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United Nations: U.S. Celebrates Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

By Petra Mayer and Frank T. Csongos

Washington, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by calling on all nations to work for freedom at home and abroad.

Clinton told a White House audience on Thursday (Dec. 10) the document reaffirmed faith in mankind following a world war that killed millions. He said the declaration proclaiming equality and freedoms resonates today because human dignity is still under attack in many countries.

The president said: "Obviously, all nations have more work to do, and the United States is no exception. We must improve our own record. We must correct our own mistakes, even as we fulfill our responsibility to insist on improvement in other nations."

Clinton singled out North Korean dictatorship, ethnic hatred in Serbia and Iraq, military rule in Burma, repression in Cuba, imprisoned dissidents in China, tribal fighting in Africa and widespread rights violations in Afghanistan as particularly disturbing.

Clinton presented human rights awards to a number of Americans, including Bette Bao Lord, chairwoman of Freedom House and a prominent human rights activist.

The awards are named after Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt was a pioneering figure in the fight for human rights.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also spoke, said "much of the best work in human rights has been done by those outside government -- students and activists, brave religious leaders, people from all backgrounds who simply want a better world for their children."

She described Afghanistan as a country where "perhaps the most egregious and fundamental trampling of human rights is taking place today against women."

Mrs. Clinton said the Taliban, Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist regime, has barred women from schools, professions, and most medical care, even forbidding them land-mine awareness instruction. She said many women have suffered needless injury and death as a result.

Afghan women are caught in a terrible predicament, said Mrs. Clinton, because they can no longer see male doctors, but are also forbidden to practice medicine themselves. She said: "I've read about a woman burn victim who died a terrible death and another with appendicitis who died after being turned away at two hospitals."

Mrs. Clinton said women once made up 40 percent of Afghanistan's doctors and half of its teachers, professions they are now barred from. She added that she had heard stories about "thousands of war widows, the sole supporters of their families, many of whom are now begging on the streets because they are forbidden to work."

Mrs. Clinton quoted one Afghan woman who said, "A rocket or a bomb may kill all members of a family at once, but this is a slow death, which is more painful."

Both Clintons reaffirmed America's commitment to helping the women and girls of Afghanistan secure their human rights. Said President Clinton, "I just wish there was some way for every American citizen to imagine how they would feel, if the people Hillary just discussed were their own daughters. I hope we can do more."

In New York, the U.N. General Assembly also opened its celebrations Thursday by presenting awards to humanitarian activists.

Among those who received awards were former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Anna Sabatova of the Czech Republic.