Frontlines and Frontiers: Making Human Rights a Human Reality

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Dublin City University
Dublin, Ireland
December 6, 2012

Thank you. Thank you. Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be here at DCU and back in Dublin. I want to thank you, President MacCraith, for that kind introduction. I’m delighted to be joined here by a number of officials and dignitaries, including your Chancellor, Martin McAleese, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting before when he was the spouse of a president. (Laughter.) We had a lot in common. I was once a spouse of a president as well. Your Minister for Education, Minister Quinn; your Minister for Children and Youth Fitzgerald; your Minister for Social Protection Burton, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin – we are grateful to have all of you here, but I’m particularly pleased there are so many students and young people here in this auditorium.

This university is renowned, not just for your world-class academics but also your engagement with in the world – your international student body, your commitment to help solve urgent global problems through study and innovation, and your new Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction, which I can assure you will have a busy agenda ahead of it. Because you are absolutely right that the lessons learned here in Ireland about how to build peace could be of great use to other peoples and nations. And I commend the university for your global service, which has such ramifications far beyond the academic world.

Now, it goes without saying that for millions of Americans who have family ties to Ireland, including my husband and daughter, and President Obama, this nation is often seen as a second homeland. And over the years, Ireland has made enormous contributions to America’s progress. Several of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were born in Ireland, as were many of the soldiers who fought in our revolution. The Irish helped build America’s canals and railroads, overcame suspicion and bigotry to earn their livings and educate their children, and rose over time to become leaders in every field of endeavor.

Now, people around the world often speak of and believed in the American dream, but I think it is fair to say that no people have done more to build that dream and make it real than the Irish. The United States, my country, would not be the country it is today were it not for this nation and its people. And that close kinship, not just a relationship between nations and governments, but a friendship rooted in relationships between people, is as strong as ever.

Ireland and the United States work side by side to fight global hunger, to prevent the kind of suffering that Ireland endured during the Great Famine. We are helping women across the world, particularly in Malawi, gain access to clean cookstoves. We’re working together in Afghanistan to try to make long-term stability possible for a people that has known very little of that. And Ireland has shown an unsurpassed commitment to preventing war by protecting peace. It’s an astonishing fact, but for more than 50 years, not a single day has gone by in which an Irish peacekeeper has not stood a post somewhere in the world.

So I know that Ireland is going through hard times now. I understand the painful sacrifice that so many families have had to make. But I want you to know that, not just in the United States, but people everywhere look to Ireland and see a resilient nation. Yes, a generous nation, one dedicated to peace and justice because you know from your own history how precious that is and how important it is for all of us to stand up for those values and protect them. And it is that struggle that joins our two countries, on behalf of human dignity and freedom, that brings me here today.

This is likely to be my last official visit to Ireland as the United States Secretary of State. And I want to mark this occasion by speaking with you about a foreign policy priority that represents our two nations’ most cherished values, and which is central to how we confront the world’s challenges – human rights.

Now, human rights don’t always occupy the headlines, but they are often what lie just behind and underneath them. And the future that awaits the students and young people today will be shaped, in large part, by how well leaders live up to their human rights responsibilities.

During my first year as Secretary, I celebrated Human Rights Day by giving a speech at a university, Georgetown, in Washington, DC. I said there and then that in the 21st century, America’s goal must be to make human rights a human reality, building upon what was accomplished in the 20th century, through the heroic efforts of leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt and many others, when the international community established human rights as the God-given entitlement of every person, and embedded those rights into international law along with governments’ responsibilities to protect them.

So I’m often asked, where do human rights fit into American foreign policy? Now, there are some – they’ve often been called idealists – who say that when we tackle foreign policy challenges, we should be governed first and foremost by the end goal of advancing our values, because that is how you build a better world.

There are others – they’ve been called realists – who point out that ideals are not always easily reconciled in a world where bad actors exist and bad things happen. And therefore, shorter-term interests must be given more weight in the here and now.

