Remarks by the President at Human Rights Day/Eleanor Roosevelt Award Ceremony Presidential Hall

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 6, 1999


Presidential Hall

2:17 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Belquis. Congressmen Gilman, Lewis, Jackson Lee; Reverend and Mrs. Jackson; Deputy Attorney General Holder; Harold Koh, Bob Seiple, Julia Taft, Hattie Babbitt; Bette Bao Lord, thank you for coming back.

Ladies and gentlemen, I need, before I begin, because this is my only opportunity before the press today just to say a brief word about this school shooting this morning in Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms are on the scene now working with the local authorities. I expect to get a detailed briefing shortly. Meanwhile, our prayers are with each of the children and their families, and the entire Ft. Gibson community is. Right now there are no fatalities, only people who are wounded, and we hope and pray it will stay that way.

It occurs to me that at some point tonight someone will be doing what some of us -- Hillary says it's mostly a male thing -- somebody will be channel-surfing tonight. (Laughter.) And they will just come upon Belquis speaking. And they may stop and listen or they may not. They may know what the Taliban is, or they may not. But I wonder if, even someone who hears her, will recognize that in nearly half the world today, in spite of the fact that for the first time in history more than half the people of the world live under governments of their own choosing in nearly half the world, doing what Belquis just did -- simply standing up and speaking freely could get her arrested, jailed, beaten, even tortured. That's why we're here today.

I wonder if someone who just happened along her remarks tonight would understand that until people like Eleanor Roosevelt came along, the rest of the world didn't even recognize that the right to speak out is more than something enshrined in the American Constitution. It is truly an international human right.

Sometimes we forget how long it took the world to agree on a common definition, a universal declaration of what freedom actually means. Half a century ago the Universal Declaration on Human Rights said it in very simple words: "All human beings are free and equal in dignity and human rights. All have the right to life, liberty and security. All are endowed with reason and conscience. All have the right to a standard of living adequate to health and well-being.

The real genius of the Declaration of Human Rights is that it affirmed that basic human rights are not cultural, but universal; that what a country does to people within its own borders is not its business alone, but the business of all of us. We in the United States know how hard it is to achieve the aspirations of that declaration. We've been living with it since our founders, and living with our flaws in failing to meet up to its standards.

One hundred years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt was a 15-year-old girl, growing up in a country where women could not vote. Half a century ago, if the standards of the Universal Declaration were held up to segregated schools and lunch counters in the United States, we would have failed the test resoundingly.

This century has taught us that even though human rights are endowed by the hand of our Creator, they are ensured by the hearts and hands of men and women among us who cannot bear to see it otherwise. Inch by inch, such people have moved the world forward. Today, we honor five brave Americans whose lives have made a difference -- and we ask that all of us remember, in their triumphs, the struggles of people like Belquis; the continuing tensions in Africa; the continuing tensions in the Balkans; and elsewhere in the world where human rights are not yet secure.

It is said that when Burke Marshall first me Robert Kennedy, they sat across a table for 10 minutes and didn't say a single word. Those of us who had Burke Marshall in law school can believe that story. (Laughter.) Perhaps now, he will tell us who spoke first. But from that silent moment sprang a truly extraordinary partnership.

As Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division in the Kennedy administration, Burke Marshall was a bridge between government and those activists fighting every day to end Jim Crow. Congressman John Lewis, who received this award last year, once recalled that whenever Martin Luther King or James Farmer needs to talk to somebody in Washington -- needed to talk to someone in Washington, they would simply say, "call Burke."

His work was crucial to passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. After he had helped shape a new America, he later worked equally hard to shape young minds at Yale Law School.

I made a joke about Hillary and I being students. But I can tell you, I never will forget the first time I saw him. And I imagined how this man of slight stature and such a modest demeanor could almost shake with his passion for justice. It was quite something to see for the first time, and we are all in his debt. (Applause.)

When Leon Sullivan was eight years old, he walked into a grocery store, slapped a nickel on the counter and said, "I want a Coke." The place, being in segregated South Carolina, the shopkeeper threw him out. That moment was the beginning of his life's work. The pastor of two churches by the time he was at the ripe old age of 17, Reverend Sullivan went on to write "The Sullivan Principles," which called upon companies all around the world to act in a socially responsible manner. By compelling dozens of businesses to desegregate their plants in South Africa, his work helped to pull down apartheid.

Today, as the author of the new Global Sullivan Principle, Leon Sullivan is still changing the world. He's too big for anyone to deny him a Coke, but he has helped to win that right for millions of others who aren't so large.

Reverend Sullivan, thank you for keeping your eyes on the prize for nearly 80 years now. Thank you. (Applause.)

For those of you who wonder from time to time about whether there really could be a divine plan guiding our lives, consider this: In Spanish, the name, Dolores Huerta means "sorrowful orchard." But if Dolores has her way, her name will be the only sorrowful orchard left in America. (Applause.)

She began her career teaching young migrant children, but couldn't stand seeing them come to class hungry. So, in 1962, she and Cesar Chavez co-founded of the United Farm Workers. While Cesar Chavez worked the fields, she worked the boardrooms and the statehouses, negotiating contracts and fighting for laws that lifted the lives of thousands and thousands of Americans. In the process, she found time to raise 11 children.

Dolores, we thank you for all you have done and all you still do to promote the dignity and human rights of your family and America's family. Thank you. (Applause.)

It is no accident that when America opened its arms to Kosovar Albanians early this year, one of the first calls that went out was to a Dominican nun in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Scripture tells us that "if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungary and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your life will rise in the darkness and your night will become like noonday." If that is true, there are few people who live their lives in more sunshine than Sister Jean Marshall.

Disturbed by the sight of refugee families picking up garbage off the street to feed their children. In 1983, Sister Jean founded St. Rita's Center for Immigrant and Refugee Services. In the days since, it has helped thousands of refugees, from Vietnam to Cambodia to Bosnia, to find jobs, learn English, live better lives.

Sister Jean, we thank you for all you are doing to make our democracy real and dreams come true for thousands who flee human rights abuses and come here expecting the Statue of Liberty to live up to her promise. (Applause.)

Lastly, there are few people who have done more to directly build on Eleanor Roosevelt's work on women's rights around the world than Charlotte Bunch. Gloria Steinem once observed that for every question that comes up regarding women's rights, sooner or later someone asks, what does Charlotte think? (Laughter.)

As the founder of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, she has worked to build a worldwide network of activists. As a result, when the World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna in 1993, for the first time there was a network in place to raise international awareness of issues like violence against women and gay and lesbian issues. And for the first time, the U.N. acknowledged that women's rights are human rights.

Today, I think the best way to thank Charlotte Bunch is for the Senate to finally ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. (Applause.) Thank you.

We honor these five Americans today with the thanks of a grateful nation. But let me say again, to echo what Hillary said earlier, if we truly want to honor their work, we must stay committed in the places where the glory has not come and continue to speak out for human rights around the world, from Burma to Cuba to Sudan, from Serbia to North Korea and Vietnam. We must do so because it's the right thing to do and the surest path to a world that is safe, democratic and free.

In Afghanistan, we have strongly condemned the Taliban's despicable treatment of women and girls. We have worked with the United Nations to impose sanctions against that Taliban, while ensuring that the Afghan people continue to receive humanitarian assistance. We are Afghanistan's strongest critic, but also its largest humanitarian donor.

And today we take another step forward. I am pleased to announce that we will spend, next year, at least $2 million to educate and improve the health of Afghan women and children refugees. We are also making an additional $1.5 million available in emergency aid for those displaced by the recent Taliban offensive. And we're dramatically expanding our resettlement program for women and children who are not safe where they are. (Applause.)

