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Clinton: Promoting Human Rights Is Challenging but Essential
April 25, 2012

April 24, 2012

A panel discussion in a conference room
Clinton told U.S. university students that women’s empowerment and LGBT rights are “just not understood” in some places.

Despite the challenges of promoting human rights and democracy around the world and overcoming cultural differences that can present obstacles to that effort, the importance of democratic values and universal human rights is “absolutely paramount” to U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told students at Syracuse University in New York.

Speaking April 23 at the university’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Clinton said she sometimes feels that U.S. officials are criticized for “not being as vocal or strident as some in the advocacy community would like on some of these issues.” But in her diplomatic work, she said, “I’m trying to save lives and I’m trying to change attitudes,” and “trying to do that simultaneously is sometimes quite challenging.”

Part of the reason the conversation is difficult is that for some it is the first time they are having it, she said.

From the U.S. perspective, “we can either have a conversation and try to convince people to move in a certain direction, to provide greater protection for human rights, or we can lecture at them, we can call them names, we can preach, and the lives of the people who are being discriminated against will not change,” she said.

For example, Clinton said, it can be difficult to explain what democracy is when the concept “can mean different things to different people.”

“If you’ve never lived it, you have no idea how it affects you. You don’t have the sort of years and years of perfecting our union that we’ve gone through” in the United States, she said, and democracy requires much more than simply having elections.

“We have to constantly be urging more openness, more respect for minorities, independent judiciary, protection of the free press, the kinds of pillars of democracy that over many, many years we have learned are essential for the institutionalization of a democratic system,” she said.


The State Department issues an annual Human Rights Report detailing practices and conditions around the world, but Clinton said she introduced the requirement that “we need to judge ourselves” and look at human rights conditions inside the United States as well.

“Otherwise, people are not going to pay attention. They’ll say, well, there go the Americans again, criticizing everybody else, but what about Guantanamo and what about this and what about that?” she said.

Despite the great U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights, “we make mistakes, we fall short of our own standards, and we have to constantly be asking ourselves what we can do better and how we should behave. And that’s important for us, first and foremost, but it’s also important if we’re going to have credibility when we speak to the Arab Spring or other countries that are trying to formulate democracies,” Clinton said.

The secretary also discussed her conversations concerning women’s empowerment and the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community, especially in countries whose culture of human rights standards differs greatly from that of the United States.

“Honestly … in a lot of places, it’s just not understood,” she said. With regard to women, Clinton said she has heard her counterparts tell her they take good care of their female citizens. “We don’t let them out of the house, so that they never get into trouble. We don’t let them drive cars, so that they can never be taken advantage of. So we are protecting the human rights of our women,” she recalled hearing.

In some places, the LGBT community faces open discrimination or even violence, and Clinton said she is first told, “We don’t have any of those here,” followed by, “If we did, we would not want to have them and would want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.”

The secretary says she has telephoned leaders when, for example, a legislator in their country has introduced a bill calling for LGBT people to face the death penalty.

“That’s really a terrible idea,” she said she has told them, and in reply heard, “Well, we don’t have any of them. They’ve been imported from the West — and we don’t need them.”

“I said, ‘Well, all right. Let’s start at something very basic. Why do you have to kill them?’” Clinton said, and heard, “Well, maybe you’re right about that. We won’t impose the death penalty, but they may have to go to prison.”

Clinton said those are the kinds of challenging discussions she has when she is talking about human rights with foreign leaders.

“It’s not that people get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m against human rights.’ It’s that from where they come, on women or LGBT or minority groups, you say, ‘You don’t treat that minority group very well,’” and it is “a very difficult conversation because it’s just not been one that people have had up until now,” she said.