It is a great honor for me to speak to you today at this important meeting of minds devoted to the subject of human rights. We are here to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948.  Such declarations are important historically and symbolically, as they articulate the ideals that give direction to our activities on the ground; they help us to set goals—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.

But at the same time that we celebrate this important anniversary, we must use the occasion as a call to action as we mourn the fact that we have not come as close as we might have to achieving the goals of that Declaration in these past 60 years.  While we cannot ignore or dismiss the progress we have made—we must reflect on the reasons for our failing to go further than we have gone in ensuring those rights for all human kind, and to strategize on how we can do better in the next sixty years—and, indeed in the next six years—even the next six days—or the next six hours.  In fact, to be pragmatic, let’s start right now!

For better and worse, we do not live in Utopia—we live in the real world, which is fraught with ethnic conflicts, territorial battles, terrorist acts, abject poverty, environmental degradation and gross violations of human and civil rights—all of which come to our attention every day. If it’s not Iraq, it’s Georgia; if it’s not Kenya, it’s Sudan—or Nepal—or Myanmar.  In our interconnected global environment, we are always aware of the never-ending litany of troubles—all too many of which are man-made, conditions that occur because we lack the will and/or the skills to prevent them from happening.  But, then, too, we live in a world of magnificent acts of generosity, creativity and compassion—the world of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.—of Picasso and Neruda- of Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.  These heroes who have used their powers to dream dreams of a better world and take action on those dreams.  Shirim Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, had this to say.  “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.”

Our human capacities, both positive and negative, are enormous.   The world is not lacking in conflict, but neither is it lacking in creativity.  Our challenge is not to construct or even desire a Utopia; it’s to improve, step by step, day by day, a very imperfect and yet still remarkably creative world.  We can, with conviction and commitment, and, yes, with dreams, alleviate the terrible conditions in which so many live, lacking in resources and lacking in power.  We take small steps–everyday—and we never get to the end of the road.  That is the journey I propose for us in the 21st century.  It may seem pedestrian, unromantic, even cynical; but trust me, it is the practical path to changing this world for the better. It is the way that we can translate noble declarations into constructive actions.

In the end, improving the world is not only or principally about charismatic leaders or miracle workers. It is about those of us ordinary people who are fortunate enough to live in free societies diligently, faithfully and relentlessly working to ensure that all people will have their basic needs, not only physical needs, but political, spiritual, intellectual and civic needs as well—so that they, like we, can live not at the level of mere subsistence, but rather as we live, with the opportunity to develop all their skills and be active members of society. Is this a dream—that those in need can live the way we in this room do?  Yes it’s a dream, and it’s a necessary dream.

If we do not take that path, we will have failed to fulfill our human obligations. And what are our human obligations?  In an increasingly interdependent world, we can no longer physically or morally turn our backs on others. We must learn to live with and respect others—even if they are radically different from us. As our world becomes increasingly interdependent, economically, environmentally, politically and socially, none of us is completely free if all of us are not free. Those of us who are rich can not rest in comfort and luxury while others are victims of hunger, poverty and humiliation for their entire lives.  It is not just question of morality and empathy; it is a question of prudence and security.  The disparity between “haves” and “have nots” breeds anger, which often erupts into violence. Those with no stake and no status in their societies, either politically or economically, are more likely to commit violent acts—engage in ethnic conflict, acts of terror or full-fledged genocide.  These are the acts of the powerless crying out for attention to their plight and for the power to change their circumstances.

I speak to you as fellow citizens, because for me the power that we have as citizens is the very power that we can and must use to make all people in the world citizens. For there is no role, no title in a democratic society that is more meaningful and more prestigious than that of citizen.  Today our task is a global one, but it must start in our own neighborhoods.  It may be an endless task—but never mind—it is our task, and embracing it will be its own reward.

In preparing ourselves for this work, education is our most powerful tool. We need the will to be agents of change—to make this a better world—and we need the skills. Both our will and our skills can be improved through education.

We must live lives that combine idealism and pragmatism. We must subscribe to and embrace ideals by putting into practice actions that bring us and our societies closer to the ideal.  Ideals are not unrealistic—they help us to shape our reality—to choose our future.  Choosing a future is pragmatic—it requires us to take actions, through education, through legislation, NGOs and other civil society organizations, and on a personal level—devoting some of our precious time—every day—to this most human of tasks.

We must fight for human rights at home and abroad—as the “haves” in the US and in Portugal are not safe in a world where too many people are the innocent victims of hunger, poverty and disease. As I suggested earlier, it is not only a moral issue.  It is a practical matter.

We must recognize that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand—that the most precious right—and perhaps the rarest of rights that we have– is the right to be responsible for the public good.

So how do we go beyond the rhetoric of human rights?  I will repeat to you the questions that I ask myself everyday.  What kind of society are we, and what kind of society do we aspire to be?  Our reflections and our actions must be placed in that context.  Why?  Because we who live in free societies have the power to choose the path toward universal freedom and equality—liberty and justice for all, liberte, fraternite, egalite, and that means not just our personal futures—but the future of all the world’s people.

If we live under the democratic rule of law, we are among the most fortunate and powerful in the world. Never mind that the great Winston Churchill, prime minister of England during World War 2, described democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”  Democracy is important— not because it is perfect—perfection is beyond us—but because in a democracy we have laws made by the people and for the people that can also be changed by the people and for the people. In short the democratic rule of law is the most reliable ruler we can have.  Imperfect, yes—but not nearly as resistant to change as even the most benevolent monarch or despotic “ruler for life.”

