First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Wednesday by telling the United Nations that expanding “the circle of human dignity” requires far greater attention to the rights of women throughout the world.
Keynoting a special observance to launch what U.N. officials are calling “the year of human rights,” Clinton rejected the ideas that “human rights are a Western luxury” that don’t apply to non-Western societies and that violence against women can be excused as “part of a country’s norm.”
“Let us say it so loudly that the entire world can hear us: We do not believe that violence against women is simply cultural; we believe it is simply criminal,” she said.
The first lady’s remarks followed a speech President Clinton made in New York on Tuesday evening in which he warned that human rights “are still at risk from Burma to Nigeria, Belarus to China.”
Wednesday, she turned the spotlight of White House concern toward the problems women face, ranging from legal, financial and voting discrimination in many developed nations to the lack of protection against sexual exploitation and violence in much of the Third World.
“What meaning can the language of freedom and human rights have for a young woman forced into prostitution and trafficked in the commercial sex trade? What meaning can it have for women forced into involuntary servitude as sweatshop workers or domestic servants? … Think how much weaker rights are in a nation where the majority of young women are illiterate. Rights on paper that are not protected and implemented are not really rights at all,” Clinton said.
The rights declaration, prompted by worldwide horror at the Holocaust and approved Dec. 10, 1948, after lengthy deliberations in Paris, sets out the basic rights that all people should enjoy, including equality before the law, freedom from torture and freedom of religion, expression, movement and asylum.
The U.S. representative to the commission that negotiated the declaration was former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Clinton and other speakers here repeatedly invoked her memory. At one point, Clinton, acknowledging the United States has had its share of “blind spots” in the rights field, noted, “It has taken most of our 220 years, some of them bloody, few of them easy, to extend the benefits of citizenship to African Americans, those without property and women.”
“Eleanor Roosevelt herself was 35 years old before she could vote,” Clinton added.
Although the first lady generally refrained from issuing report cards on the rights situation in various countries, she did single out - in some cases directly and others by inference - the inequality between the sexes that exists in many Muslim countries.
She cited an incident nine days ago in Sudan when “36 women were arrested while attempting to deliver a petition to the U.N. office there in protest of human rights violations. They were arrested, fined and at least one woman received 40 lashes.”
In Afghanistan, she noted, the Taliban, the fundamentalist movement that controls much of the country, is preventing girls from attending school and briefly arrested Emma Bonino, the European Union commissioner for humanitarian affairs, when she tried to publicly protest during a recent visit.
On a more positive note, Clinton lauded the rights declaration for having provided the inspiration for the establishment in 1993 of a U.N. high commissioner on human rights.
“Let me add how lucky the United Nations - and indeed the world is - that (former Irish) President Mary Robinson fills that post,” Clinton said. “And at the United Nations world conference on women in 1995, it was the strength of this declaration that enabled us to say, for all the world to hear, that human rights are women’s rights and that women’s rights are human rights.”