This has been and will remain a difficult debate. There happens to be merits on both sides. It is certainly true that the last decade has driven home the very real threats that exist to security and stability worldwide. And part of my responsibility as Secretary of State is to work to counter those threats. And furthermore, many of the challenges we face, from getting the global economy back on track to preventing terrorism, are becoming more complex by the day.

But at the same time, one must never forget universal values are vital to who we are and what we hope to see our world become. And they are American values and Irish values; I would argue they are everyone’s values. They certainly are part of who we are as Americans, not only a commitment that is central to our identity but also a source of our influence in the world.

So the real challenge, not just for decision-makers but citizens as well, is to be clear-headed about the world as it is and the tough choices it presents on a daily basis, while remembering that human rights are at the center of some of the most significant challenges to global security and stability and therefore to our national interests.

That’s why I don’t mind I’ve been called both an idealist and a realist. In reality, I think we all need to be more of a hybrid, perhaps idealistic realists. Because leading effectively cannot be done without our values. And a great deal of what is happening today bears that out.

It is not a coincidence that virtually every country that threatens regional and global peace is a place where human rights are in peril. The genius of the Helsinki Final Act is the insight that human rights and security are indivisible. That insight, present since its founding in 1975, is what sets the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe apart as a regional organization.

And of course, it is why I’m here in Dublin today, because the Irish Government is the chair in office and hosting the annual meeting. That organization and its founding documents were revolutionary. They recognized that the human rights situation in one country impacts the security of the entire region around it.

And yet, even leaders in countries that secure human rights for their people don’t always see advancing human rights elsewhere as a foreign policy priority. They look around the world – and especially today, we know so much because of the 24/7 information environment in which we exist – that when we see so many urgent challenges competing for attention, it’s easy to think, “Let’s postpone action on human rights until after we deal with these other matters.”

But human rights cannot be disconnected from other priorities. They are inextricably linked with all of the goals we strive for in our countries and around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not just a catalog of rights and government obligations. It is a time-tested blueprint for successful societies.

Today, I want to talk about four frontlines of human rights, issues over which fierce battles are being fought, where the stakes are high and our leadership, from both the United States and the Republic of Ireland, is urgently needed. My argument will be that these human rights battles implicate both our values and our interests – and that they take place at the heart of the great geopolitical challenges of our time, not in some separate and distinct sphere set apart from the real, hard stuff going on in the world.

The first frontline is religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities. Amid the uncertainty of unfolding transitions to democracy, old hatreds flare anew, particularly toward members of minority groups. And in many places in the past year, we’ve seen religious minorities become targets. In fact, members of faith communities have been under pressure for a long time and they report that the pressure is rising. That threatens not only the religious minorities themselves, but the futures of their societies because a society can and should be judged, in part, by how it protects the rights of its minorities. Societies are strongest when they deliver justice not just for the powerful, but also for the vulnerable. And while religious freedom is a human right unto itself, this issue is about other rights, too – the right of people to think what they want, say what they think, associate with others, and assemble peacefully without the state looking over their shoulders or prohibiting them from doing so.

In the Middle East and North Africa, as in other places in the midst of transitions, like Burma, the United States and the world have an interest in seeing new governments build the institutions and legal foundations they need to achieve lasting stability internally and to be constructive partners internationally. In other words, we want those transitions to go well. And religious freedom is just one example of how human rights are at the center of meeting that challenge.

So at this pivotal moment, the United States has conveyed to countries in transition the importance of locking in protections for the human rights of religious minorities, to lay the groundwork for democracies that will endure. We’ve reached out to religious minorities. We meet with them at their places of worship and in their homes so we can better understand the challenges they face as we elevate religious freedom both in international settings and bilateral diplomacy.

