Hillary Rodham Clinton

Remarks at the United Nations Economic and Social Council - Dec. 10, 1997

Hillary Rodham Clinton
December 10, 1997— New York City
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Thank you. Mr. President, your excellencies. I welcome this opportunity to be here as we begin this yearlong commemoration, which is not just a commemoration of the universality of human rights; it is a celebration of the United Nations. I am especially pleased that we are able to gather this morning in the economic and social council, which at its first session in February of 1946, established the Commission on Human Rights.

Forty-nine winters ago the world acknowledged the new common standard for human dignity, a code for the peoples and governments of the world to live by. One of the people who labored to create that code was Eleanor Roosevelt, then the United States representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The place was Paris. The delegates who came together to craft the language hailed from countries as diverse as Lebanon, Chile, France, China, and Ukraine. And the dream was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international agreement on the rights of humankind.

Some of humanity's greatest lessons emerge only after the deepest tragedies. This Declaration took shape in a world ravaged by the horrors of militarism and fascism. In the wake of the most violent revelations of the depths to which human beings can dehumanize one another, the world as a whole was ready at last to agree upon these standards for human rights.

Let me read a passage from that document: "Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind. The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want have been proclaimed as the highest aspirations of the common people. Therefore, the General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations."

The document goes on to state what should be obvious, but too often is not: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood." How radically idealistic an act it was at first for the nations of the world to describe publicly in this Declaration. That act did not, however, take place in a vacuum. It was a response to evil, and I used that word deliberately. Those study the Holocaust know that Nazis were able to pursue their crimes precisely because they were able progressively to constrict the circle of those defined as humans. From the moment they came to power, they proceeded step by step to dehumanize, through laws and propaganda, the mentally ill, the infirm, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews -- they whom they identified as lives unworthy of life.

This cold, dark region of the human soul, where people withdraw first understanding, then empathy, and finally even the designation of personhood from another human being, is not, of course, unique to Nazi Germany. This new device, this ability to dehumanize, has been witnessed in all times and places. And it is precisely this device that the Declaration attempted to help us resist.

Thankfully, in the half-century since the birth of the Declaration, we have as a global people managed progressively to expand the circle of full human dignity. Because of this document, individuals and nations alike have a standard by which to measure fundamental rights. Many of the countries that have emerged in the last 50 years have drawn inspiration from the Declaration in their own constitutions. Courts of law look to the Declaration. It has laid the groundwork for the world's war crimes tribunals. And it has prompted governments to set up their own commissions to safeguard basic liberties.

At the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, it was the power of the Declaration that inspired the establishment of a High Commissioner on Human Rights. And let me add how lucky the United Nations and indeed the world is that Mary Robinson fills that post.

At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, it was the strength of this Declaration that enabled us to say for all the world to hear that human rights are women's rights, and that women's rights are human rights.

And yet -- and yet, in spite of this half-century of progress, we have not expanded the circle of human dignity human dignity far enough. There are still too many of our fellow men and women excluded from the fundamental rights proclaimed in the Declaration, too many whom we have hardened our hearts against -- those whose human suffering we fail fully to see, to hear, and to feel.

Any look back at history shows that every nation has had its blind spots that have kept people out of the promised circle of full humanity. Take the example of my own country. We in the United States have had our own difficult experiences with the selective or unequal application of the rights established in the American Constitution. Even the founding fathers, whose ideas of human dignity were so far ahead of their time, proclaiming that all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence, inscribed slavery in our Constitution.

It has taken most of our 220 years, some of them bloody, few of them easy, to extend the benefits of citizenship to African Americans, to those without property, and women. Eleanor Roosevelt herself was 35 years old before she could vote.

Even today, we circumscribe the circle -- in what we choose not to see. Black South Africans described what it was like to work all day in white environments in which one was literally not seen. In the Balkans people have willed themselves not to see the humanity of those whose heritage is different from their own. We ourselves in the industrialized world often choose not to see the child labor that goes into our beautiful carpets or are comfortable shoes.

And in too many places today what we fail to see are the injustices done to women. We choose not to see the injustice of legal systems around the world that continue to treat women as less than complete citizens. In too many places female heirs are seeing less inheritance than male heirs. Inequitable divorce laws compel women to remain in cruel marriages. And courts of law require the testimony of two women to equal that of a solitary man.

Our vision is limited in other areas as well. We choose not to see the contribution of women to the economic lives of their families and countries. In too many places women are discriminated against for bank loans and credit, first jobs and promotions. They are denied pay equal to that of men, or any pay at all. And they live disproportionately in poverty, making up 70 percent of the world's poor.

We also circumscribe the circle by what we choose not to hear. Freedom and equality for all depend first on whether a citizen truly has a voice. It is telling that even in the drafting of the Universal Declaration, there was a debate about women's voices. The initial version of the first article stated, "All men are created equal." It took women members of the Commission, led by Hansa Mehta of India, to point out that "all men" might be interpreted to exclude women. Only after long debate was the language changed to say, "All human beings are born free and equal."

Today we still choose not to hear the voices of many women. In too many places women are blocked from participating in the political lives of their countries. Just nine days in Sudan, 36 women were arrested while attempting to deliver a petition to the United Nations office there in protest of human rights violations in their country. They were arrested, fined, and at least one woman received 40 lashes.

