We are deeply saddened by the death of the founder of the Damas de Blanco, Laura Pollan. She was a courageous human rights defender who fought valiantly on behalf of political prisoners in Cuba. Cuba has lost one of its most important voices of conscience. We offer our sincere condolences to her family, which has lost a loyal wife and mother. Mrs. Pollan will be remembered with gratitude by scores of former political prisoners who are now free thanks to her and the Damas. Through them, and all who work for a democratic future in Cuba, her legacy will endure.
Through Mrs. Pollan’s and the Damas’ brave actions, the world bears witness to the plight of those who remain unjustly held in Cuba’s prisons and to Cuba’s dismal human rights record.
Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, the United States has engaged the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their future and Cuba’s future.
The President’s thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends, and colleagues of Laura Pollán, the founder of Las Damas de Blanco, who passed away Friday in Havana. Pollán and the quiet dignity of the Ladies in White have courageously voiced the core desire of the Cuban people and of people everywhere to live in liberty. Through their brave actions, the Ladies in White draw attention to the plight of those who are unjustly held in Cuba’s prisons and pushed Cuban authorities to release those political prisoners wrongly jailed in the Spring of 2003.
Since the beginning of the Administration we have worked to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their future and Cuba’s future. We will continue that work in Pollán’s memory.
From left: Christian Marchant of U.S. Embassy Hanoi, Ambassador Steve Beecroft of U.S. Embassy Amman, Under Secretary William Burns, Assistant Secretary Michael H. Posner, Julia Nunez on behalf of Damas de Blanco, and Holly Lindquist Thomas of U.S. Embassy Tashkent.
Thank you for joining us today to celebrate the accomplishments of four human rights champions. This Administration, and particularly Secretary Clinton, have made advancing human rights one of our top national security priorities. The events unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa remind us of the universal aspirations of women and men across the globe to live in dignity, to find freedom and opportunity, and to shape their own destinies. They remind us that stability is not a static phenomenon, that political systems and leaderships that fail to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their people become more brittle, not more stable. And they remind us of the enduring significance of fundamental human rights for American interests around the world, and for what we stand for as a people and as a country.
The leaders we honor today have shown by example how to uphold the basic freedoms that are under threat in so many parts the world.
First, the “Damas de Blanco” or the “Ladies in White” of Cuba. Damas de Blanco distinguishes itself not only by the depth of its commitment to the release of political prisoners, but by the full measure of its bravery in defense of human rights in Cuba. The Damas helped create the conditions that led to the release of the political prisoners arrested during the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003. With much of the battle for human rights in Cuba forced underground, the Damas de Blanco kept marching. And they keep on providing a poignant weekly reminder of the day-to-day repression that Cubans face. We stand alongside the Damas de Blanco in calling for the release of all remaining political prisoners; we are pleased to have Julia Nunez with us today to accept the Human Rights Defenders Award on behalf of Damas de Blanco.
In her remarks two weeks ago on the release of the 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Secretary Clinton noted, “Here at the State Department, human rights is a priority 365 days a year.” State Department Civil Service and Foreign Service Officers as well as Foreign Service Nationals tirelessly work to support the freedoms we all cherish.
Today, I am honored to highlight the work of colleagues who have made a real difference around the globe in promoting human rights issues. Ambassador Steve Beecroft’s advocacy for human rights in Jordan, including for women and children, persons with disabilities, and ethnic and religious minorities, is a superb example of the determination and commitment of our colleagues in diplomatic missions around the world.
As his nomination by the Bureau of Near East Affairs makes clear: “Ambassador Beecroft’s clear vision, brilliant strategy, and tireless advocacy have resulted in the country re-engaging across the board on a broad range of human rights issues, with progress on both individual cases and systemic reform. He saw opportunities for progress even when the environment seemed barren, and nurtured them patiently to fruition using personal diplomacy, public engagement, and targeted assistance programs for government and civil society. ”
It is not only our Ambassadors who promote human rights. We honor today two officers serving in two different parts of the world who have demonstrated integrity and innovation in their work to protect and defend universal freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and freedom of religion. They are Holly Lindquist Thomas of the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and Christian Marchant of U.S. Embassy Hanoi.
