William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Marshall Center Auditorium
Washington, DC
June 8, 2012

Date: 06/08/2012 Description: Deputy Secretary Burns delivers closing remarks at the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, June 8, 2012.  ©  Photo credit:  Matthew G. Miller, DRL/PPD

Thank you, Mike, for organizing this important look back on these three transformational periods in U.S. foreign policy. At a moment when our values and interests are so deeply entwined, from the Nile to the Irrawaddy, I want to thank Mike Posner and all of DRL for your irreplaceable contribution to U.S. national security and human dignity throughout the world. Under Mike’s leadership, DRL has refined and redefined our human rights agenda for the 21st century.

I also want to thank our panelists for their unique perspectives on the evolution of human rights policy. Over the past 30 years, I have had the privilege of working with virtually every panelist here today – Tom Pickering, Elliott Abrams, Harold Koh, Lorne Craner, Tex Harris, Tammy Wittes, and many other remarkable friends and colleagues. I know it is much easier to reflect from the safe vantage point of hindsight upon issues that caused gray hairs and sleepless nights. All of us are grateful for your service, your sacrifice, and your superb contributions to the cause of universal human rights.

All of us also believe that America is best off in a world of successful and stable nations, where individual rights are respected. We know that ideals and interests don’t always mesh as seamlessly as we might like. And for the tough cases, it takes judgment, persistence, and an ability to see both the forest and the trees in order to move our policy forward. Each of you faced decisions like these, and each left the State Department, and our world, a richer place.

By the time I joined the Foreign Service in 1982, DRL was already well established in its offices on the 7th floor, publishing the human rights reports under the leadership of Elliott Abrams. The Cold War dominated U.S. global security interests, including authoritarian regimes in Latin America that were critical U.S. partners. Elliott argued that if the United States was to be credible in denouncing human rights violations by Communist dictators, we had to call out violations by anti-Communist dictators as well. It meant speaking out about Augusto Pinochet as well as Daniel Ortega. That was not a popular policy, but it was an important attempt to put us on the right side of history. Only a couple of decades later, most people in the Americas live under leaders they elected, with increased respect for their rights and freedoms, greater inclusion for populations too long overlooked, and a middle class that now numbers 275 million.

Today, DRL reports on the status of human rights in 199 countries and territories, but the goal is not to chastise—it is to change behavior. During the Clinton Administration, we established the Human Rights Dialogue with China. Today, we hold these dialogues with many countries with which we have important relationships but deep differences on issues of rights and freedoms, such as Russia and Vietnam, as well as with countries whose views on these issues are closer to our own, like Colombia and Mexico. We have frank conversations grounded in our principles, and we help elements within governments put in place better practices, solve problems within their own societies, and become more accountable and more open to their citizens. And thanks to DRL, a surprising number of these difficult but essential conversations delivered results.

In 1998, DRL began funding programs to help human rights activists, including journalists, women, and other vulnerable groups, improve their own advocacy and reach. After 9/11—when our government recognized that conflict, instability, and terrorism were in many ways the byproducts of the failures of authoritarian states to modernize and advance human dignity— these efforts also gave rise to the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), founded in 2002 to strengthen civil society and the rule of law, empower women and youth, improve and expand education, encourage economic reform, and increase political participation.

Globally, DRL has translated our human rights aspirations into action. Since 2008, DRL has trained and assisted more than 30,000 print, media, and online journalists.

In the Philippines, DRL grantees went on to produce groundbreaking reports about human trafficking, enforced disappearances, and summary executions.

In Pakistan, they launched the first women’s radio program focusing on gender issues and got the country’s first nongovernmental radio stations on the air.

One of my favorite DRL war stories is how Lorne Craner and Pat Davis, who now runs the Global Programming Office in DRL, helped to get Kyrgyzstan its first independent printing press in 2003. At the time, the country’s only printing press was owned by then-president Akayev’s family. Lorne and Pat managed to set up an international board of directors for an independent newspaper, buy a printing press, and launch it with enough fanfare that it was actually able to report the news. Seven years later, Kyrgyzstan witnessed the first-ever democratic transfer of power in Central Asia.

I am not suggesting that one printing press turned the tide of history. As is often the case, we can never precisely measure the impact of U.S. engagement. Here’s what we do know: when we work to put ourselves on the right side of history, when we support citizens working to resolve conflict peacefully, to bring change to their societies, to create economic opportunities, and to claim universal rights—we enhance our country’s interests, we enhance our country’s security, we enhance our country’s leadership, and we reflect the values and the generous spirit of the American people.

I have had the great honor and privilege of serving in government during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the uprisings in Tunis and Tahrir Square, and the new opening in Burma. The changes that have swept the world – from Bishkek to Cairo, from Seoul to Sana’a – not just in the past two years but over the past 20 years – may be about ideals we hold dear and may have had our support, but, in the end, they are not about us. They are about thousands of individual decisions made by the citizens and governments of sovereign nations. They are about the thirst for dignity of proud people in every corner of the world. They are about fundamental truths and universal human aspirations from which no society and no region is immune.

We rightly approach our engagement with a large dose of humility. And yet, looking back on the decades of DRL—a time when, through wave after wave, democracy has moved forward, in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in Africa, and in the Middle East—it is clear that the world is a better place today because you took the long arc of American foreign policy and bent it toward justice.

DRL has lived by the motto, “don’t make a point, make a difference.” And when we look back at the story of American diplomacy – as we do today—it is clear just what a difference you have made. You help us to be the nation we aspire to be. And you help us exercise leadership in a more peaceful and a more secure world.

But our work is far from done, and with the growing voice of civil society around the world, we need DRL now more than ever. All of us understand the tough work ahead—from stopping the horrific shelling of civilians in Syria to rebuking incitement against LGBT persons around the world; from standing up against honor killing to ending forced labor; from nurturing new democracies to making sure that, while a government may throw prisoners of conscience in jail, no government can make the world forget about them.

Fortunately, we have one of the most passionate advocates I know as our Secretary of State. Through her words and her deeds, Secretary Clinton has used her unique stature, her frankness, her courage, and her conscience to fight for and win a place on the world stage for so many who had been relegated to the shadows: from women, to LGBT persons, to religious minorities, to youth, to the disabled. And by helping so many people live up, as she would say, “to their God-given potential,” she has helped this Department and this country live up to our potential.

We look forward to continuing down the road of history with you. Thank you and keep up the great work.