Yesterday in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a brilliant, deeply compassionate speech in recognition of International Human Rights Day.
She begins by describing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted following the atrocities of World War II.
“It proclaims a simple, powerful idea: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. And with the declaration, it was made clear that rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people.”
All people. Those are such straightforward, easily understood words that it seems silly to discuss the fact that some people don’t understand them. “Because we are human, we therefore have rights.” There are still some among us who actually advance the argument that some people are not really people, and that insisting that they are amounts to conferring upon them “special rights.” There are some who would – seriously – claim that this declaration of our universal humanity is merely a matter of “opinion.”
In the 63 years since the declaration was adopted, many nations have made great progress in making human rights a human reality. Step by step, barriers that once prevented people from enjoying the full measure of liberty, the full experience of dignity, and the full benefits of humanity have fallen away. In many places, racist laws have been repealed, legal and social practices that relegated women to second-class status have been abolished, the ability of religious minorities to practice their faith freely has been secured.
Note that “human rights,” the immutable truth of our universal humanity and birthright, is not subject to debate. “Human reality” isn’t an equally legitimate moral framework, it just falls short of reflecting what is universally true, independent of our behavior. Universal truth doesn’t become universal because no one rejects it, it’s universal regardless. And clearly some people do reject it.
Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.
As has been the case over those entire 63 years, as the global community grudgingly accepted, step by painful step, the fundamental truth that all people means all people, it was necessary to make a redundant statement: “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” The reality is that it’s never been good enough to make a universal statement of rights that covers everyone, because to some people, some other people are outside the circle of the human family.
The third, and perhaps most challenging, issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.
In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.
Thank you, Secretary Clinton.
You can read her full remarks here.
“As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights.” To anyone who feels compelled to explain how they can disagree with this and retain any moral legitimacy: Good luck with that.