T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E

United Nations Economic and Social Council

Help Site Map Text Only

First Lady

Remarks by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
United Nations Economic and Social Council



United Nations Plaza
New York, New York


December 10, 1997

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. 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 subscribe publicly to this Declaration.

That act did not, however, take place in a vacuum. It was a response to evil, and I use that word deliberately. Those who study the Holocaust know that the 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 those whom they identified as life 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 device, this ability to dehumanize, has been witnessed in all times and places. 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. 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. 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, in spite of this half-century of progress, we have not expanded the circle of 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 to 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 our comfortable shoes.

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 some 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. 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 ago 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 school-age 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 against this injustice.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the rights to petition the government and to assemble all these are essential. Just 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 defined as trivial, explained away as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps it is for this reason that women do not receive proper health care, including access to family planning. Perhaps that is why, in some countries where more than 90 percent of women have undergone genital cutting, the practice 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.

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 trap 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 does the language of freedom and human rights have for a young woman 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 woman 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. They are, however, eloquent in their belief that they deserve respect and better treatment in their families, workplaces, and societies.

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 worked. 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. 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 their very hearts and souls, in spite of everything they are told by culture and tradition, 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 when he had Antigone declare that there were ethical laws higher than the laws of even kings. P.C. Chang, who helped draft the Universal Declaration, pointed out that Confucious 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 this 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 forbid someone from hearing its 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 to our own unfinished business with even greater urgency now while we stand on the threshold of a new millennium. 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 commit 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. 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 open hearts that in this, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we rededicate ourselves to its fulfillment.

Thank you very much.


President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House
White House for Kids | White House History
White House Tours | Help | Text Only

Privacy Statement

November-December 1997

Adoption Bill Signing

Civil Society, L’Viv, Ukraine

Human Rights

United Nations Economic and Social Council

National Museum of Women and the Arts

Cultural Diversity