And, even as we reinforce successes, conscience demands that we are not cowed by the overwhelming difficulty of making inroads against misery in the hard places like Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, or on the hard issues like ending gender inequality and discrimination against gays and lesbians---from the Middle East to Latin America, Africa to Asia.

We must continue to press for solutions in Sudan where ongoing tensions threaten to add to the devastation wrought by genocide in Darfur and an overwhelming refugee crisis. We will continue to identify ways to work with partners to enhance human security there while at the same time focusing greater attention on efforts to prevent genocide elsewhere.

As I said in Beijing in 1995 “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights” but that ideal is far from being realized in Goma, the last stop I made in the Democratic Republic of Congo in August, and the epicenter of one of the most violent and chaotic regions on earth. When I was there, I met with victims of horrific gender and sexual violence and refugees driven from their homes by the many military forces operating there. I also heard from those working to end the conflicts and to protect the victims in unfathomably dire conditions. I saw the best and worst of humanity in a single day in Goma: the unspeakable acts of violence that have left women physically and emotionally brutalized, and the heroism of the women and men themselves, and of the doctors, nurses and volunteers working to repair their bodies and their spirits.

They are on the front lines of the struggle for human rights. Seeing firsthand the courage and tenacity of these Congolese people – and the internal fortitude that keeps them going – is humbling, and it inspires me to keep working.

These four aspects of our approach—accountability, principled pragmatism, partnering from the bottom up, and keeping a wide focus where rights are at stake—will help build a foundation that enables people to stand and rise above poverty, hunger, and disease and that secures their rights under democratic governance. We must lift the ceiling of oppression, corruption, and violence. And we must light a fire of human potential through access to education and economic opportunity.

Build the foundation, lift the ceiling, and light the fire. All together. All at once. Because when a person has food and education but not the freedom to discuss and debate with fellow citizens—he is denied a life he deserves. And when a person is too hungry or sick to work or vote or worship, she is denied a life she deserves. Freedom doesn’t come in half measures, and partial remedies cannot redress the whole problem.

Now, the champions of human potential have never had it easy. We may call rights inalienable, but making them so has always been hard work. And no matter how clearly we see our ideals, taking action to make them real requires tough choices. Even if everyone agrees that we should do whatever is most likely to improve the lives of people on the ground, we won’t agree on what course of action fits that description in every case. That is the nature of governing.

We all know examples of good intentions that did not produce results. And we can learn from instances in which we have fallen short. Past failures are proof of how difficult progress is, but we do not accept claims that progress is impossible.

Because progress does happen. Ghana emerged from an era of coups to one of stable democratic governance. Indonesia moved from repressive rule to a dynamic democracy that is Islamic and secular. Chile exchanged dictatorship for democracy and an open economy.

Mongolia’s constitutional reforms successfully ushered in multiparty democracy without violence. And there is no better example than the progress made in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, an event I was proud to help celebrate last month at the Brandenburg Gate.

While the work in front of us is vast, we face the future together with partners on every continent, partners in faith-based organizations, NGOs, and socially-responsible corporations, and partners in government. From India—the world’s largest democracy, and one that continues to use democratic processes and principles to perfect its union of over 1.1 billion people—to Botswana where the new president in Africa’s oldest democracy has promised to govern according to what he calls the “5 D’s”—democracy, dignity, development, discipline, and delivery, providing a recipe for responsible governance that contrasts starkly with the unnecessary and man-made tragedy in neighboring Zimbabwe.

In the end, this isn’t just about what we do; it’s about who we are. And we cannot be the people we are — people who believe in human rights—if we opt out of this fight. Believing in human rights means committing ourselves to action. When we sign up for the promise of rights that apply everywhere, to everyone, the promise of rights that protect and enable human dignity, we also sign up for the hard work of making that promise a reality.

Tags: World