Holly has made a critical difference in the lives of individuals and their families in Uzbekistan. She made key contributions in persistent approaches to the Government of Uzbekistan that led to the release of businessman and opposition leader Sanjar Umarov. Holly’s surveys around the country, on the issue of child labor during the cotton harvest, provided first-hand information on the underlying causes of this phenomenon and the true conditions of children.
In Vietnam, Christian has been a persuasive advocate for Vietnam’s beleaguered dissident community, serving as a conduit for imprisoned dissidents, their families and the outside world, and working to ensure that the bilateral Human Rights dialogue produces concrete results. In one case, literally on the courthouse steps, Christian’s intercession prevented a political activist from being beaten.
We congratulate all four of you. You richly deserve these awards. In recognizing your service, we also honor the human rights defenders and civil society activists who are doing hard work every day in every part of the world to turn the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into reality. Thank you.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns will present the Diplomacy for Human Rights Award, the Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award, and the Human Rights Defenders Award in the Department of State’s Treaty Room, Thursday, April 21 at 11:30 a.m.
The Human Rights Defenders Award recognizes individuals or non-governmental organizations who show exceptional valor and leadership in advocating the protection of human rights and democracy in the face of government repression. The Department will honor the Cuban NGO Damas de Blanco – “Ladies in White”. Damas de Blanco’s visible, consistently observed vigils focused international attention not only on political prisoners, but the overall human rights situation in Cuba.
Ambassador Stephen Beecroft of U.S. Embassy Amman will receive the Diplomacy for Human Rights Award for his extraordinary commitment to defending human rights and advancing democratic principles in Jordan. His advocacy has created new opportunities to engage the government on a broad range of human rights issues, with progress on both individual cases and systematic reform.
The Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award will be presented to Christian Marchant of U.S. Embassy Hanoi for outstanding work to prevent torture and defend the rights of Vietnam’s dissidents, and Holly Lindquist Thomas of U.S. Embassy Tashkent for superb reporting underscoring issues of child labor during the cotton harvest and key contributions to diplomatic engagement in support of civil society and human rights activists in Uzbekistan.
This event will be open to credentialed members of the media.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Welcome, everybody, and happy Human Rights Day. Please have a seat. Sixty-two years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which established, really, for the first time, the universality of human rights – every human being entitled to rights because of their humanity.
That effort was led by a great American, Eleanor Roosevelt. And in the spirit of that great American, I present to you another great American who carries on that tradition, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you so much. Thank you all. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, thank you. (Applause.) Thank you.
Thank you and welcome to what is called the Treaty Room. And I want to thank Assistant Secretary Posner. And although December 10th is the day when we commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thanks to people like Mike and everyone here in this room who works with us at the State Department and across the Administration, every day is Human Rights Day. And we take that as a very serious challenge and mission. And Mike and his staff are doing a tremendous job championing human rights and the values that we cherish here at home and around the world.
And of course, I’m thrilled to do anything that is associated with Eleanor Roosevelt. I am always delighted to speak about the life and legacy of someone whom I admire so much. And it is a great privilege to see her grandson, James Roosevelt, Jr., here to be with us – (applause) – and Allida Black, who has made it her life’s work to edit the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, which might not otherwise have come to such prominence. (Applause.) And we have representatives here from the Departments of Justice and Defense and the White House and especially the families and friends of our honorees who have loved and supported them through so much.
I also want to begin by recognizing the brave men and women around the world who are being persecuted, jailed, or tortured today as we speak for promoting human rights and freedom. We remember them every single day and among them is the Chinese writer, Liu Xiaobo, who has now been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Liu was not there, as you know, to accept the prize, and nor was his wife nor anyone related or connected to him because he is serving an 11-year prison sentence on charges related to his peaceful advocacy for human rights and democracy. And we continue to call for his release, and today, we call for the release of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. (Applause.)
In Cuba, the determined women of Damas de Blanco have endured harassment, beatings, and arrest as they march every week, as they once again did yesterday, in support of their husbands and sons who are longtime political prisoners. In Zimbabwe, activists have been arrested, abducted, or beaten after calling attention to human rights abuses and the plight of the poor. And unfortunately, I could go on and on. And there are so many places where we don’t yet see the realization of the rule of law and the recognition of the basic freedoms that are universal.
