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Remarks at the Launch of Makerere University Ethics and Human Rights Association

U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda



Ambassador DeLisi speaking to Makerere University students interested in human rights issues in Uganda.

Ambassador DeLisi speaking to Makerere University students interested in human rights issues in Uganda.

I am delighted to join you at this inaugural Makerere University Human Rights Expo. I want to extend a special ‘thank you’ to Makerere University for hosting this expo and to the organizing committee and the Makerere University Ethics and Human Rights Association for inviting me here today as we launch your Association.

I am impressed and pleased to see so many young people interested in learning more about how they can protect and advance the rights of all Uganda’s citizens to make the nation stronger. Appreciation for the idea that there are indeed universal human rights that protect all citizens in all countries has evolved since discussions on the issue began after World War II. Different countries have adopted its key components at different times, and in different ways. Yet it all started with a single document created by the United Nations.

Back in 1947, delegates from six continents devoted themselves to drafting a declaration that would enshrine the fundamental rights and freedoms of people everywhere. In the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, many nations pressed for a statement that would help to prevent future atrocities and protect the inherent humanity and dignity of all people. And so the delegates went to work. They discussed, they wrote, they revisited, revised, and rewrote for thousands of hours. And they incorporated suggestions and revisions from governments, organizations, and individuals around the world.

At three o’clock in the morning on December 10th, 1948, after nearly two years of drafting and one last long night of debate, the president of the UN General Assembly called for a vote on the final text. Forty-eight nations, including the United States voted in favor; eight (including the Soviet Union and several satellite states) abstained; none dissented. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And the declaration made clear that rights are not conferred by governments; they are the birthright of all people. It does not matter what country we live in, who our leaders are, or even who we are. Because we are human, we therefore have rights. And because we have rights, governments are obligated to protect them.

In the nearly 66 years since the declaration was adopted, many nations have made great progress in advancing the cause of human rights. Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away. In many places, racist laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that relegated women to second-class status have been abolished, the ability of religious minorities to practice their faith freely has been secured.

Of course the individuals that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than 60 years ago were not thinking then about some of the issues that have come to the fore today. They did not consider how it applied to indigenous people, or to children, or to people with disabilities or to other marginalized groups that can be found in almost any society. However, nations around the world have come to recognize that the Universal Declaration is not frozen in time reflecting the world of 1947. Rather, it is a living document whose emphasis on the universality of human rights applies to today’s world as well. We recognize and believe that all segments of modern society are entitled to the full measure of dignity and rights, because, like all people, they share a common humanity, no matter what they look like, where they come from, or what they believe.

We have learned other lessons over the years as well. We know today that whenever any group is marginalized and given less respect, fewer rights, or less protection than another group, our societies are diminished and all of our rights are at risk. In some countries it is women who are left on the fringes, in other nations it is a racial or religious minority that might face sanctioned discrimination. In still other nations it may be singled out because of their sexual orientation, their communal affiliation, or their tribe. We cannot and must not allow ourselves and our societies to be diminished by those who seek to institutionalize discrimination.

Those who would seek to legitimize discrimination have many arguments. They may cite historical practice, or culture, or long-standing communal problems to justify their actions. Those may have been enough in another age. It is not enough today. No matter the arguments advance, there is no justification for violence against women in the form of honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Violence towards girls and women, including the sexual violence that we see so often in Uganda isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. And it should be. Likewise with slavery. What was once justified as “sanctioned by God” is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights. In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.

Since 1918, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson introduced the idea of a collaborative international body known as the League of Nations, our foreign policy has been guided and informed not just by our interests, but by our values. All countries around the world pursue their interests, we do too. But our pursuit of national interests is tempered and balance by being grounded in our core values – something that others often do not understand but it is central to our view of the world and our role in it.

We recognize, of course, that our values are not shared by every nation or society. We know as well that we cannot insist that others accept our values or force our values upon them. But we can, and do, make judgments, shaped by our values, about the nature and extent of our engagement with nations whose values are contrary to our own. When nations move too far apart on their values, partnerships suffer. When values and vision are shared, they prosper.

It is a simple reality: we invest more and focus more on cooperation with those whose values we share and with whom we have common aspirations and a common view of the world. And the values that underscore our closest partnerships are those that reflect respect for human dignity, that allow peoples’ voices to be freely heard, and that permit individuals to participate robustly in their society without fear of discrimination or victimization.

