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McCain Urges Graduates to Help Promote Human Rights

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June 20, 2005

Sen. John McCain delivered the main address at Northwestern's 147th commencement ceremony June 17. Speaking to graduates, parents and guests, McCain said the United States must use its power not only for its own self-interest but also to promote the concepts it holds dear: democracy and human rights. Listen to the complete address. (MP3 16.9MB)

(The following is the text of Sen. McCain’s prepared remarks for delivery at the ceremony in Ryan Field.)

Thank you faculty, families and friends, and thank you Northwestern University Class of 2005 for your welcome and for your kind invitation to give this year’s commencement address.  This is quite a privilege for someone who graduated fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy Class of 1958.  Opportunities like this always reaffirm my long held faith that in America anything is possible.

If my old company officer at the Academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tested by my less than exemplary behavior, I fear he wouldn’t appreciate your generosity as much as I do. 

I want to join in the chorus of congratulations to the Class of 2005.  This is a day to bask in congratulations and praise.  You’ve earned it.  You have succeeded in a demanding course of instruction.  Life seems full of promise as is always the case when a passage in life is marked by significant accomplishment.  Today, it might seem as if the world attends you.

But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you so well for so long, and whose pride in your accomplishments is even greater than your own – your parents.  When the world was looking elsewhere your parents’ attention was one of life’s certainties.  So, as I commend the Class of 2005, I offer equal praise to your parents for the sacrifices they made for you, for their confidence in you and their love.  More than any other influence in your lives they have helped make you the success you are today and might become tomorrow.

It’s difficult for commencement speakers to avoid resorting to clichés on these occasions.  Thousands of such addresses are given every year, many by people with greater eloquence and more original minds than I possess.  I’m always reminded of an observation about debates in the place I work, the U.S. Senate.  “Everything that could be said about the subject has been said.  But not everyone has said it.”  So let me just say that I wish you all well.  This is a wonderful time to be alive and to have your opportunities.  Make the most of them.

If you will indulge me, I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about an aspect of American foreign policy that, particularly post September 11, has been a much debated focus of our diplomacy, and, in Afghanistan and Iraq, a product of the use of American force.  That subject is the promotion abroad of human rights and democratic governance.

Many of those who opposed the war in Iraq, in this country and elsewhere, and even some supporters of the use of force, are skeptical about attempts to help Iraqis create the institutions and practices of democracy in that country.  They disagree in general with the idea that a system of government that works in prosperous countries with Western traditions can ever function in places that lack our traditions and advantages.  They are reluctant to intervene in the domestic political arrangements of other countries, by force or by diplomacy.  They argue that it is simply American arrogance to suggest that a system which works for us can work everywhere. 

But advocates of a human rights focused foreign policy have never suggested that a country without previous experience with democracy should govern itself in ways identical to our experience, with a bicameral legislature, nationally elected chief executive with a four year term, a two party system, etc.  All we claim is that people no matter where they live, no matter their history or religious beliefs or the size of their GDP, all people share a basic desire to be free; to make by their own choices and industry better lives for themselves and their children.  And furthermore, that it is in the security interests of the United States and is inseparable from the moral foundation of our national character that we should do all that is practical to help them wrest their rights from regimes that do not govern with their people’s consent. 

Concern for the rights of all human beings must be a significant and enduring element of American foreign policy, informing our relations with all countries.  While human rights will never constitute the sum total of our foreign policy, which by necessity concerns itself with myriad other issues, from counterterrorism to weapons proliferation to trade policy, we fail ourselves as Americans if we do not consider how our actions – or our failure to act – impact those who are as yet unblessed with our freedoms.

I suppose that if your political science professor were assigning you a paper, he’d suggest that you define your terms up front.  The core human rights include the right to life and liberty, protection against cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, freedom from terror and oppression, the exercise of basic political rights.  The world summarized these and other rights in 1948 when, after undergoing the most destructive war in human history, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  This remarkable document begins simply but powerfully, asserting that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 

The first word of the document’s title is important – these human rights are not an invention of America or of the western world, nor do they reflect standards to which particular cultures or religions can opt out.  They are universal.   But it’s worth spending a moment to reflect on where these rights come from. 

I believe that the genesis of these rights lies in the origins of the human spirit.  As long as reflective people have lived, they have identified those universal liberties that separate us from the animals.  Look at the earliest Greek philosophy and you will see emerging the concept that all human beings are created equal.  The great Judaic and Christian teachers held that certain rights are endowed unto all people by the Creator.  And to simplify John Locke a bit – always a dubious attempt when there are professors around – governments are formed explicitly to protect the natural rights of its citizens, and thus rule only with their consent.  “The State of Nature,” he said, “has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone . . .that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty and Possessions.” 

