Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today delivered the following remarks at Human Rights First’s 2012 Human Rights Summit in Washington, DC:
“Thank you, Elisa, for that kind introduction – and for your excellent leadership of Human Rights First, an organization that is close to my heart.
“I will never forget the role that Human Rights First, and Elisa in particular, played in the fight to end the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees during the previous Administration. You were indispensible – especially the way that you organized the coalition of retired military leaders to support our efforts to stop torture. We could not have won that fight without you, and Elisa and Human Rights First will always have my gratitude and support.
“That earlier struggle to do what was right demonstrates the essential role that people like you, concerned citizens and principled advocates of human rights, can play, and must play, in our democracy. The great benefit of democracy is that it allows for self-correction. It allows imperfect human beings to strive, nevertheless, to live up to the high standards of our own values, which are perfect and eternal. That quest to more fully live our convictions does not happen by itself. It happens because of people like you – because people like you stand up for what’s right, even when doing so is unpopular and when others are afraid to act.
“I do not need to convince you why America’s leadership on human rights is so important. You know why. You know that what makes America unique among the nations of the world is not simply our dedication to human rights – many nations are also so dedicated. Nor is it simply our great power – many other nations are also powerful. No, what makes America unique is that, at our best, we marry our power and our values together and seek to make the world better – not perfect, but better. What makes America so special is that, in the final calculation, our interests are our values, and our values are our interests. You know this.
“You also know that there will be times when we in America will come up short of our own high standards. After all, the United States government has responsibilities that non-governmental organizations do not have. And at times, those duties, and the constraints they impose, create times of tension between our interests and our values. That does not mean that our values are flawed, it only means that we are. And that makes your passionate pursuit of human rights all the more important. That is why we in government need groups like yours. You are the conscience of our country.
“You do not need me to convince you of any of this. And that is not why I am here today. I want to leave you instead with a different message, which is this: Now more than ever, we need you. America needs you. I need you. We need you to be our moral compass. We need you to remind our country, our fellow citizens, and our elected leaders, why America’s support for human rights in the world is so essential – not just for the sake of our values, and all who share them and aspire to them, but ultimately, for the sake of our own national interests.
“You and I know that the American people are focused right now on our own serious domestic and economic challenges, and there is good reason for that. We also know that Americans are weary of war and other international commitments more broadly, and there is good reason for that too. But we cannot allow this rightful desire to prioritize our own domestic challenges to come at the expense of meeting our unique responsibilities of world leadership, especially our support for the values of human rights, rule of law, and democracy.
“This is not a partisan concern. It extends equally to both parties. On the one hand, I am concerned by this Administration’s reluctance to lead more confidently and more actively on matters of human rights in our foreign policy.
“I am concerned that the Administration appears ready to continue its rush to exits in Afghanistan, and what a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces could mean for the most vulnerable members of Afghan society, especially women and girls.
“I am concerned that, in Libya, we appear once again to have won the war but are at risk of losing the peace. Many brave Libyans who want the rule of law and democratic institutions are being assassinated every day. Large parts of the country have been overrun by militias and extremist groups. And yet, the Administration has continually fallen short in providing the Libyan people and their fledgling government with the U.S. support that they have requested to help them care for their wounded warriors, expand the rule of law, and train national security forces.
“And then there is Syria – a savage and unfair fight that has raged on now for nearly two years, at the cost of 40,000 lives. The President himself has said that the violence must end and that Assad must leave power. That was 15 months ago. The Administration’s own policy, as stated in Presidential Study Directive 10, is that ‘preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.’ How can those words mean anything when 40,000 men, women, and children have been slaughtered in Syria?
“What’s worse, the President yet again this week warned Assad that the use of chemical or biological weapons would change his calculation on intervention. This was meant as a red line, but it will be taken as a green light. I assure you that the message was not lost on Assad, or anyone else in Syria for that matter, that as long as Assad does not employ weapons of mass destruction, he can do anything else – bomb civilians with fighter jets and attack helicopters, massacre them with militias, shell their homes with tanks and artillery, detain and disappear and torture them – and the United States of America will do nothing to stop it.
“I wish I could say that my own party was offering a better alternative to these and other policies. I wish I could say that Republicans were providing moral leadership in the world where the Administration is not. But sadly, in so many instances, we are not. There have always been strains within the Republican Party between the internationalists and the more isolationist voices – between those who want put our values at the front of our engagement with the world, and those who do not. This battle for the heart and future of the Republican Party is being joined once again, and, I will admit, internationalists like me have our work cut out for us.
“Yesterday was an instructive example. As you know, Senate Republicans voted down the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I understand and respect my colleagues’ concerns for American sovereignty and the primacy of our laws. But if ever there were a treaty tailor-made for the advocates of American sovereignty, it was the Disabilities convention. That treaty would not constrain American sovereignty; it would expand it. It would extend the protection of human rights on which America has proudly led the world for decades. It would demand that the world be more like America. And yet, on the basis of outright falsehoods and fear-mongering, the treaty was voted down.
“All of us, Democrats and Republicans alike, need to do better. And we cannot afford not to. I continue to believe that our world is experiencing a period of upheaval unlike anything we have seen in a generation or more, and at the root of it is a great global awakening on the part of millions and millions of people who want what we too often take for granted: the security that comes with the rule of law, the peace that comes with free and tolerant societies, the dignity that comes with opportunity, the protections for human rights that come with democracy.
“We see this longing for human rights today all across the Middle East and North Africa, where people who had been written off by so many for so long as somehow incapable of living in freedom are demanding the right to do just that.
“We see this longing for human rights in Burma, where a surprising, and remarkable, though still incomplete journey to a more democratic future has begun.
“We see this longing for human rights in Russia, where pressure is building for change and decent governance, and with every action the government takes to clamp the lid down harder and more ruthlessly, that pressure only builds further.
“We see this longing for human rights in China, where it is simply not possible for a country of 1.3 billion talented and increasingly empowered citizens to continue to be ruled by seven old men who meet once a year in a seaside resort.
“In all of these places, and many more, there is not just a longing for human rights, there is also a longing for American leadership on behalf of them. Whether it is young people in Tahrir Square, concerned about what the draft constitution will mean for women and minorities … or ethnic communities in Burma, who want to be citizens of the country they still love … or Tibetans in China who feel that the only expression of dissent they have left is gasoline and a match – all of these groups, and more, do not want less American leadership on their behalf; they want more. They want more consistent, more outspoken, more principled American leadership in support of our shared universal values of freedom and human rights.
“And this is where you come in. You need to help our political parties, our leadership, and our country to do better. You need to remind our leaders how much is at stake in our world. You need to carry the lonely and whispered voices of hope, and dissent, and protest from all around the world and bring them into our offices, into the halls of our government, so that we, your elected leaders, can make them more a part of our foreign policy. You need to demand more of us, Democrats and Republicans, Congress and the Administration – and remind us, constantly, that if America does not speak up for the values we hold dear, it will not simply be a betrayal of who we are and what we stand for; it will ultimately make the world a poorer, darker, and more dangerous place for all of us.
“This is my charge to you, my challenge. And I know you can rise to it, just as you have risen to similar challenges in the past. Our country needs you now more than ever if we are to remain the proud and confident leader of the free world on matters of human rights – a cause that we lead by the power of our example, yes, but also through our actions, our advocacy, our impatient pursuit of a better world. That is America at its best. That is the moral leadership that I know America is still capable of. And that is why I am so grateful for your continued dedication to this just cause, which is greater and more enduring than all of us.”