I would love to tell you that our own nation has always been perfect in putting our beliefs and values into practice. We haven’t been. But we try, we care, we believe, and we persevere. We challenge each other in churches, in schools, and in our workplaces. Our media outlets report, investigate and analyze, and spark vibrant debate. Our elected officials respond with policies and vision, our congress legislates to redress wrongs and to establish norms, and our courts adjudicate, define and defend personal freedoms and fundamental rights. But perhaps most importantly, we adapt. We adapt to societal changes, to new understandings, and to new perspectives and we reassess our understanding of human rights and human dignity against the background of a constantly changing world.

As I noted a moment ago, we have made our mistakes but our lack of perfection cannot and should not silence our voice or the voice of any nation that stands for the cause of justice and human rights. If an imperfect nation cannot speak out when they see an injustice simply because they are imperfect, then injustice will survive and flourish. No one will ever speak for the voiceless, no one will ever stand for the defenseless, and no one will push back against those who would abuse human dignity for political gain or to satisfy senseless hatred based on race, or faith, or gender.

Ours of course, is a society that emphasizes the rule of law and when human rights are undercut due to societal, religious, or cultural biases, good laws can make a huge difference. In America, and elsewhere, legal protections have often preceded, not followed, broader recognition of rights. In essence, laws have a teaching effect, for better or for worse. Laws that are discriminatory validate discrimination. Laws that validate equal protection reinforce the moral imperative of equality and non-discrimination.

While good laws can help to define new norms that strengthen respect for human rights, they are not the only driver of change. When a significant barrier to human rights progress falls, it generally reflects a cooperative effort from those on both sides of the barrier. In the fight for women’s rights, the support of men has been crucial. The fight for racial equality has relied on contributions from people of all races. Combating religious intolerance is a task for people of a broad community of faiths, and, in many countries, it has taken a heterosexual majority to ensure that the rights of individuals of different sexual orientation are also respected.

I urge all of you who have chosen to attend this Human Rights Fair today to take a moment to ask yourself what issues concern you most in terms of human rights. And to the members of the Ethics and Human Rights Association, I ask what future will you build for your nation and the generations to follow?

In Uganda, the building blocks to protect human rights are already in place. Your nation is a signatory to a number of international treaties protecting human rights, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Domestically, the Ugandan constitution supports freedoms of assembly, association, speech, press and many others. It offers a strong delineation of the rights the people of this nation care about. The challenge that every nation faces, however, is to respect and protect the freedoms enshrined in our constitutions and our societies.

Like America, and like all countries, Uganda struggles to meet this challenge at times. When it faces such challenges, we believe our partnership is strong enough and open enough that we can speak about the issues on which we disagree and where our values may diverge. And sometimes together we can make a difference.

For example, when the Public Order Management Act was first proposed, civil society groups in Uganda and many of Uganda’s international partners — including the United States — were concerned that it would empower the government to restrict freedoms of speech and assembly. The final legislation was greatly amended and many would argue greatly improved. The test now, however, will be in the government’s application of the law, and it is “on that ground” that citizens will likely form their views of it.

Since the law’s enactment, the government has allowed a number of meetings and demonstrations to take place throughout the country, including meetings and protests organized by the opposition parties and figures. However, there are concerns more recently that the law is being misused to prevent opposition political leaders from being heard.

We recognize this as a serious concern and, like the Ugandans who have voiced their worry about the arbitrary denial of permits and the use of teargas and force against citizens gathering peacefully, we worry that selective application of this law can not only stifle political activity and discussion but also undermine people’s faith in the democratic process.

There are also other bills and directives that young women and men like you in the Ethics and Human Rights Association might think about as reflecting the challenge of balancing rights and responsibilities. Ultimately only Ugandans can determine whether these bills reflect your own values and belief — and perhaps yours will be the voices the address that question — but I hope that Ugandans will at least have a robust discussion of the issues. Among the bills are the Anti-Pornography Act, the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the NGO Bill, the proposed Patriotism Bill, the pending HIV/AIDS Control Bill and new media regulations. All of them raise legitimate questions about freedom of speech and assembly, about the right of privacy, and about non-discrimination and equal protection under the law.