Our founding fathers were wise to shape our political system on Locke’s ideas.  The rights to which he refers exist above the state and beyond history; they can not be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another.  They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be wrenched. 

Jimmy Carter once said that “America did not invent human rights.  In a very real sense, human rights invented America.”  Our Founding Fathers, having felt the weight of colonial oppression, forged a new kind of government, one that existed not to protect a regime or a class or a religion but to protect the people’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The promotion of those rights is the most authentic expression of our national character.  To accept the abridgement of those rights for other societies is no less false to the American heart than to accept their abridgement in our own society.  Injustice and tyranny abroad should be as intolerable to Americans as they are intolerable here.

Promoting human rights abroad can serve our national interests in profound ways.  In the 1970s, the military government in South Korea twice planned to execute dissident Kim Dae Jung.  In both cases the United States intervened, saving his life.  Years later, he became the president of South Korea, and his warm feelings toward our country endured.  In 1986, when the United States condemned Ferdinand Marcos’ sham reelection, we earned the abiding gratitude of the Philippine people, who promptly threw out the dictator.  Our continuing good relations with the Philippines have enabled us to collaborate on numerous fronts, including counterterrorism and counternarcotics.  Throughout the Cold War, America condemned human rights abuses throughout Eastern Europe, and actively promoted freedom in those countries.  And today, as our soldiers fight in Iraq, troops from many of these same Eastern European nations stand beside ours.  Last year, in refusing to accept bogus elections in Ukraine, we earned friends among the leaders of the Orange Revolution, now better known by their titles, the President and Prime Minister of Ukraine.  And today we stand with Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman of undaunted moral courage, and the people of Burma she leads as they oppose a brutal dictatorship.  They will prevail someday, and America must be part of their success.  And when they do succeed,  America will have a new partner, linked by common values.

History shows that standing with democrats pays dividends far greater than collaborating with dictators for short term gain.  How many times must we learn this lesson?  Time and again we have embraced dictators who pledge their love of America while oppressing their citizens at home.  Batista in Cuba, the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua, the House of Saud today – in each case the repressed people of these countries identified America with their corrupt rulers.  And, in the end, each case had dire implications for our security and economic interests. 

It does not take a revolution to see that promoting human rights serves our interests in other ways.  Where there are abuses, despair often grows, sometimes morphing into extremism and terror.  In countries where the rule of law is arbitrary, corruption and other vices breed – such as the trafficking of narcotics, weapons, and even human beings.  Human destruction prompts refugee flows and instability across borders, and gives rise to disease and criminality. 

But perhaps the foremost way in which promoting human rights serves America’s national interests lies in this unique moment in world history.  The United States is the only superpower on the globe today, but history teaches us how other countries traditionally react to the rise of a single great power.  In the past this phenomenon has prompted other states to combine, acting to balance against perceived threats and to limit the preeminent state’s influence.  Since the demise of the Soviet Union we have seen few concrete examples that the world is attempting to diminish American power, but we would be wise to be wary.  In so doing, we should also sense a great opportunity.

For America truly is not like past superpowers, countries who sought territorial gain or imperial dominion.  We wish to free, not to enslave; to trade, not to steal; to enlighten and learn, not to dominate and convert.  But however certain we may be about our own motives, the impressions of people abroad are the ones that count.  Should they sense a truly imperial impulse, they will speed their efforts to limit America’s reach.  But should they detect a truly humanitarian motive behind American action, they are much more likely to welcome a powerful United States, rather than oppose it.  Our moral standing is directly died to our ability to maintain America’s preeminent leadership in the world.      

Don’t underestimate the influence of this effect.  America’s traditional identification with democracy and human rights constitutes a critical element of our soft power.  While our military can preempt and prevent threats, and our economic power can be used to promote or punish, our soft power is the power of attraction.  It was not only the traditional metrics of national might that helped the West win the Cold War, it was also the deeply attractive nature of our way of life – a way of life that included freedom, democracy, and prosperity.  Only with the credibility that accompanies the union of words and action will the world’s people believe what we believe:  that America wishes good for all, not for some; that we seek security, peace, and justice, not land and oil.  And above all, they must see that we strive to respect human rights at home.

This last point is critical, because our credibility suffers a grievous blow from human rights abuses by Americans.  The disgrace at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq set back our national cause and our international ambitions, and similar cases undermine our foreign policy.  Because we hold others to a standard, we must be even more scrupulous in our own affairs.  This does not mean that America has always been perfect.  Nor does it mean that we are perfect today.  But we must strive for perfection, whether it means treating enemy detainees in accordance with their human rights or punishing Americans who abridge the rights of minorities.  Only by acting in accordance with our values can we further the interests we seek abroad.  