Now, of course, religious freedom is only one part of a successful transition to democracy. We have been watching the events unfolding in Cairo with growing concern. Almost two years ago, the Egyptian people, primarily young people, took to the streets because they wanted real democratic change. And they deserve a constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians, men and women, Muslim and Christian, and ensures that Egypt will uphold all of its international obligations. They also deserve a constitutional process that is open, transparent, and fair.

The upheaval we are seeing once again in the streets of Cairo and other cities indicates that dialogue is urgently needed. And we call on all the stakeholders in Egypt to settle their differences through discussion and debate, not through violence. And we call on Egypt’s leaders to ensure that the outcome protects the democratic promise of the revolution for all Egyptians.

Let me turn to the second frontline, Internet freedom. Now, if I were here 10 years ago giving a speech, I’m not sure that would have been in my top four frontlines. But look at what a difference a decade has made. Our commitment to internet freedom as a human rights issue intersects with our interest in seeing emerging powers rise in a way that tends toward sustainable economic growth and long-term stability.

From China and Russia to emerging democratic powers like India, Brazil, and Indonesia, part of what will determine the trajectory of those countries is how they choose to respond to the questions their own citizens are raising about what kind of future they want, about governance issues that affect their everyday lives, like food safety or pollution, about how corruption undermines the public trust.

So the United States believes that it is in the interest of all governments to respond to criticism, not repress it. I learned many years ago, being involved in politics, that as hard as it is, one must learn to take criticism seriously but not personally, figuring out what it is you are being told that maybe you could learn from. Not all criticism is legitimate; some of it is motivated by less than noble reasons, but oftentimes your critic can turn out to be your best friend.

A free and open debate about real issues presents governments with opportunities and ideas for reform, if they’re willing to accept them. And those reforms, in turn, can help reinforce economic and political stability. Democratic countries have the institutions and processes to respond constructively to critics, and then to adapt to a changing world.

On the other hand, cracking down on critics who say something you don’t like – and believe me when you’re in government, nearly every hour someone says something that you won’t like – but cracking down on those critics starts a spiral. As governments violate their citizens’ rights more and more, they face more and more criticism and then more and more temptation to double-down on the politics of repression. The only escape from this downward spiral is to stop violations and start reform.

So Internet freedom is central here, because these days, the place where many discussions and debates are happening is online. The Internet is the public space of the 21st century. As the Internet has grown, and as citizens turn to it to conduct important aspects of their lives, repressive governments have worked harder and harder to limit people’s freedom online, just as they do offline. They are scrubbing websites of facts or ideas that challenge their hold on power. They are censoring emails and rerouting web traffic. They’re reading political blogs, then showing up at the homes of bloggers and arresting them. They’re monitoring the emails of political dissidents in order to track their movements and identify their associates. The rights of individuals to express their views, petition their leaders, freely associate with others are universal, whether they are exercised on a university campus or a university’s Facebook page. Freedom is freedom, online or off.

Now, some emerging powers have sought to use the advent of the Internet as an excuse to ignore or revise established international standards. But the arrival of new technologies does not change each person’s entitlement to that person’s human rights. We need to protect human rights online and hold governments accountable when they violate those rights, just as we should seek to hold violators accountable in the offline world. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is 64 years old, but it seems remarkably prophetic in protecting the right to – and I quote – “seek, receive, and impart information by any medium, regardless of frontiers.”

So we are working in the State Department with the private sector, multilateral organizations, and civil society to expose abuses and reinforce that the same rights apply offline as well as on. We’re also supporting Internet freedom from another angle by funding technologies, tools, and training to help digital activists who live and work in repressive environments. And we are investing in innovation, because we know that governments on the other side of this fight are constantly improving their methods of oppression, and we intend to stay ahead of them. By the end of this year, the United States will have invested $100 million to help ensure that people in repressive internet environments can exercise their rights more safely and reliably.

The third frontline is the role of civil society, the activists, organizations, congregations, journalists, and citizens who work through peaceful means to solve problems and encourage their governments to do better. Civil society is important everywhere, including in our countries. But nowhere is it more vital than in those states whose futures are unsure.

