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Acceptance Speech of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal

New York October 2007

Eleanor Roosevelt has long been a heroine and inspiration to me as she has, I know, to countless people.

I am thrilled to be with you today and immensely grateful for the honour you have bestowed upon me through the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal.
I accept with the utmost humility.
Even to be mentioned as someone who could be seen as following in the spirit of such an extraordinary woman makes me both uneasy and very proud.
Uneasy because I am only too well aware of how little I have done to deserve such a comparison.
Proud because Eleanor Roosevelt has long been a heroine and inspiration to me as she has, I know, to countless people, and particularly women, across our world.
Indeed her stirring words selected as the theme for this year’s ceremony are ones I have quoted many times in my own speeches about the importance of human rights and women’s equality.
These are, of course, issues with which Eleanor Roosevelt was associated with throughout her life.

Never for her, of course, the role of spectator or critic. She didn’t just talk about injustice or complain about its unfairness. She fought it.
As her friend Adlai Stevenson memorably said, Eleanor Roosevelt would always prefer to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Through the power of her personality, the strength of her values, her optimism that progress could be delivered and an extraordinary energy which must have exhausted those around her, she changed the world for the better.
She was personally brave and very often outspoken - one quality at least that, as I am sure my husband might agree, we do have in common.
She brushed off death threats as she fought against racism throughout her life.
She was a lifelong campaigner, too, for women’s equality, for the protection of children and for hope and dignity for the unemployed.
She stood proudly at her husband’s side through some of the most difficult and challenging times in this country’s proud history.
Her courage, commitment and achievement in these areas would alone be enough for her place as one of the most remarkable and influential women of the last century.
But as I am a lawyer specializing in human rights, it will not surprise you to hear that I believe her pivotal role in drafting the UN Declaration on Human Rights is the greatest and most lasting achievement of a truly great life.
Though not a lawyer nor diplomat by training, she has had a profound impact on the law and our world.
The Convention was, of course, the work of experts from every continent and culture - something often forgotten by those who mistakenly criticize it as an invention of Western liberal democracies foisted on the rest of the world.
The dignity and intrinsic worth of each individual - the very basis of human rights - is something, for example, which all our great faiths emphasise.
But without the patience, enthusiasm and determination shown by Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the drafting committee, the declaration simply would not have been such a powerful document nor had such a positive and lasting influence.
It is also, of course, yet another example of the massive contribution this great country has made and continues to make to our world.
And it is on the issue of human rights as well that I believe Eleanor Roosevelt continues to have lessons for us all.

We live, sadly, at a time in which the whole concept of human rights can be painted as at best an irrelevance, at worst as an abstract concept which puts the interests of the criminal or terrorist over the law-abiding majority.
Eleanor Roosevelt would have no time for this approach.
Indeed, she specifically foresaw the danger sixty years ago.
To her, human rights were never something restricted to foreign dictatorships or prisons.
They belonged to each of us in what she called “the small places close to home.”
She recognised instinctively that if we were to safeguard and extend human rights, their importance must be felt by each individual in their everyday lives, in their workplaces, their schools and in their own communities.
As she said: “Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless rights have meaning there, they have little meaning everywhere.”
That is the challenge for all of us who share her view of the absolute importance of human rights.
We need to reclaim, to put them back at the centre of our lives.

For she was right. Human rights are not restricted to tyranny or torture - vital as they are in these areas.
They are about each and everyone one of us as we go about our lives. They are violated by gangs on the streets who intimidate their local community.
They give us protection against bullying at work or against discrimination in health treatment if we are elderly.
They are about the standard of care we should expect in residential institutions for the elderly, the young and mentally ill. They guarantee our children a proper education.
Importantly, as was specifically recognised by Eleanor Roosevelt and the drafters of the Convention, they are not a one-way street.
They place obligations and responsibilities on us to each other and our societies - something also often forgotten by their critics.
Above all, they remind us that irrespective of our differences, of who we are, where we come from, what we have done - there is a basic level of respect and treatment that we are entitled to simply because we are human.
So I think it is about time for a concerted campaign to underline the importance of human rights, to rehabilitate them if you like, to show how they make the dignity and equality which we would all support a reality rather than just a pious aspiration.
It is a challenge which, if Eleanor Roosevelt was still with us today, I have no doubt at all she would be the first to take up.

I can assure you that, following the honour you have granted me today, it is a challenge I am determined to continue to address.

Thank you.