holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.
We call on the transitional government to prioritize an end to sexual and gender-based violence, accountability for perpetrators, and justice for victims. This must be underscored by a national plan of action and a collective commitment against gender-based violence. It must also include systems and structures for accountability and a means of restoring a sense of safety and well-being for survivors.
I want to emphasize that, as in all countries, the commitment to end gender-based violence and protect human rights in South Sudan must come from within the country itself. This means that the transitional government must provide resources to survivors of all forms of violence and recognize that sexual and gender-based violence is a formidable barrier to women’s full participation in society. It also means that South Sudanese men and boys must recognize that gender-based violence affects all of us and must champion the rights of their friends, sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, daughters, and of all women and girls.
Protecting human rights takes more than just words. It requires concrete action that ingrains human rights into the very fabric of society. We stand with all in South Sudan who work on behalf of human rights.