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Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor


Location: Washington, DC

Well, good morning. I told Mike as I walked in this is a standing-room-only crowd here. I love that. Well, welcome. It is a real pleasure to have you here for this occasion, and I want to thank all of our special guests, including Congressman Jim McGovern, who has been such a champion on behalf of human rights and the role that the Congress should play and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Congress's support for this bureau goes back to its very creation.
I also want to thank the four former assistant secretaries that you see before you: Elliot Abrams, and -- well, I guess they're not here yet, I guess some of them are coming; Richard Schifter, Harold Koh, Lorne Craner; and also Tex Harris, Mark Schneider; just a real star-studded cast, and my great colleague, Ambassador Toria Nuland.

And there's one other who I want to mention. That's former Assistant Secretary Patt Derian, who did so much to shape this bureau from its infancy. She couldn't be with us today, but she sent a note that read, "Pronounced dead at birth. It is wonderful to see that we have not merely endured, but more than occasionally have prevailed. Best to all of you. I only wish I could be there." And we do, too.

It is amazing to think how far DRL has come in 35 years. It did have a rocky childhood, plenty of critics at post and in this building who thought you had no business pestering anybody about human rights. That would only get in the way of real diplomacy. Even getting an office on the seventh floor caused howls of protest.

But no one questions the value of DRL's contributions anymore. Now, there can still be healthy tension, which I always think is good and helps create the environment for better decision making. But the story of this bureau is the story of leaders and people who really believed in the mission. It is also the story of a way of thinking that has become absolutely fundamental to furthering America's values, interests, and security, and the way that we conduct our foreign policy today. DRL works hand-in-glove with colleagues around the building and around the world, and it also helps us think more thoughtfully about how we're going to respond to the extraordinary range of changes and challenges that we face in the world today.

I want to thank Mike Posner publicly for being such a great leader during such a challenging time. (Applause.) It has been, just for me, a joy working with Mike. Whether we are trying to nurture reform in a country like Burma, or support the democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, or defending LGBT rights, or empowering workers, or expanding internet freedom everywhere, Mike's creativity and savvy have been absolutely essential.

So we put more effort, more people, more money into the work of defending and promoting human rights than any country ever has. And that investment is not only the right thing to do, but as we like to say around the State Department, the smart thing as well. For one, it makes us stronger leaders. Because when we stand up for universal principles, it establishes our moral leadership. It's true that our wealth and our military might remain defining features of our power. But those things carry more weight because of who we are and what we stand for.

When we celebrate an emerging democracy or criticize a repressive government, words do matter. And when activists are harassed by their own governments, they turn to us for help. And I don't have to tell any of you what kinds of complications that can occasionally cause, but that's who we are and that's who we want to be. And we should never forget how much it means to the world when we stand up not only for our rights, but universal rights.

This work not only makes us stronger; I would argue, it does make us more secure. As President Obama's National Security Strategy recognizes, a world that is more democratic is a world with fewer adversaries and more partners. Now, creating this world is not easy, and it's not always clear how we get there. And yes, there are the inevitable tradeoffs. There, by necessity, always will be. But the mission remains the same, and it's what brings our DRL team to work every morning.

Now, I've heard that some people say that makes them, quote, "idealists" and it's rarely meant as a compliment. The narrative -- the counter-narrative seems to go: This is a complex world; we have to deal with all kinds of people who don't share our values. And yes, we do. And we will. We must. There is no doubt about that. But we will come from a stronger position knowing that governments that don't respect their own people's aspirations not only may in today's world not endure, but cannot be the kind of reliable, long-term partners that we and the rest of the world so need. And they make the world less stable, not more. You know our interests are best served when people live in societies that treat women equally and stop gender-based violence -- (applause) -- yes, I think that deserves a round of applause; protect the rights of religious and racial and tribal and ethnic and every other kind of minority, and respect the dignity of every individual.

To me, that is hardly an idealistic, soft world view. I think is tough, realistic, and essential in advancing America's interests in the 21st century. So I am very grateful for the work of everyone who is serving and has served in this bureau. I am deeply proud of it. Oh, to be 35 again -- (laughter) -- and with the hope that as you move through the next 35 years you stay as vigorous and robust and committed as you have been for the first 35 years. This is a well-deserved celebration, and it's one that this Administration and this Department is very proud to join in. And we wish everyone here the very best as you continue this essential work. And to the activists and the advocates and the reformers and the protestors and the demonstrators, well, we want you to realize the aspirations that do represent the universal human rights of every man and woman, and the United States will continue to be your partner.

Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

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