In too many places girls and women never even learn to project their voices. Two-thirds of the 130 million children out of school are girls. Two-thirds of the 96 million people worldwide who can neither read nor write are women. Even now the Taliban in Afghanistan are blocking girls from attending school. Not only that, they are blocking those like Emma Bonino, the European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, who would speak out on behalf of this injustice.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the rights to petition the government and to assemble -- all these are essential. But think how much weaker these rights are in a nation where the majority of young women are illiterate. Rights on paper that are not protected and implemented are not really rights at all.

We further constrict the circle of human rights through what we choose not to feel. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, "When will our conscience grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?"

In too many places the suffering of women is designed as trivial, to be explained away as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps is for this reason that women do not receive proper health care, including access to family planning. Perhaps that's why the genital cutting in some countries more than 90 percent of women have undergone continues. Perhaps that is why domestic and sexual violence remains the most serious under-reported and widespread human rights violation in the world.

In almost every country of the world, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of injury and death to women. In my country 30 percent of female murder victims are killed by current or former partners. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said, domestic violence can never again be dismissed, as it often has in the past, as part of a country's norm or as a set of private assumptions about family life. Let us say it loudly for the entire world to hear us: We do not believe that violence against women is simply cultural; we believe it is simply criminal. (Applause.)

And perhaps that is why rape and sexual assault continue to be tactics of war. It is the cruelest injustice that so many wars end not in peace for women and their families, but in refugee crises that trapped women and children in lives that go from bad to worse. Women and children make up 80 percent of the world's 23 million refugees.

The full enfranchisement of the rights of women is unfinished business in this turbulent century. What meaning do the language of freedom and human rights have for a young women forced into prostitution and traffic in the commercial sex trade? What meaning can it have for women forced into involuntary servitude as sweat shop workers or domestic servants? What meaning can it have for a women forced either to bear a child or abort one? What about the very ingrained practices that undermine the growth and development of girls from their very first years, such as the common practice of feeding them last or less?

As I have been privileged to travel around the world, I have met countless women who know nothing of this Declaration and its promises. But they are eloquent in their belief that they deserve respect and better treatment, in their families, workplaces, and societies.

And yet some critics continue to dismiss women's sufferings as minor. But are they? In 1958 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: Where do human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person -- the neighborhood he lives in, the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

Other critics dismiss human rights violations as harmless. A report released this week by the Carnegie Commission on preventing deadly conflict proves otherwise. According to the report, an upsurge of egregious human rights violations is almost always a powerful warning of dire events to come, including massive refugee flows and civil wars.

Still others say that human rights are a Westerner's luxury -- not inalienable, but alien. But I believe, and the women I've listened to believe, that human rights are as essential to life as air or water, that they are felt beyond culture and tradition as innate. The women I have met do not feel that human rights are a foreign concept invented by purists. Rather they know, in spite of everything they are told by culture and tradition, in their very hearts and souls, that these are God-given rights that they were born with as surely as they were born into the human family.

For if they are not innate, how have people throughout history known to fight for them so valiantly? Paradoxically, the proof of universality lies with the perpetrators of human rights violations themselves. Why would those who have dishonored humanity run to cover their tracks were it not for the knowledge that wrong had been done? The Nazis tried to hide their concentration camps. Communism kept its terrors in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. Scores of bodies are hidden in the hard ground of places like Bosnia and deep in the forests of places like Rwanda.

Throughout my hemisphere, people have disappeared. Why go to the trouble? Because human rights transcend individual regimes and customs. The beliefs inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were not invented 50 years ago. They are not the work of a single culture or country. They have been with us forever -- from civilization's first light.

Sophocles wrote about them 2,500 years ago. He had Antigone declare that there ethical laws higher than the laws of even kings. Isi Chang (phonetic), who helped draft the Universal Declaration, pointed out that Confucius articulated them in ancient China. The belief that we must respect our neighbors as we would respect ourselves resides in the core of the teachings of all the major faiths of the world.

The principles inscribed in the document whose birth we mark today are not constructed, but revealed. Every great religion exposed and taught their truth. If I were to tear up this declaration, its values would abide. If I were to burn this document, its meaning would remain. If I were to prevent someone from hearing these words, they would still ring as loudly as ever in the hearts of men and women.

It is because every era has its blind spots that we must see our own unfinished business now while we stand on the threshold of a new millennium with even greater urgency. We must rededicate ourselves to completing the circle of human rights once and for all. We must challenge ourselves to see more sharply, to hear more clearly, to feel more fully.

And we must do something else. We must support democracies new and old that work to fulfill the aspirations of this Declaration. As my husband the President said last night: Democracy, the rule of law, civil society -- those things are the best guarantees of human rights over the long run.

It is time for us as a global community to commitment ourselves. We have run out of excuses not to. Here we are at the very close of the 20th century, a century that has been scorched by war time and time again. If the history of this century teaches us anything, it is that whenever the dignity of any individual or group is compromised by the derogation of who they are, of some essential attribute they possess, then we all leave ourselves open to nightmares to come.

Conversely, if the century has a lesson for us that is redeeming, it is that by extending the circle of citizenship and human dignity to include everyone without exception, then we have the basis where new worlds of hope can flourish.

So let us in this year of commemoration walk toward those new worlds. And let us do so knowing that the path will never be easy. These rights may be eternal, but so too is the struggle to attain them. Though the darkness of the human heart may recede, it will never go away. It must be with realistic eyes that we look for human rights. And it must be with a clean hand and open hearts that in this, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that we rededicate ourselves to their fulfillment.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Clinton, Hillary. 1997. "Remarks by the First Lady at the United Nations." The White House. https://clintonwhitehouse4.archives.gov/WH/EOP/First_Lady/html/generalspeeches/1997/19971219-8694.html.