Some are young democracies, where the challenge is to lock in gains so that, for example, we don’t see a repeat of what has happened in Mali. Others are countries that are in a kind of limbo, where citizens and maybe even some in government are struggling to get their country on the path to rights-respecting democracy. And then there are places where small cracks exist under authoritarian governments and where there is an opportunity to pry them open and try to build something better.

In all of these places – we call them “states in the balance” – we both have an economic and security interest in having the balance tilt toward accountable institutions with protections for human rights, rule of law, democratic governance. If things tilt the other way, it limits the economic potential of new markets, can increase regional instability, and undermine efforts to combat transnational crime and terrorism.

Now, we recognize that our ability to directly influence political reforms and institution building from the outside in a lasting way is limited. We know that durable change is most likely to come from within, and that it takes everyone – journalists and activists, business people and teachers, religious leaders and labor leaders – pointing out the need for change, providing the ideas for change, and then reinforcing and supporting the political actions that will produce change.

That’s what civil society does. It is the underpinning of a free and functioning country. And unfortunately, this is a dangerous moment, because the trend of governments cracking down on civil society is on the rise. This morning at the OSCE, I pointed out examples of this happening here in Europe and Eurasia. I could make a similar list for every region.

Civil society is a target because it is, by its very nature, an organized threat to governmental oppression. It gives citizens a way to improve their lives without government direction or permission. It brings people together around a shared mission, and there are few things repressive governments fear more than citizens banding together with a common purpose. And it reflects a belief that people do not exist to serve their governments, rather, governments exist to serve their people.

Many members of civil society advocate on behalf of their fellow citizens at great personal risk. Activists and journalists are blackmailed, even murdered. Land activists face threats or are thrown in jail. Religious leaders who counsel tolerance can face repercussions, even from their own believers. And people who make the case against any vulnerable group need the support of civil society.

It’s very true that many governments attempt to squeeze civil society in a steel vise, and we are seeing a particular movement against the LGBT community around the world, punishing people, harassing them, beating them, imprisoning them for who they are. So the United States has targeted our efforts to preserve the space that civil society and vulnerable people need to make the case for change in their own communities.

We currently are providing emergency support to dozens of individual human rights activists around the world, who run into trouble because of their work. And the United States has created a fund – to which more than a dozen governments and two private foundations have contributed – to support embattled NGOs with legal representation, communication technologies like cell phones and internet access, and other forms of quick support. We just brought out of eastern Congo to safety an incredibly courageous doctor who has cared for so many of the women and girls who have been brutally assaulted over the course of the many years of the conflict in the eastern Congo, who found himself being targeted and watching members of his staff be killed in front of his eyes, and we were able to bring him to safety. But think of how many people need this help right now, somewhere in the world.

In many places we’re also working with USAID and other donors to help civil society actors build the skills they need to do their work effectively, documenting abuses, storing data, learning how to deal with the media. We welcome them into our embassies both because we want their advice but also because we can sometimes help them by introducing them to members of the government or the private sector, or even other NGOs who are working in related areas. And we’ve launched a Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society to send a signal about the importance we attach to these relationships as part of our foreign policy.

I can remember so well when I was First Lady, and I was visiting Guatemala, and I was introduced to a woman who had been an activist on behalf of indigenous people and had suffered greatly trying to prevent abuses against people who were defenseless against private militias or the government’s armies. And when I met her, I asked her, as I often do around the world, if there was something I could do for her. And she said, “Yes, I understand you’ll be speaking to the parliament later today.” I said, “That’s right.” She said, “If you will mention my name, you could help save my life, because if people know that there is somebody in the United States who knows about my work, maybe they will leave me alone to continue that work.” So never underestimate what any of us can and should do to support these courageous civil society activists on environmental climate change front, on the protection of minorities, on fighting for health care, on standing up against corruption, on doing what they know is best for their people and society but which is rejected by elites and governments afraid to cede one ounce of their power.