But, as Belquis said, these are but temporary solutions. The Taliban must stop violating the rights of women, and respect the human rights of all people. And we must continue to work until the day when Afghanistan has a government that reflects the wisdom of its people.

The whole world is also concerned about the plight of innocent people in Chechnya. Two weeks ago, at the OSCE Summit in Turkey, I raised the issue directly with President Yeltsin. The people of Chechnya are in a terrible position -- beleaguered by paramilitary groups and terrorists, on the one hand, and the Russian offensive on the other. I made clear that Russia's fight against terrorism is right, but the methods being used in Chechnya are wrong.

And I am convinced they are counterproductive. We've seen rocket and artillery attacks on largely civilian areas, with heavy losses of life and at least 200,000 people pushed from their homes. I'm deeply disturbed by reports that suggest that innocent Chechens will continue to bear the brunt of this war, and not the militants Russia is fighting.

Russia has set a deadline for all inhabitants, now, to leave Grozny or face the consequences. That means that there is a threat to the lives of the old, the infirm, the injured people and other innocent civilians who simply cannot leave, or are too scared to leave their homes. Russia will pay a heavy price for those actions with each passing day, sinking deeply into a morass that will intensify extremism and diminish its own standing in the world.

Another country about which we must continue to express concern is China. China is progressing and opening to the world in many ways that are welcome, including its entry into the WTO. Yet its progress is still being held back by the government's response to those who test the limits of freedom. A troubling example, of course, is the detention by Chinese authorities, of adherents of the Falun Gong movement.

Its targets are not political dissidents, and their practices and beliefs are unfamiliar to us. But the principle still, surely, must be the same: freedom of conscience, and freedom of association. And our interest, surely, must be the same: seeing China maintain stability and growth at home by meeting, not stifling, the growing demands of its people for openness and accountability.

For all these challenges, we have to say that we enter the new millennium more hopeful than we have been at any time in the past century. The second half of this century began with delegates from 18 nations, including the United States, coming together to write the Universal Declaration. The century ends with 18 nations having come together with the United States to reaffirm those basic rights in Kosovo -- with progress from Indonesia and East Timor to Nigeria.

Now, as I've said, more than half the world's people live under governments of their own choosing. Shortly before the Congress went home, the United States Senate unanimously ratified the International Convention against Child Labor, and I became the third head of state to sign the convention. We are moving, but we have much to do as we enter a new century. And again I would say to my fellow Americans, we all know that our efforts have to begin at home.

On the 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated a book called "In Your Hands." On that day she said -- and I quote -- "Human rights begin in small places close to home. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Today we honor that message by honoring five people whose work close to home has made the whole world a better place. May their work continue to inspire us all for generations yet to come.

Lieutenant Colonel, read the citations.

(The citations are read.) (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you for coming. Thank you for honoring these great people. Thank you for reminding us of all the important work still to be done, Belquis. We're adjourned. (Applause.)

END 2:42 P.M. EST

What's New December 1999

A Millennium Invitation from the President and the First Lady

Statement on OMB's Final Quarterly Report

Remarks at Human Rights Day/Eleanor Roosevelt Award Ceremony

Remarks at Foster Care Event

Remarks on Health Care

Remarks by President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Al-Shara

Press Conference on Middle East Peace Process

Statement Regarding Peace Between Israel & Syria

Remarks on Bridging the Digital Divide

Remarks at Signing Ceremony for Human Rights

Remarks at Memorial Service for Worcester Firefighters

Remarks at Clean Car Event

Remarks to the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce

Remarks at D.C. Central Kitchen

Release of the Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health

Remarks at Signing of ILO Convention #182

Intiative To Protect Consumers Buying Prescription Drug Products Over The Internet

Statement By The President on FY2001 Budget

Remarks on Land Preservation

Statement By The Press Secretary on the Internet

The President's Christmas Message

Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights, & Human Rights Week 1999

The President's Kwanzaa Message


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
Privacy Statement


Site Map

Graphic Version

T H E   W H I T E   H O U S E