It is an extraordinary if not unique privilege to address this esteemed group of parliamentarians from every part of the globe.  Let me join my local colleagues in welcoming you to Scranton, Pennsylvania and hope and trust that you will return here soon again and often thereafter.  In our increasingly interdependent world, we  have more and more reasons to visit one other, not only in the capitals of our respective nations, but in the cities and towns like Scranton that give us greater insight into the non-official customs and character of our societies.

I believe that  it is especially auspicious that this conference is for parliamentarians, because it is you who represent the culture of “the rule of law,” which we all understand as the very basis, one might say the DNA, of a just and humane democratic society.   It is you who have the power, given to you by your citizens, to represent them as their agents for progressive change in your nations.  And I know that all our nations benefit from meetings such as this, in which we have the opportunity to learn from one other the legal and legislative strategies for progressive change that can make a difference in our own countries.  This is the very kind of interchange and international cooperation that must, in my view, be the defining characteristic of life in the 21st century.

I returned only three days ago from Rwanda, where I spent  a week launching a National Conversation on Prosperity and the Public Good, based on my handbook, “The New Rwanda:  Prosperity and the Public Good.”  Rwanda is a very small but dynamic nation—determined to build its economy, its civil society and, in short, its quality of life.  On the surface one might say that Rwanda has nothing much in common with the United States, the oldest and probably the richest democracy in the world. But in fact we share values, which is critically important—and we, like Rwanda, are an emerging democracy. They may be earlier along on in their striving for liberty and justice for all, but, to be sure, neither of us has arrived at that Utopian destination—and neither of us will.

Indeed, we all represent emerging democracies—and I say that proudly as an American.   The point I make is that all democracies are emerging– and when they cease to emerge, it’s fair to say that they cease to be democracies.  Among the  necessary conditions for democracies is that they be robust, responsive to the needs of their citizens, and innovative and generous in their various relationships—with the executive and judicial branches within their own governments, with their citizens and those desiring to be citizens, and with  colleagues from other nations.  Democracies are always works in progress—working toward but never fully reaching the goal of “liberty and justice for all.”

I would be remiss if I did not mention our recent election.  My country made a significant leap forward on November 4th in overcoming a period in which greed and indifference and a widening gap between rich and poor prevailed over public responsibility, and in which our long term “disease” of racial bias seemed to dominate our political, social and economic life. In both these areas of deficiency, we have turned a corner; we are not overnight going to be a Utopia, but we are several steps further along on that never-ending road to Utopia. Racism in America may be our greatest flaw—and the selection of Barack Obama, who is both African and American, as our president is a landmark in the life of our nation.  But it is much more than that.  For one thing, this election comes after many years of struggle, the most notable of which was the magnificent non-violent civil rights movement led by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  For another, Barack Obama, represents the very best ideals of our nation.  His extraordinary intelligence and integrity can lift our sights and create a new golden age for us and for the world.  With his leadership and in collaboration with him, a collaboration which he deems to be necessary, we will be on the right track, that is, on the road toward liberty and justice for all the world’s people. That is as much as any of us can wish for and hope for.

I am intrigued with the topic that I have been asked to address today and hope that my perspectives will be useful to you.  In the context of the topic I will place special emphasis on the central role that citizens play in making democracy work, as it is, in my view, essential to the understanding and practice of democracy.

With regard to identity, let me say that I prefer the plural, identities, because we as people engaged in an interdependent world have multiple identities, including our nationalities, our genders, our occupations, our religions, and our ethnicities. To start with myself, I’m an American Jewish woman—a daughter, a wife and mother—whose principal occupation is developing projects and educational materials on strengthening democracy and the culture of interdependence, both in the United States and internationally.   But that alone does not define me, any more than just a few adjectives define any one of you in this room. We humans are very complex creatures, deserving a long list of adjectives which even then do not define us completely.  And notwithstanding all our particularities—our differences, what appear to be our unique traits, we know from genetic scientists that we are all very much alike. Let us say then that we are individuals (and that word means different things in different cultures), and we are humans—very much like other humans; we are at once particular and universal.  Both of these aspects of our being are essential in defining our identities.

