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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Harold Hongju Koh, Assistant Secretary
for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Remarks, Washington Area Yale Law School Alumni Association
Washington, DC, July 20, 1999
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From Ivory Tower to Foggy Bottom

Thank you Tony, for that tremendous introduction. I am tempted to simply sit down and submit on the oral argument of the Dean.

Let me start with the obvious: what an incredible pleasure it is to be here with so many others whose moral and intellectual universes have been shaped by Yale Law School! I know it sounds corny, but as the years go by--and next year will mark my 15th year of affiliation with the Law School--I become increasingly convinced that there really is something about Yale Law School that makes it more than special, that makes it unique, that sets it apart from the many other fine places where one might study, graduate from, or proclaim loyalty to. I don't know what it is, exactly, but clearly, it's more than just the pizza!

It's more than just the fact that we have as graduates in this town the President; the First Lady; the just-departed Treasury Secretary; the last three Solicitor Generals; a raft of federal judges, including several who are here tonight; and a slew of Assistant Secretaries like me.

It's more than just the fact that, since I've been at Yale Law School, we have always had a Dean who sounds so much warmer, who speaks so much more passionately and articulately about the law, who just looks so much better than any other figure in legal education. So Tony: As you start your second term, let me say, you look marvelous! Let me wish you not just Godspeed, but thanks from the bottom of my heart for all the friendship and support you've shown in letting me spend this time away from New Haven.

In my personal odyssey over the last 8 months, from ivory tower to Foggy Bottom, it's become clear to me that no other institution matches Yale Law School when it comes to producing thoughtful, committed graduates who see law and public policy as hopeful tools for shaping and promoting of the public good, whether they work for the state or federal government, for an NGO, or for a private firm or organization. Just looking out over this audience tonight I see any number of Yale graduates who have made particularly outstanding contributions to human rights: Judge Pat Wald, who is leaving a brilliant career on the DC Circuit to move on to new challenges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Judge Lou Oberdorfer and Judge Stanley Sporkin, both of whom gave so much to public service before they took to the federal bench; and our own Pulitzer Prize winner, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times.

In the course of my daily work at the State Department, for instance, I meet, talk to, and work with literally dozens of phenomenally impressive Yale Law School graduates, many of whom are here tonight. So many of you began as my students, and have now become my cherished colleagues. Talking to a friend from Yale Law School is almost always the highlight of my hectic day, in no small part because the Yale people are the only ones who still treat me with respect! In the conversations with the Yale Law graduates I know there is always that special moment of warmth, of fellow feeling, of a common commitment to intellectual openness and adventurism that I treasure. As most of you know, it was Yale Law School, and the students and colleagues I met there, that launched my own human rights career more than 8years ago, with the founding of the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and the beginning of the Haitian refugee litigation.

It has been an amazing transition from there to the world in which I now live: a world of bureaucratic head-butting and government acronyms. Instead of speaking of "hermeneutics" and "deconstruction," I now speak entire paragraphs composed of acronyms. At the Department of State or DOS, I now head the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, or "DRL." My daily challenge is how to move from OOB to COB without being OBE. On occasion, I travel with the POTUS--President of the United States--; I occasionally talk to the FLOTUS; and of course, my wife and kids now refer to themselves as WASOTUS, DASOTUS, and SASOTUS which of course means Wife, Daughter, and Son of the Assistant Secretary of the United States. At the State Department, two members of my first small group-- Peter Bass and Jim O'Brien--have now reached the exalted position of Deputy Assistant Secretary, DAS or "D-A-S". My own greatest challenge is trying to keep my staff from referring to me, the Assistant Secretary, as, well you see the issue.

Since I was sworn in last November, I have visited nearly 25 different countries--last week alone, I visited England, Austria, Albania, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Korea. I have had an extraordinary opportunity to work with President Clinton and Secretary Albright in developing and implementing human rights policy for this last phase of the Clinton administration. I have met with foreign officials from dozens of countries, and I met with scores of human rights advocates and victims of human rights abuses. For me these experiences have been inspiring and rewarding, even as, they have been both extraordinarily painful and deeply humbling.

To those of you who have become used to watching refugees on TV or reading about them in the paper, let me assure you that the human suffering we read about is all too real. It is so real. In the past 8 months, I have spoken to victims of human rights abuses from Beijing to Belgrade, from Colombia to Kosovo--real people, with names, faces, families and histories--all with their own hopes, their own griefs, and their own stories. The weight of all this suffering is very heavy, but at the same time, the sheer resilience and courage of human beings is awe-inspiring. I just got back from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Just a month ago, Pristina was a ghost town: most of the ethnic Albanians had either fled out of fear of Serb atrocities, or had gone underground, and some--too many--had been killed.

But last week, as I walked down the streets of Pristina, refugees were reopening restaurants, drinking coffee in streetside cafes, publishing newspapers, and reopening radio stations, just a short distance from bullet-riddled buildings and burned-out homes.

