101. Remarks by President Carter 1

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

What I have to say today is fundamentally very simple. It’s something I’ve said many times, including my acceptance speech when I was nominated as President and my inaugural speech when I became President.2 But it cannot be said too often or too firmly nor too strongly.

As long as I am President, the Government of the United States will continue throughout the world to enhance human rights. No force on Earth can separate us from that commitment.

This week we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We rededicate ourselves—in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission—to the Universal Declaration as, and I quote from her, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.”

The Universal Declaration and the human rights conventions that derive from it do not describe the world as it is. But these documents are very important, nonetheless. They are a beacon, a guide to a future of personal security, political freedom, and social justice.

For millions of people around the globe that beacon is still quite distant, a glimmer of light on a dark horizon of deprivation and repression. The reports of Amnesty International, the International Commis[Page 491]sion of Jurists, the International League for Human Rights, and many other nongovernmental human rights organizations amply document the practices and conditions that destroy the lives and the spirit of countless human beings.

Political killings, tortures, arbitrary and prolonged detention without trial or without a charge, these are the cruelest and the ugliest of human rights violations. Of all human rights, the most basic is to be free of arbitrary violence, whether that violence comes from government, from terrorists, from criminals, or from self-appointed messiahs operating under the cover of politics or religion.

But governments—because of their power, which is so much greater than that of an individual—have a special responsibility. The first duty of a government is to protect its own citizens, and when government itself becomes the perpetrator of arbitrary violence against its citizens, it undermines its own legitimacy.

There are other violations of the body and the spirit which are especially destructive of human life. Hunger, disease, poverty are enemies of human potential which are as relentless as any repressive government.

The American people want the actions of their government, our government, both to reduce human suffering and to increase human freedom. That’s why—with the help and encouragement of many of you in this room—I have sought to rekindle the beacon of human rights in American foreign policy. Over the last 2 years we’ve tried to express these human concerns as our diplomats practice their craft and as our Nation fulfills its own international obligations.

We will speak out when individual rights are violated in other lands. The Universal Declaration means that no nation can draw the cloak of sovereignty over torture, disappearances, officially sanctioned bigotry, or the destruction of freedom within its own borders. The message that is being delivered by all our representatives abroad—whether they are from the Department of State or Commerce or Agriculture or Defense or whatever—is that the policies regarding human rights count very much in the character of our own relations with other individual countries.

In distributing the scarce resources of our foreign assistance programs, we will demonstrate that our deepest affinities are with nations which commit themselves to a democratic path to development. Toward regimes which persist in wholesale violations of human rights, we will not hesitate to convey our outrage, nor will we pretend that our relations are unaffected.

In the coming year, I hope that Congress will take a step that has been long overdue for a generation, the ratification of the Convention [Page 492] on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.3 As you know, the genocide convention was also adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 30 years ago this week, 1 day before the adoption of the Universal Declaration. It was the world’s affirmation that the lesson of the Holocaust would never be forgotten, but unhappily, genocide is not peculiar to any one historical era.

Eighty-three other nations have ratified the genocide convention. The United States, despite the support of every President since 1948, has not. In international meetings at the United Nations and elsewhere, when I meet with foreign leaders, we are often asked why. We do not have an acceptable answer.

I urge the United States Senate to observe this anniversary in the only appropriate way, by ratifying the genocide convention at the earliest possible date.

This action must be the first step toward the ratification of other human rights instruments, including those I signed a year ago.4 Many of the religious and human rights groups represented here have undertaken a campaign of public education on behalf of these covenants. I commend and appreciate your efforts.

Refugees are the living, homeless casualties of one very important failure on the part of the world to live by the principles of peace and human rights. To help these refugees is a simple human duty. As Americans, as a people made up largely of the descendants of refugees, we feel that duty with special keenness.

Our country will do its utmost to ease the plight of stranded refugees from Indochina and from Lebanon and of released political prisoners from Cuba and from elsewhere. I hope that we will always stand ready to welcome more than our fair share of those who flee their homelands because of racial, religious, or political oppression.

The effectiveness of our human rights policy is now an established fact. It has contributed to an atmosphere of change—sometimes disturbing—but which has encouraged progress in many ways and in many places. In some countries, political prisoners have been released by the hundreds, even thousands. In others, the brutality of repression has been lessened. In still others there’s a movement toward democratic institutions or the rule of law when these movements were not previously detectable.

To those who doubt the wisdom of our dedication, I say this: Ask the victims. Ask the exiles. Ask the governments which continue to practice repression. Whether in Cambodia or Chile, in Uganda or South [Page 493] Africa, in Nicaragua or Ethiopia or the Soviet Union, governments know that we in the United States care. And not a single one of those who is actually taking risks or suffering for human rights has ever asked me to desist in our support of basic human rights. From the prisons, from the camps, from the enforced exiles, we receive one message: Speak up, persevere, let the voice of freedom be heard.