In countries where ethnicity is important and different ethnic or tribal groups feel loyal principally if not exclusively to their own group —more or less as an extended family—we must ask for tolerance at the least, but much to be preferred, respect and, yes, even love.  Again in our increasingly interdependent world, we cannot afford to fight and even kill others because they are not members of our group.  We cannot afford to live under leaders who keep us fighting each other to preserve their own power. It is time to overcome that all too familiar syndrome. In a sovereign nation, there will be groups that have their particularities. What they have in common is their nationality and their humanity. We—whoever that “we” is—must be responsible for each other—whomever that “other” is.  That is “the future of promise” that we must choose for our children and grandchildren.

Again, you members of parliaments and other high ranking government leaders must take the lead, both through legislation and advocacy, to include all members of your respective societies in the commonwealth that is your nation.  Laws that protect people, that invite people to live with hope and “without fear” in their communities, are the least that one can expect of civilized life in our interdependent 21st century world.

There has been much discussion in our time about the end of history and the end of the nation state, suggesting that globalization and in particular the globalization of commerce has replaced our particularity and our respective sovereign powers. I think that is a skewed, wrong-minded view of this complex world, with different nations in very different chapters of their history, some of them only now shedding the chains of servitude to colonial powers, or home-grown authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.  I do not see the end of the nation-state; we are much too connected to and invested in the present ordering of the world to shed the national aspect of our identities and relinquish power to “the globe,” in particular, to globalized commerce.  We live and act as citizens of nations where we have the capacity—the power—to effect change, for ourselves and for the public good, the well being of our societies.

On the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, let us praise the vision of that document and its symbolism. Such declarations articulate the ideals that inspire and animate our activities on the ground; they help us to set goals and point our human activities in the right direction. Ultimately they give meaning to our lives—reminding us that we do not live just for ourselves—but for others as well.  By and large, we carry out the work that is inspired by the symbolism of the declaration as citizens of our communities and of our nations.

On the subject of human rights, you may notice that Americans are more inclined to talk about civil rights, and that is something I am particularly pleased to discuss with parliamentarians.  When human rights are considered also as civil rights, they have a place within the boundaries of the rule of law and are subject to protection by the law. Not that that makes them invulnerable to abuse, but it makes them infinitely more susceptible to progressive advocacy and legislation.  I propose that we honor the symbolism and rhetoric of human rights but also go beyond that to the pragmatic realm of civic rights, which call for citizens’ advocacy and legislators’ actions. With regard to rights, when Shirim Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, she said, “I am a dreamer when I see a globalized humanity of the heart where every human being feels the pain of the other as if it were his or her own….The challenge facing us today is to think like dreamers but act in a pragmatic manner.  And let us remember that many of humanity’s accomplishments began as dreams.”

How then can we take this occasion as a call to action?  Are rights that we may call human and civil rights available to all in our various societies?  That is our dream—but more than likely not our reality. So the question is,” How can we, through advocacy and legislation, move closer to more just and humane societies? I believe we have the skills to do that—and in such a distinguished group, I believe we have the will to do it as well.

Can we pledge to ourselves and our respective peoples that on the occasion of this 60th anniversary of the Declaration we will take pragmatic actions that will ensure a better future—beyond ethnic and racial conflict, beyond the gap between rich and poor, beyond the deep chasm that separates the powerful from the powerless, in our time?   Our challenge is not to construct or even desire a Utopia; it is to improve, day by day, step by step, a very imperfect and yet still remarkably creative world.  We can, with conviction, commitment and competencies, and, yes, with dreams, alleviate the terrible conditions in which too many people live.

Too many people in this world are poor, sick and starving. They have no stake in their societies—no hope of moving forward. That is a time bomb ready to explode—unless we help them to clear a path out of their misery and into a future of their own choice. I don’t see how we can honor the Universal Declaration on its 60th anniversary except by pledging to open the world of these poor and powerless to the kind of lives that we in this room enjoy. It must be our call to action.

I propose that at the end of these deliberations, we make a pledge.

We solemnly promise that we will do honor to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • by exercising our own rights and responsibilities as citizens and legislators to ensure that all the peoples of the world will enjoy the rights and responsibilities of citizenship;
  • by enlisting our  public institutions such as parliaments as well as our education systems, NGOs and corporations to achieve our goals;
  • and by designating the 21st century as “The Age of Interdependence.”

That is our call to action. It is an enormous and never-ending task, but it is our task. We must, for the sake of the world and all its people choose a future of promise. Do we have the will?  Do we have the skills?  I believe that the answer is YES.

Interparlimentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom