12.05.13

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY KEYNOTE ADDRESS HUMAN RIGHTS FIRST SUMMIT THE NEWSEUM WASHINGTON, D.C.

Thank you, Elisa, for inviting me here.  I also want to thank all the Human Rights First staff and board members who made this two day summit possible. The breadth of the issues you are covering is impressive.

I have long been an admirer of Human Rights First.  A great deal of what I have been able to do on human rights during my time in the Senate is because of the research and advocacy of your organization and of others who are involved in this work.

There are several topics I want to touch on briefly, but none more important than rededicating ourselves to the mission that Human Rights First has had for many years.

It may seem obvious that that is a central purpose of this summit, but I think it needs to be said nonetheless: 

We are here because each of us feels a responsibility to defend the fundamental freedoms and principles that define our humanity and that we regard as universal, but which are often violated or denied by the very governments whose responsibility it is to protect them.

As we all know, the history of the United States has been one of groundbreaking human rights leadership, and tragic failures.

Certainly the Bill of Rights was a monumental achievement that inspired the Universal Declaration and the freedoms enshrined in the constitutions of many other nations.

The more recent advances we have seen in support of the rights of people with disabilities, women, and LBGT and immigrants are examples of what we can accomplish by persevering against longstanding prejudice. 

I am encouraged by our recent efforts in Congress to further support those who need our help with improvements to the Violence Against Women Act, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and Senate-led efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.

I am also very pleased that you will be honoring Bob Dole this evening.  His leadership in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act more than two decades ago was a great milestone in our human rights history. 

His tireless efforts to see the United States ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities deserve our gratitude and praise.  We need more leaders like Senator Dole – statesmen willing to put aside petty political differences to find common ground and improve the lives of all Americans – indeed, of all people.  I miss him greatly in the Senate.  

Of course there are also many examples of when the United States fell short of our ideals – the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II, segregation laws upheld by the Supreme Court, or our more recent efforts to close Guantanamo or to end mass incarceration. 

In fact, few days go by when we are not confronted by significant challenges to our standing as a global leader on human rights.  Some of these challenges are due to external forces, but unfortunately others are of our own making.

In 1997, when I wrote what has become known as the Leahy Law, I had no idea what impact it might have.  But I did know that we should not provide training and equipment to foreign security forces that abuse and murder innocent civilians.  It had happened many times, it was wrong and contradicted everything this country stands for, and it undermined our standing as a global defender of human rights.

The Leahy Law is perhaps the most effective tool we have for drawing a clear line between the United States and those who commit atrocities, and for providing an incentive for foreign governments to hold abusive military and police officers accountable. 

But while it has been the law for a decade and a half, some officials in our embassies have not enforced it.  Others insist that we should provide military training to people who commit crimes in foreign countries for which they would be imprisoned for life in this country.  Enforcement of the Leahy Law depends on the active, sustained participation and vigilance of civil society here and around the world, including all of you.    

We should feel just as strongly about defending human rights activists – whether in Egypt, Russia, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam or any other country – who are persecuted for peaceful expression or association, or their religious beliefs – rights that we Americans take for granted and take great pride in.

Like many of you, I have met some of these activists who have been harassed, arrested, and tortured.  I have been awed by their courage and their unbreakable spirit. We have a responsibility to support them, and when they are imprisoned Democrats and Republicans must continue to work together for their release.

Contrary to popular belief, bipartisanship is not extinct, at least not in the Senate and not on human rights.  Senator James Inhofe and I – on opposite side of the political spectrum – are sponsors of legislation, the “Foreign Prison Conditions Improvement Act” that was recently reported by the Foreign Relations Committee.  It encourages governments to work to eliminate inhumane prison conditions, and offers U.S. aid to those that do. 

I suspect some of you have seen, as I have, horrific, life threatening prison conditions in poor countries where the majority of inmates, crammed into filthy cells, waiting for years to see a judge – caught up in byzantine justice systems that dispense anything but justice.  Our bill would help shine a spotlight on these abuses.

Here at home, we have yet to fully recover from the effects of the 9/11 attacks.  We continue to mourn the horrific loss of innocent lives on that day, and our country remains vigilant against the threat of future attacks.  But as Americans we cannot ignore the damage done by some of the ill-conceived policies and practices in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 

Before 9/11, I doubt any of us could have imagined that torture, which Members of Congress of both parties condemn when used by repressive governments, would be defended by top U.S. officials as a legitimate practice in the 21st Century.  We must never again allow the use of torture to be cloaked in euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or justified by twisted and flawed legal analyses that run counter to our core morals and values. 

We must also put an end to the indefinite detention of suspected enemy combatants, and the use of flawed military commissions in an open-ended, ill-defined global war on terrorism. 

It is appalling that we continue to indefinitely imprison at Guantanamo individuals who were not remotely the “worst of the worst,” to use former Secretary Rumsfeld’s flawed description, and who years ago were determined by the U.S. military to pose no threat to the United States.

For more than a decade, the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo has contradicted our most basic principles of justice, degraded our international standing as a champion of human rights, and harmed our national security.  Countries that respect the rule of law and human rights do not lock away prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial.  We condemn authoritarian states that use such practices and we should not tolerate them here.  

 

While I am heartened by the incremental positive changes in this year’s Senate version of the defense authorization bill, we must do more to ensure that Guantanamo is closed.  I greatly appreciate Human Rights First’s advocacy to close Guantanamo.

I am also grateful for your important work regarding drone attacks. 

I believe the United States should be able to use drones in an armed conflict, but only in accordance with international humanitarian law.  The United States for years conducted lethal operations using drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, some of which have killed or wounded innocent civilians and further enflamed local populations against the United States. 

I am concerned with the lack of transparency surrounding these operations, and the alleged use of “signature strikes” has raised serious questions about whether these drone attacks comply with international humanitarian law.  We should also ask whether the laws of war need to be strengthened to adequately control this new form of warfare.

Given the precedent that we are setting for the rest of the world – including other countries that have terrible human rights records – we must ensure that our government is as transparent as possible about when and how it uses drones to conduct lethal operations, and that their use is appropriately prescribed.

These issues pose defining challenges and opportunities for U.S. leadership on human rights, and the manner in which we address them will determine our standing in the world for years to come.

I have not hesitated to criticize foreign governments that allow heinous crimes to go unpunished, or that punish peaceful expression and other fundamental rights – often, in violation of their own international obligations.  So, too, have I criticized my government when it fails to live up to the standards we demand of others, and that others expect of us.

I think of the international treaty banning landmines.  I think of the trend of innocent civilians becoming the majority of war casualties.  The Clinton, George W. Bush, and so far the Obama administrations have failed to join our NATO allies in signing the landmine treaty.  We should be ashamed of this failure of leadership.

On November 22nd, we remembered the great loss this country suffered fifty years ago when President Kennedy was assassinated.  One of the many markers President Kennedy set for us in his memorable inaugural address was the, quote,  “unwilling[ness] to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”  Unquote.

Almost 53 years later, I believe his words are even more relevant today.  In fact, I would argue that among the most important things that we can do for our country, as he asked of us each of us back then, is to continue to reaffirm and uphold that commitment.

The American people, and people everywhere, are counting on us to do that.

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