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State’s human rights bureau turns 35

It’s not every day you see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharing a stage with neocon Bush administration official Elliott Abrams and liberal Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), but they all joined together this morning to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of State’s bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). "It is amazing ...

Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy
Josh Rogin / Foreign Policy

It's not every day you see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharing a stage with neocon Bush administration official Elliott Abrams and liberal Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), but they all joined together this morning to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of State's bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

"It is amazing to think how far DRL has come in 35 years," Clinton said, after being introduced by Assistant Secretary of State for DRL Michael Posner. "It did have a rocky childhood, plenty of critics at post and in this building who said we have no business pestering people about human rights, that it would only get in the way of real diplomacy."

It’s not every day you see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharing a stage with neocon Bush administration official Elliott Abrams and liberal Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), but they all joined together this morning to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the establishment of State’s bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

"It is amazing to think how far DRL has come in 35 years," Clinton said, after being introduced by Assistant Secretary of State for DRL Michael Posner. "It did have a rocky childhood, plenty of critics at post and in this building who said we have no business pestering people about human rights, that it would only get in the way of real diplomacy."

When DRL got an office on the elite 7th floor of the State Department, there were "howls of protest," she said, but "no one questions the value of the human rights bureau anymore."

Clinton said that standing up for human rights gives the United States greater moral weight in the world and makes America more secure because countries that treat people with dignity are inherently more stable. She also alluded to the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to explain how human rights advocacy can cause diplomatic strife.

"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," she said.

"Oh, to be 35 again," Clinton said with a sigh.

Abrams, who led the human rights bureau in the early days of the Reagan administration, talked about how the State Department wasn’t active at all on human rights before the DRL bureau was formed.

"The last previous Republican view of human rights (before the Reagan administration) was Secretary [of State Henry] Kissinger in the Ford administration and Secretary Kissinger has never really understood human rights policy… to this day," he said. "So we had to create new policy and the argument we made was ‘opposing Communism is not enough.’"

McGovern, who leads the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted that the creation of the bureau was pushed on the State Department by Congress against its will.

"On occasion, Congress does some things right," he said. "I’ll be honest with you, I want see a policy that reflects human rights even more than it does now. I think we can do better. We ought to stand out loud for human rights. This ought to be our priority."

He also revealed that there’s still a lot of love inside the State Department for former Senator George McGovern, who received the Democratic primary presidential nomination in 1972, but whom Rep. McGovern is not related to.

"About a half a dozen people came up to me today and said ‘I’ve been a long time supporter of your father’s," he said. "My father is Walter McGovern, not George McGovern, and he owns a liquor store in Worchester, Massachusetts…. If you’ve met him, please keep supporting him."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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