These rights that are being denied people are written plainly and simply in the Universal Declaration, because Eleanor Roosevelt stood for a basic principle. The language of a document intended to be universal had to be so clear that anyone could understand it. And if you read, as I do, international treaties and agreements – (laughter) – you know that the fact Eleanor succeeded was nothing short of a miracle. So I hope that people around the world, including those of us in our government, will celebrate this day by rereading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reconfirming our commitment to work in any way we can to make good on its promise, which includes the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.
In the past two years, I have traveled literally hundreds of thousands of miles, visited 77 countries, and have advocated for human rights everywhere from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. And the array of issues that we are working on seems to broaden as we grapple with problems that were not on people’s minds when the declaration was drafted.
Now of course, Eleanor Roosevelt and the other drafters understood that human rights means much more than just political freedom. She wanted to honor the inherent dignity and value of the human being, which to her meant equal rights for every man, woman and child; freedom from want and fear; the opportunity for every person to develop his or her full God-given potential. And it is up to us to harness these ideas to meet the challenges that we now face. So therefore, we must speak out when people are not free to vote or practice their religion; when girls are trafficked or married against their will; when boys are forced to become child soldiers.
This year, our diplomats have worked on food security and the need to nourish all babies in the first vital 1,000 days of life. We’ve worked on internet freedom, international disability rights, ending sexual violence as a tool of warfare, diffusing ethnic tensions, and so much more. And we are particularly focused on helping those who are on the front lines in their own countries. And we try to think very hard about what strategy will help and not just get us a headline or get us attention, because that’s not the goal. The goal is to make it possible for people who are very brave, in ways that many of us cannot even imagine, actually realize their full freedoms.
Now, our four honorees have each been pioneers in expanding our understanding and practice of human rights work. Each stood on the shoulders of the generation that went before, and each touched the lives of people who had been excluded or marginalized.
When Louis Henkin began law school in 1937, the term “human rights” did not exist in international law. The words were used only colloquially. But over the next six decades, Lou Henkin changed that. He breathed life into the new human rights movement and pioneered the study of human rights law as a discipline. After clerking for Judge Learned Hand and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Lou began his career in the State Department’s – (laughter) – Bureau of UN Affairs. And he was the U.S. negotiator for the Refugee Convention. He himself had fled the Soviet Union with his family at the age of five and he described himself as a Jewish refugee from communism.
He picked up the intellectual challenge thrown down by Eleanor Roosevelt’s generation – take the rights that had been asserted at the United Nations but were still only theoretical for so many – and weave them into the fabric of international law. He did it at the State Department, as an advisor at the United Nations, and as a law professor. And along the way, he famously refuted the notion that a government could invoke national sovereignty to justify denying the inherent rights of its citizens. Lou was an intellectual giant, and as many of his former students in this room can attest, he was legendary for being both honest and kind. We mourn his passing in October, and I would like to offer my sympathies to his beloved wife Alice and their children. But Alice, we could not honor Lou without also honoring you.
Alice Hartman Henkin was one of only six women to graduate from Yale Law School in 1957, and in so doing she put some real cracks in the glass ceiling for people like me. For three decades as the director of the Justice and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, she has brought together lawyers, business leaders, and educators to help shape U.S. policies on human rights, international law, and peacekeeping. And she helped train more than 300 judges, including four Supreme Court justices in international human rights law.
Lou and Alice were full partners in integrating the United States into the international human rights system. People say that Lou and Alice were like FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. (Laughter.) But ironically, Lou was more like Eleanor, the lawgiver — (laughter) — while Alice has been like Franklin, whose political skills brought these values into the consciousness of generations of U.S. officials.
So I now have the great privilege of presenting Alice with the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award to Louis and Alice. (Applause.)
Alice, could you say a few words?
MS. HENKIN: Thank you, Madam Secretary. I’m happy to receive the Eleanor Roosevelt Award on Lou’s behalf. My only sadness, of course, is his inability to accept it in person. As a great admirer of Mrs. Roosevelt, he would have been especially pleased. Lou was also an admirer of her husband, Franklin, and often referred to FDR’s Four Freedoms speech to Congress in 1941, noting in particular the third freedom, freedom from want.