The fourth and final frontline I would mention today is the ultimate blend of idealism and realism – respecting the human rights of women and girls. I believe this is the unfinished business of the 21st century. It is just foolish to try and build a strong economy or a stable democracy while treating half the population as second-class citizens at best, as some other species at worst. And yet in too many places, that’s exactly what women are treated. They have few or no political rights. They are subjected to terrible violence. Their health, even their lives are disregarded. They are forced into marriage or forced labor as if they were property instead of people.

I personally have no doubt that if women everywhere were treated as equal to men in rights and dignity, we would see economic and political progress come to places that are now teetering on the edge. We would not only see a decrease in violence and a rise in good governance in volatile places, but we would see increased economic growth at a time when the world desperately needs more growth. The World Bank has finished a remarkable set of studies demonstrating how removing the obstacles the women’s full participation in the economy everywhere, including in my own country, would increase the world’s GDP at a time when we know we need it. The world would be more prosperous and more stable.

One of the first things I did as Secretary was to elevate the Office of Global Women’s Issues by appointing the first ever Ambassador at Large to take the lead on identifying concrete ways the United States could work to secure the human rights of women worldwide. We see this as a moral imperative and a high-reward political, economic, and security strategy. We led the charge for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the first ever to recognize the role of women in restoring peace and maintaining security. We created a National Action Plan and encouraged others to do the same. I highly recommend a documentary movie about ending the terrible war in Liberia, called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which is just one example of what women have done to end conflict and to begin a political transition, which led, in that case, to the election of the first woman president on the African continent.

Now we recognize, of course, that women’s political participation matters not only when tackling the worst challenges of conflict and violence, but also when finding solutions for more everyday governance problems at the village and community level, in national parliaments and ministries. That’s why we’ve repeatedly urged leaders to lay the legal and constitutional groundwork to enable women to make their contributions to societies in transition in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Because so much violence against women and girls takes place within their homes and communities, and often in the form of harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation and so-called “honor crimes,” we’ve launched the first U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. One of our top priorities is eliminating child marriage. Beginning next year, the State Department will track every country’s legal minimum age of marriage and the rate of marriage for underage girls and boys.

And today, I am pleased to announce we are developing a new initiative to provide emergency support to survivors of gender-based violence, those under credible threat of imminent attack due to their gender, and organizations that may need protection. All of us were moved by the story of the young Pakistani girl, Malala, who was targeted by the Taliban for the effrontery for going to school – more than that, speaking out for the rights of girls in Pakistan to go to school. She was miraculously spared from being literally shot in the face and is making what appears to be an excellent recovery.

For every young woman whose name comes to our attention, there are countless others who suffer in silence, who face cultural and social and religious barriers to their human rights and dignity. We want to include every country in our outreach, and we also wish to reach women with disabilities, some of whom have been afflicted as a result of gender-based violence – the acid attacks, the shootings, the torture – and to send a message that these girls are valuable, valuable to families and valuable to societies.

As the mother of a daughter, and as someone who believes strongly in the right of every person, male and female, to have the opportunity to live up to his or her God-given potential, it pains me so greatly when I travel to places around the world and am received almost as an exception to the rule, where the male leaders meet with me because I am the Secretary of State of the United States, overlooking the fact that I also happen to be a woman. We are on the right side of history in this struggle, but there will be many sacrifices and losses until we finally reach a point where daughters are valued as sons, where girls as educated as boys, where women are encouraged and permitted to make their contributions to their families, to their societies just as the men are.

We have also done a great deal of work to refocus our global health programs so that we save the lives and improve the health of more women and girls. Health programs, as you know, can be imbalanced, often in ways that are not obvious, but the result is women and girls don’t get the care they need when they need it, and many die unnecessarily. So our starting point must be this: Women’s lives matter. And promoting the human rights of women begins with saving the lives of women whenever we can.

