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Remarks at Human Rights Day Town Hall



SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I wanted to come by and welcome and give you a little bit of a respite from hearing from the three advocates for human rights, each in their – in his own way truly devoted to the work that we do here at the State Department. And in particular, on this day, I want to thank Mike Posner and everyone in DRL who works with him and for all that you are doing. I want to thank Harold Koh and everyone in L who keeps pushing, pushing, and trying to make sure that our human rights policy continues to lead the world. And I want to thank P.J. Crowley and everybody in his shop who have to explain everything we do or don’t do, which is sometimes the most difficult of all tasks.

But mostly, I came by to thank you, members of civil society, human rights organizations, college students, Hill staffers, State Department colleagues. Thank you very much. Because we thought it was important to really have a chance on this day where we commemorate the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by a vote of 48-0 in the United Nations, the very core concept that each of us, all of us, are born with equal and inalienable rights.

Those words hearken back to our own Declaration of Independence, which was such an incredible, historical event in addition to representing the very best of our values and aspirations. But from the beginning, the United States has recognized that our rights are inextricably bound up with the rights of others. And we remain committed as a nation, and certainly in the Obama Administration, to working toward realizing a world that was envisioned by both of these declarations, in which every person has a chance to live up to his or her God-given potential.

Those of us in this great Dean Acheson Hall who lived through the civil rights movement, the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and so much else knows that these singular achievements are by no means the work of governments alone. In fact, it took civil society pushing governments, and sometimes pulling them against their natural inclination, to just protect the status quo. It took groups of citizens in shipyards and lunch counters and even prisons to keep prodding the conscience of governments and the rest of us.

So for the United States, supporting civil society around the globe is a crucial priority. I made that clear in a speech I gave last summer at the Community of Democracies in Krakow, where we laid out an agenda of support for civil society, because we think it’s not only a matter of good global citizenship, but it’s a key to advancing so many of our national security priorities.

So we intend to make engagement with civil society a defining feature of our diplomacy. We’ve asked our embassies and missions around the world to develop strategies to elevate support for and protection of civil society. Next year, I will launch the new strategic dialogue with civil society to bring together representatives from government and civic groups for regular consultation, just as we do in our strategic dialogues with other countries.

We have seen increased efforts by governments to restrict civic space, whether in Cuba or China’s efforts to somehow divert the world’s attention from the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony today. We really know that we have our work cut out for us. And in Krakow, I called on the UN Human Rights Council to do more to protect civil society and announced the creation of a new fund for embattled NGOs. And I want to thank Lithuania, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Czech Republic for their pledged contributions to this fund and for joining us in providing a lifeline to NGOs under siege. We also have worked with a coalition of countries on the Human Rights Council to create a new special rapporteur on freedom of association.

Now, just last week, Mike and I were in Central Asia, a place where civil society faces severe challenges. And we worked hard to give civil society a voice at the OSCE summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. And in each country, from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, I met with the brave men and women who are committed to improving the lives of their fellow citizens, often at significant personal risk. These meetings, as they always are for me, were inspiring and deepened my appreciation for the difficult work that you and many others on the front lines of human rights and civil rights actually face every day.

As Mike said, earlier today, I presented the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights to outstanding individuals: Sarah Cleto Rial, an activist who sought refuge in the United States from Sudan; Wade Henderson, with whom I have worked over many years; and Louis and Alice Henkin, who together helped to promote and protect human rights in international law. And so we’re working to lead by example and hold ourselves accountable. And actually, we’re trying to live up to Eleanor Roosevelt’s challenge that America should be the best possible mirror of democracy that she can be.

So this year’s State Department Human Trafficking Report, for the first time, graded our own efforts as well as others. Last month, we presented our own human rights record as part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review. And just as we ask other governments to work with civil society groups, we also held a special event to allow NGOs from around the world to speak directly with officials from 12 different federal agencies, and we webcast the proceedings.

We’re doing that and a lot more, but we need your advice, your support, your recommendations, your constructive criticism, because we want to help. Human Rights Day is a celebration of you and of what you are doing, and it is also a reminder and a challenge about how much more we all have to do.

So with that, I will turn you back to the triumvirate at the front here to take all the hard questions, because I am moving on. (Laughter.) Thank you very much.

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