I’m very proud that our Nation stands for more than military might or political might. It stands for ideals that have their reflection in the aspirations of peasants in Latin America, workers in Eastern Europe, students in Africa, and farmers in Asia.

We do live in a difficult and complicated world, a world in which peace is literally a matter of survival. Our foreign policy must take this into account. Often, a choice that moves us toward one goal tends to move us further away from another goal. Seldom do circumstances permit me or you to take actions that are wholly satisfactory to everyone.

But I want to stress again that human rights are not peripheral to the foreign policy of the United States. Our human rights policy is not a decoration. It is not something we’ve adopted to polish up our image abroad or to put a fresh coat of moral paint on the discredited policies of the past. Our pursuit of human rights is part of a broad effort to use our great power and our tremendous influence in the service of creating a better world, a world in which human beings can live in peace, in freedom, and with their basic needs adequately met.

Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy. And I say this with assurance, because human rights is the soul of our sense of nationhood.

For the most part, other nations are held together by common racial or ethnic ancestry, or by a common creed or religion, or by ancient attachments to the land that go back for centuries of time. Some nations are held together by the forces, implied forces of a tyrannical government. We are different from all of those, and I believe that we in our country are more fortunate.

As a people we come from every country and every corner of the Earth. We are of many religions and many creeds. We are of every race, every color, every ethnic and cultural background. We are right to be proud of these things and of the richness that lend to the texture of our national life. But they are not the things which unite us as a single people.

What unites us—what makes us Americans—is a common belief in peace, in a free society, and a common devotion to the liberties enshrined in our Constitution. That belief and that devotion are the sources of our sense of national community. Uniquely, ours is a nation founded on an idea of human rights. From our own history we know how powerful that idea can be.

[Page 494]

Next week marks another human rights anniversary—Bill of Rights Day. Our Nation was “conceived in liberty,” in Lincoln’s words, but it has taken nearly two centuries for that liberty to approach maturity.

For most of the first half of our history, black Americans were denied even the most basic human rights. For most of the first two-thirds of our history, women were excluded from the political process. Their rights and those of Native Americans are still not constitutionally guaranteed and enforced. Even freedom of speech has been threatened periodically throughout our history. Only in the last 10 to 12 years have we achieved what Father Hesburgh has called “the legal abandonment of more than three centuries of apartheid.” And the struggle for full human rights for all Americans—black, brown, and white; male and female; rich and poor—is far from over.

To me, as to many of you, these are not abstract matters or ideas. In the rural Georgia country where I grew up, the majority of my own fellow citizens were denied many basic rights—the right to vote, the right to speak freely without fear, the right to equal treatment under the law. I saw at first hand the effects of a system of deprivation of rights. I saw the courage of those who resisted that system. And finally, I saw the cleansing energies that were released when my own region of this country walked out of darkness and into what Hubert Humphrey, in the year of the adoption of the Universal Declaration, called “the bright sunshine of human rights.”5

The American Bill of Rights is 187 years old, and the struggle to make it a reality has occupied every one of those 187 years. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is only 30 years old. In the perspective of history, the idea of human rights has only just been broached.

I do not draw this comparison because I want to counsel patience. I draw it because I want to emphasize, in spite of difficulties, steadfastness and commitment.

A hundred and eighty-seven years ago, as far as most Americans were concerned, the Bill of Rights was a bill of promises. There was no guarantee that those promises would ever be fulfilled. We did not realize those promises by waiting for history to take its inevitable course. We realized them because we struggled. We realized them because many sacrificed. We realized them because we persevered.

[Page 495]

For millions of people around the world today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still only a declaration of hope. Like all of you, I want that hope to be fulfilled. The struggle to fulfill it will last longer than the lifetimes of any of us. Indeed, it will last as long as the lifetime of humanity itself. But we must persevere.

And we must persevere by ensuring that this country of ours, leader in the world, which we love so much, is always in the forefront of those who are struggling for that great hope, the great dream of universal human rights.

Thank you very much.

  1. Source: Public Papers: Carter, 1978, Book II, pp. 2161–2165. The President spoke at noon in the East Room at the White House at a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prior to delivering these remarks, the President hosted a reception and briefing by administration officials for human rights activists, members of Congress, and administration officials involved in human rights policy formation. For the text of comments made by the President, Vance, Brzezinski, and Derian at the briefing, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. II, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Document 176.
  2. See Documents 7 and 15.
  3. See footnote 7, Document 9.
  4. See footnote 9, Document 9.
  5. Reference is to a speech Humphrey delivered at the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Humphrey, then Mayor of Minneapolis, supported a civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform and used the speech to advocate for that position. Convention delegates ultimately accepted the plank. In November 1948, Humphrey, the DFL candidate, defeated incumbent Republican Joseph Ball for a U.S. Senate seat.