I will quote very briefly from an article Lou wrote in 1997 in the Texas International Law Journal about that third freedom. Quote: “For many the U.S. system of rights is deficient in that it does not guarantee freedom from want. The place of economic and social rights and U.S. jurisprudence and policy has been unsteady. Indeed, the sentiment that economic, social, and cultural rights are not rights has spread, and reluctance to assume international obligations to realize them has remained strong. However, the United States has joined in promulgating and promoting the economic and social rights through the universal declaration. But economic and social rights are not part of the U.S. Bill of Rights and are not guaranteed by other provisions in the Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on the other hand, recognizes not only the civil rights rooted in natural law and the political rights associated with democracy; it recognizes also the economic and social rights associated with the welfare state: a right to food, housing, health, education, leisure, social security, and work.” End of the quote. Then he goes on to support the U.S. ratification of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights. But that’s for another day. (Laughter.) (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: When the torch of human rights advocacy is passed from the Eleanor Roosevelts to the Lou and Alice Henkins of this world, and then again to a new generation of activists, it takes a very special person to pick up that challenge. Well, Wade Henderson is such a person. He has spent his life working on grassroots change, first, as Eleanor said, “in the small places close to home” and then on national and international scale. There is scarcely an American civil rights issue that Wade hasn’t touched as an advocate, a scholar, or a community leader. He’s worked on civil liberties, District of Columbia voting legislation, and workers’ rights. He helped past the Hate Crimes law that President Obama signed last year.
The Leadership Conference Wade now has has 200 organizations as members, and its mission is to promote and protect civil and human rights of all people in the United States and to foster an open and just society. And this year Wade also offered his considerable wisdom as the United States prepared our first-ever report on our own human rights record at the Human Rights Council. Above all, Wade is a bridge builder. He understands that our diversity is our strength, and he knows how to bring diverse communities together to achieve common goals. That really does make him a distinguished diplomat as well as a civil rights and human rights activist.
I want to welcome his wife Marsha, who is here today for this special occasion. So please join me in congratulating Wade Henderson as I present him with the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award. (Applause.)
MR. HENDERSON: Thank you. Good afternoon and thank you. And thank you, Madam Secretary, for those gracious words and Assistant Secretary Mike Posner. I cannot begin to tell you how humbled I am to receive this award in the name of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose devotion to civil and human rights gave birth to a set of universal principles that continue to transform our world for the better.
I’m honored to share this recognition today with Sarah Rial and the late Professor Louis Henkin and Alice Henkin. I had the privilege of studying with Professor Henkin at the Aspen Institute. It was Alice who arranged my participation. I’m deeply honored. It was Professor Henkin and Alice together that were the giants whose work provided the intellectual framework for the growth of the modern human rights movement.
I have some very important people here with me today, and before I go on I’d like to give them the recognition that they deserve, starting with my wife Marsha Henderson, my daughters (inaudible), my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Wade, colleagues from the David A. Clark School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia, where I’m proud to be the first Joseph L. Rauh Professor of Public Interest Law. And I want to thank my colleagues at the Leadership Conference to whom I owe so much, both those who are here and those who are not.
This award really belongs to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations working together for an America that’s as good as its ideals. Fittingly, the Leadership Conference was founded just two years after the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And while we spoke more frequently about civil rights than human rights for most of our history, our work has always encompassed both, so it was only natural that we formally added human rights to our name earlier this year.
It is in this spirit that the Leadership Conference took the lead this year in seeking Senate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Woman. And we are equally committed to the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If our country is to continue to lead on international human rights, the U.S. should be as committed to these treaties as I know Secretary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Posner are as well. (Applause.)
And as Secretary Clinton said, we were proud to be a part of the Universal Periodic Review effort of the United States before the UN Human Rights Council. It was extraordinary to be among such a diverse group of dedicated individuals, some of whom I have known and worked with for many years, representing the human rights achievements of our great nation. It demonstrated, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said of human rights – and I quote – “Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
Thank you, Madam Secretary, for this extraordinary honor and thank you. (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Like Lou Henkin, Sarah Cleto Rial came here as a refugee. She was actually displaced twice: first from her home in Southern Sudan because of the civil war; and then from Khartoum, because her work in calling attention to wartime atrocities against women made her a target. For refusing to wear a head scarf, Sarah was once picked up and paraded around Khartoum in a police truck.