The frontlines I’ve discussed today do not constitute, by any means, an exhaustive list. A speech that did would go on, literally, for days. And human rights are at the center of many other challenges we face – like security on the Korean peninsula, which runs some of the largest concentration camps in the world; the threat to international peace posed by Iran. And one of the frontlines is ensuring that rights protections apply to everyone, which is why the Obama Administration supports the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and we hope that we will be able, perhaps next year, to join others in signing that treaty and acceding to it. We’ve also joined with South Africa and others to affirm the human rights of LGBT people.

So today, I’ve shared just a few examples of the way human rights are central to how we are thinking about foreign policy and national security. The question in everyone’s mind should not be, “Why does a government focus on human rights?” but, “Why don’t all governments do the same?” Because if you say you believe in human rights, but demonstrate no concern for it beyond your borders, that is a very feeble form of belief. And if you are truly representing your citizens, you cannot do so effectively in the 21st century without recognizing that human rights must remain a central goal of those of us who believe in the dignity of every person.

But I don’t want to mislead anyone. The work I’ve described is incredibly difficult. Commitment to these rights has to take root and grow within people’s hearts and minds, and that takes time. But I would argue that those of us lucky enough to live in countries like the United States and Ireland have a double responsibility, first, to remain vigilant in ensuring that we honor and implement our own commitment to human rights at home, and second, to help others gain what we have, the chance to live in dignity.

This is the work especially of young people. I just met with the State Department’s newest Embassy Youth Council, based here in Dublin. We now have 50 youth councils around the world, made up of students, entrepreneurs, civil society members, members of government. And I must say, the Irish young people I just met with exuded talent, energy, and optimism.

And you really have all the tools you need: your voice, your vote, your intellect and education, your compassion and conscience. This should be your fight. I can certainly promise you, it will continue to be mine. I will continue advocating for civil society, working to make democracy real, pushing for Internet freedom, standing with religious minorities, women, LGBT communities, people with disabilities – anyone else who someone says are less human and therefore less deserving of their human rights.

I’ve traveled to more countries and far flung places than I could have imagined as a young girl growing up in the middle of America in the decades that followed World War II. And I must say that among the most striking things that I have learned is how much we have in common. I’ve sat down with people everywhere, discussing what was in their hearts and on their minds. And it doesn’t take long to find commonality which is often overlooked, ignored, dismissed, and rejected otherwise.

I remember as if it were yesterday putting together a meeting in Belfast City Hall, with a group of people, predominantly women, from both communities, who had never, ever been in the same room with one another, and certainly had never sat down at the same table for tea. And there was a lot of uneasiness and discomfort in that room. And I began talking and asking questions about what their lives were like. And one woman said, “Every time my husband leaves for work, I worry that he won’t come home at night.” And then this – eyes lit up of another woman across the table, who said, “Well, I worry the same thing about my son when he goes out at night.”

One of the people at that meeting was a great friend of mine, Inez McCormack, a labor leader in Northern Ireland who had fought for the rights of working people, had taken up the cause of peace and reconciliation, and worked tirelessly to bring the communities together around issues of economic justice and fairness, and paid particular attention to the vital voices of women. Inez lives in Derry, where she’s fighting cancer, and I called her before coming here to check in on her, and asked her how she was doing. She’s very brave and putting up with all the treatments, knowing that it’s a hard road for her. And she did not want to talk about herself; she wanted to talk about her daughter, who moved up the date of her wedding, which made her very happy.

But she wanted to talk about how we had to keep working to bring people together so that they would recognize the common humanity and experience in the other, the fact that they want to be part of a family and a community; a good job and a livelihood; a chance to learn and try to make sense of the world; to seek meaning and fulfillment in their choice of religious faith and practice.

There are so many more ties that bind us than divide us, and that is what has motivated me over many years now. Because I see the changes as I saw in that room in Belfast all those years ago. And this is work not just for some of us, but for all of us. And I hope it will give you both hope and purpose in the years ahead.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

PRN: 2012/ T75-08