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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA) Annual Conference

Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
August 7, 2012


I’m really sorry that I can’t be with you in person today, but I’m delighted that Nina Schou from our Legal Advisor’s office and Vicki Schultz from the Department of Justice are there with you..

Thank you for honoring me with your Human Rights Award today. 
But this award is as much yours as it is mine.  Because progress on human rights does not happen only from the top down.  It comes from hard work by the people and often trickles up.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, 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.”  So this award belongs to the millions of people who cannot be seen on any maps, who would not define themselves as human rights defenders, but who work tirelessly to help others live in dignity.

I have the great privilege of traveling all over the world and meeting such heroes wherever I go, including here at home.  I want to salute you for the work you do on human rights here in the United States.  It matters to our own people, but it also matters to the people of other nations, because each time the United States lives up to its own human rights commitments, we are more effective in asking other countries to do  the same.  As Secretary Clinton has said, on human rights we should lead by example.

And your work makes it possible for us to do so, whether it’s preventing discrimination in employment or housing or resolving tension among different ethnic groups before it explodes into violence.

The Obama administration worked to demonstrate the connection between our international human rights policies and commitments and the work that you all are doing domestically.

For example, as many of you know, in preparation for our Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, we held an unprecedented number of consultations with civil society across the United States on a wide variety of human rights issues – from the housing crisis to discrimination against members of ethnic minorities to the treatment of Native Americans. 

Moreover, in conjunction with our UPR presentation in Geneva – in which your Board member, Robin Toma, participated as a member of our official delegation – we hosted the first- town hall between government and civil society at a UPR session to hear once again your concerns and recommendations.  I understand a number of other governments, including some of our allies, were taken aback by this lively exchange.

We received a record number of recommendations, and the White House has established a process for assessing those recommendations and exploring ways to implement them.  There are ten working groups making up this process which are focused on the various key thematic areas that were dealt with in our report.  You will hear more about this process from Nina and Vicki and I hope that you all will be able to contribute to it as well.

I’d also like to share with you the ways in which this administration has sought to broaden our approach to human rights – to show that human rights are indeed the birthright of every person.  First, we have spoken out and acted forcefully on behalf of vulnerable groups like LGBT and disabled people, whose challenges have not always been viewed as human rights issues. 

Second, we have taken a more positive approach to economic, social and cultural rights than our government has in the past.  In a speech I gave to the American Society for International Law in 2010, I harkened back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech, noting that it included “freedom from want” as well as freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship, and freedom from fear.

President Obama echoed this theme in his Nobel Prize speech in December 2009, when he said, “Just peace includes not only civil and political rights – it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.’’

Thus, at home, the Obama Administration has fought to bring health care to more Americans, improve education to make our country more competitive, and provide unemployment benefits for everyone who needs them.

Abroad, we have joined with like-minded governments to adopt fair and well-reasoned resolutions at the UN that speak to the issues of economic, social and cultural rights and are consistent with our own laws and policies.

We think it is appropriate to view these efforts through a human rights lens and would urge you to do the same.

Let me conclude by discussing how we can advance our joint cause. 

First, continue doing what you’re doing.  We want the United States to lead by example. You help us set a high bar for justice, equality, and equal protection under the law.  This helps us also as we fight to protect so many people around the world whose rights are not respected.

Second, explain your work to others, be they your bosses, your clients, or your fellow workers, in human rights terms.  Some like to say that the American people don’t really care about what the United Nations or international community thinks, but if you ask Americans whether they think people have the right to eat, to a home, or to be free from discrimination, they of course would agree.  When Americans come to understand human rights in these immediate everyday terms, it will be far less of a challenge, I think, to get the Senate to ratify a human rights treaty. 

Finally, you and your organizations can continue to find creative ways to contribute to international processes and discussions on human rights such as the UPR or the reports before treaty bodies.  I know that your travel budgets will not allow most of you to participate in some of these international processes, but technology allows you to show how you are advancing international human rights, and that helps us to better make America’s case to the world.

Thanks again for everything that you do.

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