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Clinton's Human Rights Byword: Pragmatism

It's easy to be cynical about these sorts of things. Another speech, more empty words. Hillary Clinton goes to Georgetown University to talk about human rights in the 21st century. Break out the NoDoz - fast.

And 61 years after the "world's leaders proclaimed a new framework of rights, laws, and institutions that could fulfill the vow of "never again," the events in Cambodia, Rwanda and any number of smaller "never agains" now mockingly mark the annual celebration of Human Rights Week.

But give her speech a good read before dismissing it as yet more rhetorical bloviation. There's that, of course. But Clinton also served notice on allies, enemies - and the myriad majority of nations that fall in between those two camps - that when it comes to furthering human rights, the U.S. intends to be pragmatically assertive. (She actually defined it as "principled pragmatism" but the meaning is identical. Reading between the lines, Clinton acknowledges that power politics will, by definition, limit the U.S.'s human rights agenda. when it comes to big countries that the State Department can't afford to publicly prod about human rights, like Russia and China, protests will take place behind closed doors. "In every instance, our aim will be to make a difference, not to prove a point," Clinton said. That doesn't mean we'll look the other way when bad behavior crosses the line. But you won't find either Clinton or her boss going out of their way to embarrass either in a prime time speech.

"Calling for accountability doesn't start or stop at naming offenders. Our goal is to encourage—even demand—that governments must also take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts and competent and disciplined police and law enforcement. And once rights are established, governments should be expected to resist the temptation to restrict freedom of expression when criticism arises, and be vigilant in preventing law from becoming an instrument of oppression, as bills like the one under consideration in Uganda to criminalize homosexuality would do."

(Kudos to Clinton for adding that line about Uganda, where U.S. displeasure is likely to carry weight.)

Later in the speech, Clinton returned to the theme of pragmatism - this passage, in particular, stood out.

"Now, the champions of human potential have never had it easy. We may call rights inalienable, but making them so has always been hard work. And no matter how clearly we see our ideals, taking action to make them real requires tough choices. Even if everyone agrees that we should do whatever is most likely to improve the lives of people on the ground, we won't agree on what course of action fits that description in every case. That is the nature of governing. We all know examples of good intentions that did not produce results. And we can learn from instances in which we have fallen short. Past failures are proof of how difficult progress is, but we do not accept claims that progress is impossible."

It's a sober and serious statement, as it was a sober and serious speech. What will disappoint some is the absence of specificity. For obvious reasons, Clinton stuck to generalities. One notable example: she didn't even hint at the Israel-Palestine issue, a perennial diplomatic and human rights time bomb. But if this is the founding document for a consistent diplomatic approach, U.S. foreign policy stands to benefit - assuming the White House puts its muscle behind these well-chosen words.

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