Sarah arrived here in 1999 under the refugee laws that Lou Henkin had helped create. She soon began working for a Massachusetts NGO, My Sister’s Keeper. They built a school for girls in Southern Sudan, and they started programs to train teachers and teach adult women how to read. And now they have created a network of 250 women’s peace activists from all over Sudan.
These women hail from ethnic groups that have been at war, but they have come together to lobby the various military factions for peace. These women are tired of war and want to be part of ending it. We’ve talked about this at the United Nations, and we passed Resolution 1327 recognizing the importance of women in peacekeeping. But it takes a person like Sarah to make it happen – someone who flies back to Sudan, kisses the tarmac from which she fled, and starts building peace from the ground up. Tonight, Sarah and her colleagues are headed off to the Nuba Mountains to continue grassroots efforts to build peace and stability.
Sarah is joined today by her three sons and their father and her sister and a wealth of friends, Sarah – (laughter) – from everywhere. So please, give the honor of presenting this award to you. (Applause.)
MS. CLETO RIAL: Thank you, Senator Clinton, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Congratulations to my fellow honorees, Mr. Henderson and Mr. and Mrs. Henkin for the extreme exemplary leadership in the field of human rights. I am extremely honored to receive this award.
I would like express my special appreciation to the people of the United States of America. I would not have been here without the willingness of this great country to welcome me as a refugee. I came here to this country fleeing conflict and seeking sanctuary 11 years ago. Thank you, my fellow Americans.
I want to thank my family, my sister, who drove all the way from Atlanta to be here with me this afternoon, my sister-in-law (inaudible), and my children who missed school today – (laughter) – to be here. Thank you so much. My special appreciation to my sisters from My Sister’s Keeper, whom have been my inspiration throughout my work with them, and I really especially honoring my mentor and our regional (inaudible) Gloria White-Hammond who is here with us. (Applause.) They work so hard and they care about women who are 10,000 miles away from here. Pastor Gloria, Lee, and Geneva, thank you so much for being here with me.
This prestigious award is not for me personally. I accept it on behalf of the 525 resourceful students at the Kunyuk School for Girls, the 200 resilient adult women who are learning at the Women’s Peace School, and most importantly, the 200 resilient and the hardworking women who are part of the members of the Sisterhood for Peace Network. And I’m so honored to have my sisters from the Sisterhood Network here with me today. Thank you for taking this time to be here and to work together collaborating across traditional boundaries to promote peace throughout all Sudan. Together, we are forging multiple pathways to sustainable peace in our beloved Sudan.
This award is a tribute to the countless Sudanese women worldwide, who for decades have traveled through long years and many wars in Sudan. We have endured hardships and contributed much to our country, but we have always been relegated to the shadow. This award allows us to come out and tell you and tell the world that Sudanese women have been and are here to ensure that there is lasting peace in our homeland.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said – and I want to tell you, my Sudanese sisters, that this here, this is our award. This is your award. And Eleanor said, “Women, whether subtly or vociferously, have always been a tremendous power in the destiny of the world.” Today, as women, we seize our power and we claim our destiny in Sudan and in the world. We will achieve our human rights, and we will build peace in our country and throughout the world.
Thank you. (Applause.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thank you, Sarah, and congratulations to you, to Wade, to Alice. The stories we’ve heard today are deeply moving, and they show that the struggle for human dignity does bear fruit, even though it sometimes takes years or even decades to achieve. They’re a reminder that we must measure progress over that time.
I just want to end with one story about Secretary Clinton, who’s been working on these issues since she was a student. Back in 1998, when she was First Lady, she presented the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, and she told the audience about a village she had visited in Senegal. USAID was running a program there and some of the women had come together to press their village to stop the practice of female genital cutting. The concept was radical and so was the notion of the First Lady of the United States talking about it.
Earlier this month, we got an email letting us know that the number of villages in Senegal that have stopped this practice has now swelled to 700. And what’s more, the women have built on their initial success and are working to curb the practice of child marriage in their communities.
So I’m honored, really honored, to have joined Secretary Clinton in honoring your courage and your efforts to chart new pathways forward in the decades to come. Thank you all for coming. (Applause.)