Reflecting again on the Declaration of December 10, 1948, in human affairs, symbolism is essential—as a reminder that we must have vision—we must have dreams—so that we can stretch our capacities—our intellects—our imaginations—our pragmatic skills—to move closer to the ideals that we treasure as human beings. Ideals come from many sources, according to one’s own beliefs and experiences—from philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Sartre and Camus, from religious leaders like Moses, Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha, and Martin Luther King, Jr., from public leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, and from the actions of ordinary citizens. It was ordinary citizens who wrote and proclaimed the Declaration of Independence in England’s American  colony in 1776, and  ordinary people who signed Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia in 1977, declaring Czechoslovakia’s independence of the Soviet Union; and it was ordinary people, workers, who founded the  Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1980s, which set off the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe several years later and ultimately, the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union by the early 1990s. Some think that these transformative actions come “from above,” from a deity, and some believe that they come from the ground, from the hearts and minds of ordinary people.  It doesn’t really matter. The idea is to use the ideals that you embrace and hold sacred, and your passion for constructive change, to chart your course to a more just and humane future.

We need to be citizens—citizens of the future, (created) by the future and for the future.  We need to struggle—often against the forces of oppressive regimes and, as frequently, against our own apathy and indifference—to be citizens. We must build civic strength in this world because only citizens can help their own societies to fulfill the universal dream of “liberty and justice for all.”

You may notice that we Americans talk more about civil rights than human rights.  Is the difference semantic or substantive?  I think it is the latter and will explain why.   It is intimately connected to our reverence for the law, and belief that to “fix” a problem, to improve a situation, it is useful to enact or amend laws. It is about pragmatic solutions to human problems. Such solutions in our society are effective—they are even necessary—but they are not sufficient because they do not pertain to those who live in oppressive, dictatorial societies, where the worst human rights violations are found.  And we have not yet arrived at a time when we have international laws—laws that are effective beyond the borders of our won sovereign nations.

I believe it is useful to call attention to the distinction, because we can never count on reducing or getting rid of human rights violations without simultaneously trying to create systemic change in the way countries are governed. The democratic rule of law is necessary to systemic change—change that is not dependent on the whims or kindnesses of individuals, but rather, occurs in the context of a legal system based in a democratic process and laws created by ordinary people. Civil rights are citizens’ rights, and the sooner countries move toward democracy, the sooner citizens can and indeed are obliged to voice their concerns and demand that their voices be heard.  Without such actions, without citizens having more control over their personal and collective destinies, there will be no great improvement in human rights. In order to choose a more just future, we turn to the power of the law.

One of my democratic heroes of the 20th century is a good teacher in this regard. Adam Michnik, cofounder of the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1980s instructed his fellow dissidents to act as though they lived in a free society. His recipe for systemic change was:  Discuss public issues at home at the kitchen table, in churches and community halls, in public squares. Do not raise arms against the oppressive leaders because by your reliance on violence you will only replace one tyranny with another. Short term, Adam Michnik paid a high price for his advice. His first book was called “Letters from Prison,” as he spent a number of years as a young adult in jail. However, Poland responded to Solidarity and moved forward as the leader of the Velvet Revolution that would liberate Eastern Europe.  From his early years in prison, Adam Michnik became one of the leaders of the revolution against Soviet hegemony in Eastern and Central Europe and is now the editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest newspaper in Poland and an internationally renowned champion of democracy.

It is most fitting that we are having these deliberations at this fine University, because the most effective tool for progress that we possess is education.  And the most important people whose civic capacities we must develop are our youth.  If we are to choose a future of promise for all the world’s people it will be driven by the acknowledgment that we in the 21st century live in an interdependent world and bear responsibility for each other. Universities train teachers and open the minds of their students to the new realities of our time—the era of interdependence—marked by our keener awareness of the interdependence of the physical environment, the breakdown of the old world order, and driven firmly into our lives by the revolution in communications and information technologies. These new realities require educational transformation. We are obliged to train our students in a new global ethic, expanding their notion of community and of responsibility. I have no doubt that the systems are capable of such change, and am fully confident that today’s students will guide us into a more sane and humane future.

In closing, I propose that as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we agree to take on the task of securing human and civil rights within our own nations, and securing those rights for our sisters and brothers throughout the world.  That we who are privileged to be citizens in our own nations, recognize all people must have the right to be citizens—in charge of their own personal and collective destinies.  For it is only as we become the citizens in our respective societies—moving beyond dissidence and insurgency– that we can rescue the present from ethnic, racial and territorial conflicts and choose a more safe and humane future, in which all people—as citizens—enjoy the rights and accept the responsibilities of that most important status.   I say “Aux armes, citoyens!”  But the arms that I mean are words and their persuasive power—not guns; and actions—pragmatic and constructive actions.   I urge us to be transformers in a world that needs transformation. It is really not an ideological issue. It is an issue of life and death.

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 waiting 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 the poor and helpless to the kind of lives that we enjoy. It must be our call to action.

I propose that at the end of today’s deliberations we make a pledge.

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

  • by exercising our own rights and responsibilities as citizens to ensure that all the peoples of the world will enjoy the rights and responsibilities of  citizenship—the rights to shape their own personal and collective destinies;
  • by employing the civil “ammunition” of education and civil society organizations to achieve our goals;
  • and by designating the 21st century as “The Age of Interdependence.”

This is our call to action.  It is an enormous and eternal 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? Can we acquire the skills? The answer is YES.

Speech from 2008 Lisbon Conference
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