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Human Rights Day: Many People Are Still Denied the Most Basic Human Rights on a Daily Basis

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ARAB SPRING 2
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Events this year have opened the world's eyes to the struggles many ordinary people face in claiming even their most basic human rights. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa we have seen thousands of people push for change in the face of violent and often brutal repression. As we mark Human Rights Day today, we should reflect on the bravery of the people who have strived for these rights, whether in Tahrir Square, Misrata or in Homs.

This year has also seen many people turn to social media for the first time to rally support. We have seen bloggers become vocal human rights activists, leading to unprecedented change and reform across the world. It is clear that social media is now instrumental to the fight for human rights and it is entirely fitting that this is a theme for this year's Human Rights Day. The events of the past twelve months demonstrate an important lesson: restricting the use of social media and seeking to ignore other's criticisms and concerns do not work. Governments need to respond to legitimate aspirations with reform, not repression.

Yet for all the progress made over the past twelve months, there is much more to be done. Widespread online censorship remains commonplace around the world, and bloggers and online activists remain persecuted for exercising their freedom of expression. That is why one of my personal priorities, and that of this coalition government, is to promote freedom of expression on the internet. As the Foreign Secretary made clear at the London Conference on cyberspace in November this year, "freedom of expression cuts to the very heart of the debate about the future of cyberspace" and it was heartening to see the recognition of the value of preserving the free flow of online ideas, information and expression that the internet provides.

As FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights policy, I chair a group of NGOs, the legal, academic and media communities and the business sector to explore what more can be done to uphold and strengthen freedom of expression on the internet. I have discussed these issues with the Global Network Initiative (GNI) - an innovative venture by technology companies, human rights organisations, academics, and investors to ensure companies protect human rights online through a set of voluntary standards. It is currently one of the few initiatives that seeks to guide companies on internet freedoms and I am encouraging more UK companies to join. The UK government intends to seize the political initiative and reframe the domestic as well as international debate firmly around internet rights rather than restrictions.

Our support for those championing these rights is part of the coalition government's commitment to a broad programme of human rights work. This includes raising human rights concerns with other governments, promoting international standards through organisations such as the UN or Council of Europe, and providing funding to over 100 human rights projects in more than 50 countries. This includes projects in 20 of the FCO's 26 'countries of concern'.

One example is working with an NGO in Kenya whose work led to the mandatory death penalty being ruled unconstitutional- a fantastic outcome. The FCO's annual human rights report describes this work in more detail and I am overseeing the compilation of next year's report for publication in March.

It is important to remember that today we mark the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet a quick sweep of the world shows that the aspirations of those who drafted the Declaration in the days following World War II remain unrealised. Many people around the world are still denied the most basic of human rights on a daily basis. However, the momentous events of the last twelve months show that the protection and promotion of human rights are more important than ever for global stability and development. As the Arab Spring showed, driven by human rights, and empowered by new ways of communicating, people can shape their own destiny. That is cause for celebration.