Does legislating patriotism actually diminish dissent and stifle opposition? Does legislating morality lead to discrimination or harassment against those with different values or lifestyles? As elections draw nearer it is even more important that freedom of political assembly and speech are respected and that existing laws are applied in an even-handed manner to all citizens. Actions that reduce the political space and prevent fair democratic competition puts at risk the significant progress Uganda has made in democratic governance over the past 30 years.

Although the United States routinely speaks out on issues of human rights concern, we know that highlighting abuses is not enough. We must also seek to engage constructively with governments, parliaments, civil society, activists, and ordinary citizens, to educate, foster constructive dialogue, find creative solutions and compromises, and make pursuit of a society free of human rights abuses as much a priority as a society free of the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

There is a phrase that people in the United States often invoke when urging others to support human rights: “Be on the right side of history.” The story of the United States is the story of a nation that has repeatedly grappled with intolerance and inequality. We fought a brutal civil war over slavery and then took decades more to fight for full racial equality. Over the years Americans from coast to coast have joined campaigns to fight for the rights of women. In the last century that included the right to vote. In this century it includes the struggle over reproductive rights. We have raised our voices when no one else has to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, of children, of people with disabilities, of immigrants, of workers, and on and on.

The march toward equality and justice continues today despite opposition that has at times been bitter and violent. We believe that all those who fought, and those who continue to struggle to expand the circle of human rights, are on the right side of history, and history honors them. Those who tried to constrict human rights were wrong, and history reflects that as well.

I know that today I have touched upon issues on which there will not be unanimity of views, but I have seen even in my own lifetime how an issue that can be bitterly disputed one day, becomes a universally accepted truth a few years later. And I believe that time will once again bear out the truth of the basic premise on which my nation is founded and from which our commitment to values grows: We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal. And they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As Americans, we believe in the dignity of the individual. We believe in their right to live lives free of discrimination and persecution. We believe that all citizens’ voices deserve to be heard and that governments exist to meet the needs and to protect the rights of the citizens who have entrusted them with the responsibility for governance.

We worry that despite considerable progress, the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still not fully realized in today’s world. Even as we speak, fundamental rights remain under challenge in countries around the globe. Calls for change in governance are too often treated as threats meriting repression, rather than as legitimate political speech deserving debate. Women still face discrimination, abuse and violence that denies them the right to be equal partners in their own nations’ lives. The youth who make up much of our global population today are too often constrained and controlled as a potential problem rather than nurtured as future leaders. And minorities of all sorts continue to struggle to have their voices heard and to enjoy equal protection under law.

So, today at this Human Rights Fair we are called once more to make real the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Let us answer that call. Let us be on the right side of history. I am hopeful and confident that no matter how long the road ahead, you and others of your generation will travel it successfully and make a difference for Uganda and for the world.

Reaching an understanding of these issues takes more than a single speech of course. It takes a conversation. In fact, it takes a constellation of conversations in places big and small. And it takes a willingness to recognize that our sometimes stark differences in values and beliefs are a reason to begin the conversation, not to avoid it.

Leadership, by definition, means being out in front when it is called for whether it is popular or not. It means standing up for the dignity of all your citizens and persuading others to do the same. It also means ensuring that all citizens are treated as equals under the law. To everyone here today, I say supporting human rights is my responsibility, it is your responsibility, it is all our responsibility. To the Ethics and Human Rights Association members I say stand up to this challenge. Make a difference.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who did so much to advance human rights worldwide, said that these rights begin in the small places close to home – the streets where people live, the schools they attend, the factories, farms, and offices where they work. These places are your domain. The actions you take, the ideals that you advocate, can determine whether human rights flourish where you are.

With over 80 percent of Ugandans under the age of 30, the future is in the hands of this younger generation. So I ask you — will this be a country of exclusion and discrimination? Or will this be a country of inclusion, tolerance, and understanding? How will the nation you will build be judged by your children and your grandchildren? This, ladies and gentlemen is for you to decide. I wish you wisdom, compassion, and vision as you make your choices.

It is now my great pleasure to officially launch Makerere University Ethics and Human Rights Association and to declare the first annual Human Rights Expo officially open!

Thank you very much.

- Cross posted from the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda


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