First Lady Hillary Rodham ClintonThe White House
Human Rights Day
December 10, 1998
Thank you all. Good morning, and welcome to the White House.
This is an historic day -- Human Rights Day, 50 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And I am pleased that we have members of the Cabinet, we have many human-rights activists, and we have members of Congress here with us today. I want to welcome Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson and Representative Tom Lantos. We have members of the Roosevelt family and many friends of the cause of human rights, from religious organizations to civic organizations. And we are joining together with people and communities around the world to mark this 50th anniversary.
On this day in particular, we recall the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who labored so long to help craft this declaration: "The destiny of human rights," she said, "is in the hands of all of our citizens in all of our communities."
Many are gathered for observances in Paris, where the Declaration was adopted 50 years ago. The United Nations General Assembly in New York is holding a full day of commemoration and will adopt a declaration to protect the defenders of human rights around the world.
And in communities across the United States, Americans from all walks of life, from Hawaii to Maine, are demonstrating their strong support for human rights at town meetings and other celebrations, coordinated by the In Your Hands Campaign of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.
Fifty years ago, this remarkable document, born out of the ravages of militarism and fascism, set a new international standard for human rights against which government and individuals would be judged. Its words are just as powerful today: "All human beings are born free and equal in
dignity and rights." That sent and still sends a powerful message around the globe that human rights of all -- of men and women, of rich and poor, of young and old -- are sacred.
Today, we have come together to celebrate the progress that has been made as a result of this declaration and to honor four individuals who have dedicated their lives to ensuring that the Declaration, and what it stands for, continues to speak on behalf of the downtrodden and silenced and most vulnerable in our societies.
I want to take a moment also to recognize a number of young leaders who are here with us today -- from Nigeria to Bosnia, Guyana, Canada and Guatemala. These young people are working courageously in their own countries to secure human rights and democracy for the next century and millennium.
Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, "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. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has lived up to Mrs. Roosevelt's hopes because it has, in fact, helped to change attitudes in small places, as well as entire governments. It has been used by many countries to write their own constitutions and has laid the groundwork for the world's war crime tribunals. It empowered participants in Vienna to affirm that both men and women are entitled to a range of protections and personal freedoms. And at the United Nations' fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, this document enabled us to say, for the
world to hear, that human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights.
Every day we see the declaration at work in the "small places" around the globe. Whenever people come together to protect a woman from abuse, to open a village health clinic, to end discrimination in all its forms, to secure the right to vote, we see the work of the declaration. Whenever citizens are given the tools of opportunity, like health care, education and economic independence, we see the declaration at work. Whenever a child can grow up free of fear and violence, and is able to fulfill his or her God-given potential, we see the declaration at work.
The faces in the photographs behind us, of children and families from around the world, express the hope and pride in family and community that sustains those who continue to struggle for human rights. And I want to thank the human rights photographer Phil Borges for his extraordinary talent in bringing their lives closer to our own.
Everyone here today, however, knows how far we still have to go to ensure that the circle of human dignity embraces all citizens. Whether it's young girls being sold into prostitution in Thailand, women who are victims of violence in their own homes here in this country or elsewhere, boys being used as human shields in Uganda, those recovering from the ravages of the Yugoslav conflict, or those arrested in China for political activity; we have to recognize the depth of injustice and human suffering that still exists around us.
Perhaps the most egregious and systematic trampling of fundamental human rights of any person is taking place in Afghanistan today against women. Under the iron rule of the Taliban, where women used to make up 40 percent of Afghan doctors, they are now forbidden to practice medicine. Where women were once half the teachers, they are now barred from teaching. Where girls used to go to school, the school doors are now slammed shut.
We have all heard the terrible stories of an elderly woman being flogged with a metal cable until her leg was broken because a bit of her ankle was showing under her burqa, the garment women wear to cover themselves from head to toe because otherwise they will be beaten and punished; of the thousands of war widows, the sole supporters of their families, many of whom are now begging on the streets to feed their children because they are forbidden to work.
The Taliban has imposed a draconian catch-22 on women. Health care for women has all but vanished. Women can no longer be treated by male doctors, yet women physicians are prohibited from working. I've read about a woman burn victim who died a terrible death and another with appendicitis who died after being turned away at two hospitals, and the
countless women and children whose health is deteriorating because of the Taliban's rules against male doctors treating women.
The Taliban has not only closed schools for girls, it has even forbidden land mine awareness instruction for women and older girls, leading to increased injuries from land mine explosions among the female population. All of this suffering left one Afghan woman to lament, "A rocket or a bomb may kill all members of a family at once, but this is a slow death, which is more painful."
I'd like to recognize two Afghan-born women here today who have done invaluable work on behalf of the women and girls of Afghanistan: Zohra Rasekh of the Physicians for Human Rights, who, at great personal risk interviewed many of the victims of the Taliban and who then helped publicize their plight to the rest of the world; and Nazaneen Jabbar Khel, who has established a school which educates 700 Afghan girls from five different refugee camps in Pakistan. I would like both of them to stand. (Applause.)
We cannot allow these terrible crimes against women and girls -- and, truly, against all of humanity -- to continue with impunity. We must all make it unmistakably clear that this terrible suffering inflicted on the women and girls of Afghanistan is not cultural, it is criminal. And we must do everything we can in our power to stop it.
I'm pleased that so many countries and nongovernmental organizations are taking action, including our government and many organizations here. Last year the United States provided $3.9 million for education and health training for Afghan women and girls, and we remain committed to continuing these activities and creating new programs to support Afghan
women in their efforts to secure their human rights and their access to health and education.
When we celebrate today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we do have much to be thankful for. And many of us are living in societies and democracies that have gone such a far distance in the last 50 years to honor and protect human rights.
But let us not forget the hundreds of millions of people who are still at risk, the 100 million children who live in the streets, the 160 million children who are not even in primary school, those who are denied freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom to express an opinion, who have no choice that they can make to determine the course of their own lives.
This is not a marginal issue. Human rights goes to the very center of what we in the United States believe politics and democracy should be about.
And so today we celebrate the progress, but we also challenge ourselves to continue to seek out opportunities, wherever possible, to do all that we can to eliminate the continuing scourge of human rights abuses, wherever they may be found.
I also would like to thank all of you who are on the front lines. We introduced two; there are others whom we could introduce. I appreciate greatly the work that you do to constantly prod our conscience and bring issues to public attention.
Now I would like to introduce someone who has helped to place human rights at the center of America's foreign policy, and who will honor those working in this country to bring Eleanor Roosevelt's legacy into the next millennium, the president of the United States. (Applause.)