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United Nations Remarks on Signing International Covenants on Human Rights.

October 05, 1977

Mr. Secretary Waldheim, I'm beginning to feel at home here at the United Nations.

I am honored to sign on behalf of the United States of America these two international covenants on human rights.

Of the many affinities between the United States and the United Nations, perhaps the most important is that both had their origins in a vision of the greatness of the human possibility.

The American Declaration of Independence speaks of the idea that, and I quote, "all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Charter .of the United Nations speaks of "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small."

Though separated by a century and a half in time, these visions are identical in spirit. The covenants that I signed today are unusual in the world of international politics and diplomacy. They say absolutely nothing about powerful governments or military alliances or the privileges and immunities of statesmen and high officials. Instead, they are concerned about the rights of individual human beings and the duties of governments to the people they are created to serve--the rights of human beings and the duties of government.

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights concerns what governments must not do to their people, and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concerns what governments must do for their people.

By ratifying the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a government pledges, as a matter of law, to refrain from subjecting its own people to arbitrary imprisonment or execution or to cruel or degrading treatment. It recognizes the right of every person to freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the rights of peaceful assembly, and the right to emigrate from that country.

A government entering this covenant states explicitly that there are sharp limits on its own powers over the lives of its people. But as Thomas Jefferson once wrote about the Bill of Rights, which became part of our own American Republic, and I quote again from Thomas Jefferson: "These are fetters against doing evil which no honest government should decline."

By ratifying the other Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a government commits itself to its best efforts to secure its citizens a basic standard of material existence, social justice, and cultural opportunity.

This covenant recognizes that governments are the instruments and the servants of their people. Both of these covenants express values in which the people of my country have believed for a long time.

I will seek ratification of these covenants by the Congress of the United States at the earliest possible date.

It would be idle to pretend that these two covenants themselves reflect the world as it is. But to those who believe that instruments of this kind are futile, I would suggest that there are powerful lessons to be learned in the history of my own country.

Our Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights expressed a lofty standard of liberty and equality. But in practice, these rights were enjoyed only by a very small segment of our people.

In the years and decades that followed, those who struggled for universal suffrage, those who struggled for the abolition of slavery, those who struggled for women's rights, those who struggled for racial equality, in spite of discouragement and personal danger, drew their own inspiration from these two great documents-the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and our own Constitution. Because the beliefs expressed in these documents were at the heart of what we Americans most valued about ourselves, they created a momentum toward the realization of the hopes that they offered.

Some of these hopes were 200 years in being realized. But ultimately, because the basis was there and the documents signed at the origins of our country, people's discouragements and disappointments were overcome, and ultimately these dreams have prevailed.

My hope and my belief is that the international covenants that I sign today can play a similar role in the advancement and the ultimate realization of human rights in the world at large.

The last time I was here at the United Nations, shortly after I became President, I made an entire speech on the subject of human rights. Yesterday I made a speech on peace. And today I've taken tangible steps toward the realization both of peace among nations and the preservation of human rights for individual men and women throughout the world.

My hope and my prayer is that the high and noble expressions in these documents will be realized throughout all nations as the high and noble expressions of hope in our own Bill of Rights, 200 years ago, is being realized in our great country.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:35 a.m. in the Economic and Social Council Chamber at the United Nations Building in New York City.

Following his remarks, the President attended a reception and then met with United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim.

Jimmy Carter, United Nations Remarks on Signing International Covenants on Human Rights. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/242688

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