Democracy and Human Rights

Tolerance: Human Rights are for All Human Beings

All governments have an obligation to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, which are the birthright of all human beings.  The values captured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in other global and regional commitments are consistent with the values upon which the United States was founded centuries ago. The United States supports those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.  We understand that the existence of human rights helps secure peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.


“If we swing wide the doors of opportunity for our family, friends, and neighbors with disabilities, all of us will enjoy the benefits of their professional contributions.” – President Obama

The Department of State’s Special Advisor for International Disability Rights (SADR) leads the U.S. comprehensive strategy to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities internationally. The United States, as part of our foreign policy, works to remove barriers and create a world in which disabled people enjoy dignity and full inclusion. Discrimination against people with disabilities is not simply unjust; it hinders economic development, limits democracy, and erodes societies.

The “disability rights” movement in the USA began in the 1960s, leading to approval of our country’s first law on disability access – the Architectural Barriers Act – which required that federal government buildings to be accessible to the disabled.  The USA’s most sweeping disability rights law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990. It required all government buildings – at the federal, state and local levels – to be accessible to the disabled. It also required employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities and not discriminate against them.  Likewise, the ADA requires that public facilities such as restaurants and stores not discriminate against people with disabilities and make “reasonable modifications” to ensure access for disabled members of the public –including those that have vision, hearing, and other physical impairments.

Advancing Disability Rights Worldwide Through Exchanges – The Department of State’s Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, Judith E. Heumann, discusses her job and the goals of her office:  Disability-inclusive diplomacy efforts to put persons with disabilities at the core of work being done to promote the rights of persons with disabilities around the world.

Disability is Diversity: One Person’s Story – Dr. Christie L. Gilson, an Assistant Professor of Education at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the first visually impaired member of the Board. Dr. Gilson knows first-hand the challenges a disability can create, but cites stubbornness and a great support system as keys to her success. Read Dr. Gilson’s story at


“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom …

– The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Democracy and respect for human rights have long been central components of U.S. foreign policy. As the world grows more interconnected, more individuals are gaining awareness of the rights guaranteed to them by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other global and regional commitments – and have the capacity to pursue them. Democracies that respect the rights of their people remain successful states and America’s most steadfast allies.

But democracy means much more than holding elections; it is the practice of free and fair electoral processes that put into place representative, accountable and transparent institutions of government operating under the rule of law and in conjunction with a vibrant civil society, including NGOs and a free media. The United States uses a wide range of tools to advance a freedom agenda, including bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, foreign assistance, reporting and public outreach, and economic sanctions. The United States is committed to working with democratic partners, international and regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, and engaged citizens to support those seeking freedom. 


“The struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States’ commitment to human rights.” – President Barack Obama

The United States places great importance on the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons around the world.

We will continue to press for appropriate attention to and inclusion of references to sexual orientation and gender identity in UN fora, including the Human Rights Council, because we believe in nondiscrimination for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Everyone should have the right to express their identity and speak openly about whom they love.  The U.S. fundamentally disagrees with the idea that anyone needs protection from individuals due to the nature of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Special Feature:  President Obama said that “The struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge.”  How does this struggle affect the lives of LGBT persons in Russia?  Hear the perspective of Russian citizens and their personal stories in our new series, “Tolerance Starts at Home: Views from LGBT Russians.”


“We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those who want to start a business.” – President Obama

The United States values freedom of the press as a key component of democratic governance. Democratic societies are not infallible, but they are accountable, and the exchange of ideas is the foundation for accountable governance. In the U.S. and in many places around the world, the press fosters active debate, provides investigative reporting, and serves as a forum to express different points of view, particularly on behalf of those who are marginalized in society.

The press is often a target of retaliation by those who feel threatened by freedom of expression and transparency in democratic processes. Journalists are often the first to uncover corruption, to report from the front lines of conflict zones, and to highlight missteps by governments. This work places many journalists in danger, and it is the duty of governments and citizens worldwide to speak out for their protection and for their vital role in open societies.

Media freedom is but one part of the basic human right to freedom of expression. The United States supports the rights of all people to exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly, both on line and off line, regardless of their political views.

Internet freedom is a foreign policy priority for the United States, and has been for many years. Our goal is to ensure that any child, born anywhere in the world, has access to the global Internet as an open platform on which to innovate, learn, organize, and express herself free from undue interference or censorship.

The State Department has advanced U.S. initiatives to preserve the open Internet and promoted the worldwide deployment of broadband communications through the World Telecommunication Policy Forum. We are an active member in the Freedom Online Coalition, a forum for like-minded governments — over 20 and growing — committed to collaborating to advance Internet freedom. This has provided us and others an opportunity to coordinate efforts and work with civil society to support the ability for individuals to exercise their universal human rights and fundamental freedoms online.

Special Feature: Journalists are being silenced around the world. In too many places, they are imprisoned, attacked, intimidated, disappeared, exiled or murdered for trying to report the news or exercise their freedom of expression. In the weeks leading up to World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the U.S. Department of State highlights emblematic threats to journalists while continuing to call on all governments to protect the universal human right to freedom of expression.  Read more about DOS’s “Free the Press 2014: Stemming the Tide of Media Repression” campaign. 


“Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose…we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace.” – President Barack Obama

The United States strongly opposes laws that impede freedom of expression and freedom of religion — rights protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The U.S. Government is concerned by any attempt to punish individuals for practicing their fundamental rights, and expects governments to honor their international obligations in this regard.

The Office of International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State has the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy.  They monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom.

The Department of State is required by the U.S. Congress to issue an annual International Religious Freedom Report that looks at issues related to religious freedom around the world. The most common themes include:

  • Government Restrictions and Abuses: Laws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive.
  • Blasphemy, Apostasy, and Conversion: The use of blasphemy and apostasy laws continues to be a significant problem, as is the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.
  • Continued Rise in Anti-Semitism: Holocaust denial and glorification remain troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times is used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condone anti-Semitism, it sets the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world.
  • Societal Violence and Intolerance: Religious freedom can be a bulwark against violent extremism. Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society.
  • The Problem of Impunity: In many parts of the world, government officials, no matter how serious the offense, often act with impunity, abusing individuals for holding or expressing their beliefs without being called to account by courts or government authorities. Governments exacerbate religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric.


“No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind. This is why the United States believes gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability, and peace, and why investing in women and girls worldwide is critical to advancing U.S. foreign policy.” – Secretary of State John Kerry

Global stability, peace, and prosperity depend on protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls around the world. Research shows that progress in women’s employment, health, and education can lead to greater economic growth and stronger societies. Evidence demonstrates that integrating women’s perspectives into peace negotiations and security efforts helps prevent conflict and can lead to more durable peace agreements. When women and men are equally empowered as political and social actors, governments are more representative and effective.

Under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the United States has put gender equality and the advancement of women and girls at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Preventing and responding to gender-based violence (GBV) is a cornerstone of the Administration’s commitment to advancing gender equality. Gender-based violence is a global pandemic that affects women, men and children.

The U.S. also emphasizes equitable access to quality education to give girls, boys and also adults the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to lead lives of dignity and opportunity.  Women’s issues are issues related to the prosperity and health of our societies.

The Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) seeks to ensure that women’s issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. The Office works to promote stability, peace, and development by empowering women politically, socially, and economically around the world.