This is not to say that our interests and our values are always identical.  Sometimes our interests and our values point us in different directions, and balancing these can be the most difficult task policymakers face.  How hard should we push President Putin, for example, on his rollback of democracy?  All of us seek a fully democratic Russia, but we also hope for a Russia that cooperates with us on nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, and energy concerns.  Should we press Hosni Mubarak for free elections, while simultaneously seeking Egypt’s help in the Middle East peace process?   Should we threaten military action to stop ongoing genocide in Darfur while trying to force the Sudanese government to fulfill its peace commitments with the autonomous south?

In making these tough choices, it has long been axiomatic that interests trump values.  But we should not be so quick to discount our ideals.  Is tolerating a lack of democracy in Egypt helping to settle the hostility and dangerous instability of the Middle East?  Or does it breed terrorists by depriving people of any lawful means to change their lives.  America is number one – but for what?  What is the object of American power and wealth?  Is it only to garner more power, to grow richer, and to eliminate threats of every kind?  If this were a different time, or if America were a different country, that concept of our national mission might satisfy.  Today it does not. 

I have long believed that the true worth of a person is measured by how faithfully we serve a cause greater than our self-interest, that encompasses us but is not defined by our existence alone. The same holds true for the conduct of nations, particularly in this unique era, when America stands astride the world with unmatched power. Political scientists refer to this time as the “unipolar moment,” but none of us knows for how long the United States will dominate international affairs.  We do know that history has handed us a unique opportunity. The U.S. could choose to pursue narrowly defined national interests – internal and external security, economic prosperity at the cost of others, perhaps even territorial domination. And yet we choose – we must choose – a very different path.

We must use our power and influence not only for security and prosperity, but to promote the concepts we hold dear, including democracy and the panoply of human rights.  By doing so we help create a world of recognized norms and rules and if we are successful, we will have established a set of expectations for domestic behavior that will endure long after the unipolar moment is passed. 

And that is where you come in.  Who is responsible for monitoring and promoting human rights?  Every one of us.  Not just policymakers in Washington, not just Human Rights Watch and Freedom Watch and Amnesty International, but every American citizen.  Each of you has the responsibility to promote this cause that is greater than your self-interest, to use your freedom to help ensure the liberty of those who are denied it. 

The world is about to become your responsibility.  Even if you are never elected to any office, never meet a foreign policy professional, and never scour the pages of the Economist and Foreign Affairs, a responsibility remains.  If the defense of basic human rights abroad is a concern of the American electorate, it will remain the concern of our elected officials.  And if it is a concern of our government, the world will take notice.  So remember the wise and cautionary words of Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust to say that the opposite of love is not hate.  It is apathy.

Professor Wiesel made this observation in the context of the century’s most terrible genocide, and God knows we saw mass human destruction in the 20th century.  But as much as I wish it to be so, genocide is not a thing of the past, and I’d like to close with a word on this. 

The most fundamental human right of all is the right to life, and genocide constitutes the most extreme denial of human rights.  Merely listing the places that have suffered – Cambodia, Hallabja, Rwanda, Srbrenica, Kosovo – suggests immediately the evil that casts its shadow on these tortured lands. 

As Samantha Powers observes in her powerful book, A Problem From Hell, there are two reasons why the United States should act to halt genocide  – one is the notion of enlightened self-interest I spoke about before – allowing genocide creates refugees and undermines stability; it implicitly authorizes the use of widespread murder as a policy instrument.  But the more important reason is moral.  As Ms. Powers says, “When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act.”  I believe this duty includes the use of our various forms of influence, including – in the most extreme cases – the selective use of military force.     

So if I have persuaded you, the next time we see a Rwanda-style genocide looming, we will all support action.  But we need not wait.  Today in Sudan the government and its allied militias are murdering, raping, and looting hundreds of thousands of people in the western region of Darfur.  The State Department estimates that between sixty and one-hundred sixty thousand have been killed; some nongovernmental organizations put the total at 400,000.  Refugees have flooded into insecure camps in Darfur and across the western border into Chad.  The United States government has labeled the killing there “genocide.”

Today we know what is happening and we know what is likely to occur unless we act.  The world cannot again stand idle then apologize later and say “never again.”  We said “never again” after the Holocaust.  We said it after Bosnia and again after Rwanda.  And mark my words, unless we act, and act quickly, we will say it again after Sudan. 

No truer words have been uttered than those of John Donne, when he said no man is an island.  In thinking about the value of human lives in far away places, we just as well might think of our own.  With singular elegance, the great poet summed up the intended meaning of this speech today:  “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.