Washington, 11 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says the prospect of membership in the NATO alliance is strengthening the commitment of the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe to the principles of human rights.
Clinton used the occasion of a White House ceremony marking International Human Rights Day on Tuesday to reiterate his goal of seeing the alliance enlarged with new members from among old Warsaw Pact adversaries by the time of NATO's 50th anniversary in 1999.
"The prospect of NATO membership and integration into the West has been a very strong incentive for Europe's new democracies to expand their political freedoms and to promote universal human rights," Clinton said.
Earlier yesterday, NATO's 16 foreign ministers agreed to meet in Madrid on July 8-9 to make formal invitations to a number of former communist countries. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are considered the most likely countries to be offered membership.
Clinton said it was fitting that the NATO ministers made their announcement on Human Rights Day. He said the July meeting in Madrid will be a historic step toward the goal of building "a Europe that is undivided, democratic and at peace for the first time in history."
Clinton added that the United States and its partners are building a world where "rights know no boundaries, and justice no frontiers."
The U.S. president also said NATO wants to forge a partnership with Russia. Russia is opposed to NATO's expansion. Russian spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said at a press briefing yesterday that Moscow still feels there is no good rationale for eastward enlargement. He said expansion would only "harm Russia's national interests."
NATO foreign ministers were due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov today. They planned another attempt to persuade Moscow to enter discussions on a formal NATO-Russia charter covering future security relations.
NATO is a military alliance established in 1949 by the United States, Canada, Britain, France and eight other western European countries to defend against any potential Soviet threat. Turkey, the former West Germany, Spain and Portugal joined later.
Expansion into Central and Eastern Europe has been a topic of discussion since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many former communist countries are eager to join the alliance, both for protection and as a further integration into Western institutions.
The U.S. government endorsed the concept of expansion, but both former President George Bush and President Clinton adopted cautious policies that were frequently interpreted as being too deferential to Russia.
Clinton finally set the formal goal of expansion by 1999 while campaigning for re-election last summer.
The enlargement of NATO has always had strong support in the U.S. Congress. The Congress adopted legislation last year that would provide financial aid for new members.
In his Human Rights Day remarks, Clinton also noted that more than half the world's people now live under freely-elected governments. He said Human Rights Day is an occasion the United States will use to dedicate itself to the unfinished task of extending freedom's reach.
"Promoting democracy and human rights reflects our ideals and reinforces our interests," Clinton said. "It's a fundamental pillar of our foreign policy."
Clinton said history has proven "that nations where rights are respected and governments are freely chosen are more likely to be partners in peace and prosperity."