“Human rights” can sound like an abstraction, something spoken of only at the highest levels of government. But the work governments do on human rights has consequences and can even make the difference between life and death.

“I’m extraordinarily proud to see how many countries join us in the vision of the fundamental right of people to live equally without regard to their religion.”

  • –David Saperstein, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom

As we celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10, we look at how international campaigns in four human rights areas improved the lives of people around the world.

Labor rights

Bangladeshi garment workers can now do their jobs with increased labor rights and in factories operating under stricter safety protections.

The advances came in the wake of the 2013 building collapse that killed more than 1,000 garment workers.

That tragedy prompted an international effort to combat sweatshop conditions and improve working conditions in the thousands of garment factories in Bangladesh. Also key: making it easier for garment factory workers, mostly women, to form unions.

The U.S., the European Union, Canada, Bangladesh and the International Labour Organization all worked together to develop the new standards. Garment industry leaders in the U.S. and Europe also got involved, stepping up factory inspections and making sure Bangladeshi suppliers adhered to safe working conditions.

“Really, we promote these rights not because they’re Western rights,” said State Department Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Sarah Fox. “They’re internationally recognized rights. Labor rights are also economic rights. Workers being able to exercise these rights is very important to building economies in which prosperity and the benefits of growth are broadly shared.”


Nearly 2,000 Mongolians with disabilities have jobs thanks, in part, to a new disabilities-rights law enacted there. The law is the first of its kind for Mongolia and is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S.

Judith Heumann, the State Department’s special adviser for international disability rights, traveled to Mongolia in September 2014 to meet with government and nonprofit groups. Six months later, members of Mongolia’s parliament and leaders of Mongolia’s disabilities-rights organizations came to the U.S. to study how the Americans with Disabilities Act was developed.

Mongolia’s new Law on the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted in February 2016 and went into force in March. Over the last year, Mongolia’s Ministry of Labor said, nearly 2,000 jobs have been created for people with disabilities.

In her work, Heumann said, “having a disability myself has been very helpful, because we travel all around the world to places where other people using motorized wheelchairs may not travel. We’ve been able to make disabilities a part of the discussion.”

LGBTI rights

In Bosnia, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people can turn to the Sarajevo Open Centre for help. Even the local police go to the center for training on LGBTI issues.

The Sarajevo Open Centre is among groups to receive grants from the Global Equality Fund, which brings together governments, companies, foundations and nonprofits to promote tolerance and equality.

Randy Berry, the State Department’s special envoy for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex, said he has seen promising signs from Bosnia’s work with the Global Equality Fund. Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia, for example, were among the 29 governments that signed on to the Equal Rights Coalition, launched following the 2016 Global LGBTI Human Rights Conference in Uruguay.

“It shows that when you build up a little bit of steam and a little bit of innovation, that’s contagious,” Berry said.

Religious freedom

Woman holding child in her lap (© AP Images)
An international effort is helping protect Iraqis, such as this Yazidi woman and her daughter, from religious persecution. (© AP Images)

Thousands of Iraqis who were forced to flee persecution because of their religion have been able to return home as part of a worldwide campaign.

“Secretary Kerry’s finding that ISIL’s activities in Iraq constitute genocide against the Yazidis, Christians, Shia communities and other minority groups was a very important achievement,” said David Saperstein. He is the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the chief U.S. diplomat on issues of religious freedom worldwide.

The international attention given to the secretary’s finding led to two Pledging Conferences in Washington that raised over $2 billion in international commitments to “invest in Iraq in a way that allows the displaced minorities who wish to return home to be able to do it,” Saperstein said.