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Remarks on the Human Rights Agenda for the 21st Century

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Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Georgetown University's Gaston Hall
Washington, DC

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. It is wonderful being back here at Georgetown in this magnificent Gaston Hall, and to give you something to do during exam week. (Laughter.) It's one of those quasi-legitimate reasons for taking a break - (laughter) - which I'm very happy to have provided.

I want to thank Jas for his introductory remarks, and clearly, those of you who are in the Foreign Service School heard reflections of the extraordinary opportunity you've been given to study here as he spoke about the culture of human rights. It is also a real honor for me to be delivering this speech at Georgetown, because there is no better place than this university to talk about human rights. And President DeGioia, the administration, and the faculty embody the university's long tradition of supporting free expression and free inquiry and the cause of human rights around the world.

I know that President DeGioia himself has taught a course on human rights, as well as on the ethics of international development with one of my longtime colleagues, Carol Lancaster, the acting dean of the School of Foreign Service. And I want to commend the faculty here who are helping to shape our thinking on human rights, on conflict resolution, on development and related subjects. It is important to be at this university because the students here, the faculty, every single year add to the interreligious dialogue. You give voice to many advocates and activists who are working on the front lines of the global human rights movement, through the Human Rights Institute here at the law school and other programs. And the opportunities that you provide your students to work in an international women's rights clinic are especially close to my heart.

All of these efforts reflect the deep commitment of the Georgetown administration, faculty, and students to this cause. So first and foremost, I am here to say thank you. Thank you for keeping human rights front and center. Thank you for training the next generation of human rights advocates, and more generally, introducing students who may never be an activist, may never work for Amnesty International or any other organization specifically devoted to human rights, but who will leave this university with it imbued in their hearts and minds. So thank you, President DeGioia, for all that you do and all that Georgetown has done. (Applause.)

Today, I want to speak to you about the Obama Administration's human rights agenda for the 21st century. It is a subject on the minds of many people who are eager to hear our approach, and understandably so, because it is a critical issue that warrants our energy and our attention. My comments today will provide an overview of our thinking on human rights and democracy and how they fit into our broader foreign policy, as well as the principles and policies that guide our approach.

But let me also say that what this is not. It could not be a comprehensive accounting of abuses or nations with whom we have raised human rights concerns. It could not be and is not a checklist or a scorecard. We issue a Human Rights Report every year and that goes into great detail on the concerns we have for many countries. But I hope that we can use this opportunity to look at this important issue in a broader light and appreciate its full complexity, moral weight, and urgency. And with that, let me turn to the business at hand.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize last week, President Obama said that while war is never welcome or good, it will sometimes be right and necessary, because, in his words, "Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can be truly lasting." Throughout history and in our own time, there have been those who violently deny that truth. Our mission is to embrace it, to work for lasting peace through a principled human rights agenda, and a practical strategy to implement it.

President Obama's speech also reminded us that our basic values, the ones enshrined in our Declaration of Independence - the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - are not only the source of our strength and endurance; they are the birthright of every woman, man, and child on earth. That is also the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the prerequisite for building a world in which every person has the opportunity to live up to his or her God-given potential, and the power behind every movement for freedom, every campaign for democracy, every effort to foster development, and every struggle against oppression.

The potential within every person to learn, discover and embrace the world around them, the potential to join freely with others to shape their communities and their societies so that every person can find fulfillment and self-sufficiency, the potential to share life's beauties and tragedies, laughter and tears with the people we love - that potential is sacred. That, however, is a dangerous belief to many who hold power and who construct their position against an "other" - another tribe or religion or race or gender or political party. Standing up against that false sense of identity and expanding the circle of rights and opportunities to all people - advancing their freedoms and possibilities - is why we do what we do.

This week we observe Human Rights Week. At the State Department, though, every week is Human Rights Week. Sixty-one years ago this month, the world's leaders proclaimed a new framework of rights, laws, and institutions that could fulfill the vow of "never again." They affirmed the universality of human rights through the Universal Declaration and legal agreements including those aimed at combating genocide, war crimes and torture, and challenging discrimination against women and racial and religious minorities. Burgeoning civil society movements and nongovernmental organizations became essential partners in advancing the principle that every person counts, and in exposing those who violate that standard.

As we celebrate that progress, though, our focus must be on the work that remains to be done. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encourages us to use it as a, quote, "standard of achievement." And so we should. But we cannot deny the gap that remains between its eloquent promises and the life experiences of so many of our fellow human beings. Now, we must finish the job.

Our human rights agenda for the 21st century is to make human rights a human reality, and the first step is to see human rights in a broad context. Of course, people must be free from the oppression of tyranny, from torture, from discrimination, from the fear of leaders who will imprison or "disappear" them. But they also must be free from the oppression of want - want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact.

To fulfill their potential, people must be free to choose laws and leaders; to share and access information, to speak, criticize, and debate. They must be free to worship, associate, and to love in the way that they choose. And they must be free to pursue the dignity that comes with self-improvement and self-reliance, to build their minds and their skills, to bring their goods to the marketplace, and participate in the process of innovation. Human rights have both negative and positive requirements. People should be free from tyranny in whatever form, and they should also be free to seize the opportunities of a full life. That is why supporting democracy and fostering development are cornerstones of our 21st century human rights agenda.

This Administration, like others before us, will promote, support, and defend democracy. We will relinquish neither the word nor the idea to those who have used it too narrowly, or to justify unwise policies. We stand for democracy not because we want other countries to be like us, but because we want all people to enjoy the consistent protection of the rights that are naturally theirs, whether they were born in Tallahassee or Tehran. Democracy has proven the best political system for making human rights a human reality over the long term.

But it is crucial that we clarify what we mean when we talk about democracy, because democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. In democracies, respecting rights isn't a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern. Democracies protect and respect citizens every day, not just on Election Day. And democracies demonstrate their greatness not by insisting they are perfect, but by using their institutions and their principles to make themselves and their union more perfect, just as our country continues to do after 233 years.

At the same time, human development must also be part of our human rights agenda. Because basic levels of well-being - food, shelter, health, and education - and of public common goods like environmental sustainability, protection against pandemic disease, provisions for refugees - are necessary for people to exercise their rights, and because human development and democracy are mutually reinforcing. Democratic governments are not likely to survive long if their citizens do not have the basic necessities of life. The desperation caused by poverty and disease often leads to violence that further imperils the rights of people and threatens the stability of governments. Democracies that deliver on rights, opportunities, and development for their people are stable, strong, and most likely to enable people to live up to their potential.

So human rights, democracy, and development are not three separate goals with three separate agendas. That view doesn't reflect the reality we face. To make a real and long-term difference in people's lives, we have to tackle all three simultaneously with a commitment that is smart, strategic, determined, and long-term. We should measure our success by asking this question: Are more people in more places better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions?

Our principles are our North Star, but our tools and tactics must be flexible and reflect the reality on the ground wherever we are trying to have a positive impact. Now, in some cases, governments are willing but unable without support to establish strong institutions and protections for citizens - for example, the nascent democracies in Africa. And we can extend our hand as a partner to help them try to achieve authority and build the progress they desire. In other cases, like Cuba or Nigeria, governments are able but unwilling to make the changes their citizens deserve. There, we must vigorously press leaders to end repression, while supporting those within societies who are working for change. And in cases where governments are both unwilling and unable - places like the eastern Congo - we have to support those courageous individuals and organizations who try to protect people and who battle against the odds to plant seeds for a more hopeful future.