Looking at the scene, with UN jeeps honking, street merchants calling out, and children laughing and playing, I was amazed again at the absolute indomitability of the human spirit, the courage and hope that drives us all, even after unspeakable horrors, to try to rebuild our lives from the ashes. When I shared my sense of amazement with a Kosovar political activist, she smiled, and said: "Many of our homes are destroyed, many of our people are killed. But now, we can sleep calmly, and in freedom. I would happily sleep on stones, "she said," if only I can sleep calmly and in freedom."

With Kosovo still filling my head, let me reflect, for a moment, on the changes the international human rights arena has seen over the past five decades, and the challenges that still lie ahead. First, let me regress momentarily from bureaucrat to pedant by saying a few words about how what I call "the human rights paradigm" has evolved over the past 50 years. Second, let me suggest how our government ought to respond to the human rights challenges we now face at the end of the millennium--what we might call "the human rights Y2K problem"--and ask for your help in dealing with those challenges.

In the last 50 years, I think the human rights paradigm has evolved through four overlapping, but identifiable, phases. First, in the late forties and early fifties, in the wake of the Holocaust, the paradigmatic human rights violation was seen as genocide. To prevent future genocides, global human rights policy focused on: accountability--as we saw at the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals; on standard-setting, through legal texts like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR; and on institution-building, with the development of a network of intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN.

In the second phase, the human rights paradigm shifted to reflect Cold War realities, and the focal point of global concern shifted to political dissidents and prisoners of conscience. We can think about this as the Amnesty-Sharansky period, where response mechanisms began to focus more insistently upon human rights monitoring and advocacy, and coalition building to achieve effective advocacy. It was in this second phase that we began to see the dramatic growth of nongovernmental organizations.

A third phase began roughly with the end of the Cold War in the late 80s. As ideology became a less salient factor in global affairs, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that we had reached "the end of history." He was wrong, of course, both in a temporal sense and in a Hegelian sense: the focal point simply shifted again, and in addition to ideological repression we began to see ethnic and religious struggles, a horrific renewal of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, and massive refugee outflows in the first part of this decade. In response the search for solutions turned towards; questions of preventive diplomacy; diplomacy backed by force, humanitarian intervention and the development of transnational networks of governments; intergovernmental organizations; NGOs; and what I have called in my academic work "transnational norm entrepreneurs" like Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, who have used their stature to bring the message of human rights to an ever-larger audience around the world.

Today, we have entered what I would call the fourth phase of the human rights paradigm: a very complex era in which all of the elements that I have described earlier are simultaneously present. We live in a world where the threat of genocide has not been dispelled, in which dissidents remain imprisoned, and in which ethnic and group conflict continues to rage and expand. We now have a multifaceted and often unwieldy response mechanism that involves transnational networks, as well as new tools of accountability, standard setting, monitoring, advocacy, and preventive diplomacy: diplomacy backed by force, and where necessary, force backed by diplomacy.

In this fourth phase, we face three salient challenges: the challenge of globalization, the challenge of non-state actors, and the challenge of self-governance and democracy. It is commonplace, of course, to say that we stand in an era of global integration. Today, states are engaging with each other in a growing range of activities that transcend national borders. You all see it daily: with increasing capital mobility and rapid changes in communications, we are moving from a hierarchical, vertical model of state authority to a non-hierarchical, multi-directional network model. It is a favorite expression of computer programmers that information wants to be free-and increasingly, it is.

For instance, human rights workers can no longer be easily prevented from bringing information out of repressive countries, because today they can use faxes and email. And the promulgation of universal human rights standards through global contacts and the internet allows people all over the world to speak with one another in the language of rights.

A second challenge is the role of non-state actors. Multinational corporations, financial institutions, NGOs, labor unions, indigenous and ethnic groups, and transnational moral organizations such as organized religious groups all now represent critical nodes on a network of influence in human rights that rivals and at times dwarfs the power of individual states. Sometimes this has been to the good, but sometimes not; a key difficulty we now face is how to hold these non-state actors accountable in the human rights struggle as well as how to enlist them in the struggle.

The third and perhaps most critical challenge we face at the millennium is the challenge of self-governance and democracy. Around the world, we are witnessing an explosion of popular movements for independence and democracy. From Turkey to Taiwan, from Kosovo to East Timor, groups are demanding the right to determine their own future. The great difficulty facing policymakers is how to guide such movements away from the temptations of violence, separatism, and ethnic cleansing, and toward the promise of greater autonomy within a framework of democracy and human rights.

Well, if these are our challenges--globalization, non-state actors, and self-governance and democracy-- what should be our response? What principles must guide U.S. human rights policy into the next century?

The first, simplest, and most important principle, I think, is to tell the truth about human rights conditions. This is something that I ask everyone in my bureau to do every day: in our asylum profiles, in our investigations, in our country reports, in our monitoring. Only if we tell it like it is, this can all the players in this human rights drama make informed judgments and sound policies worldwide.

A second basic principle is that we take consistent positions with regard to past, present, and future abuses. With regard to past abuses, we must try persistently to promote the principles of accountability. To stop ongoing abuses, we must use an "inside-outside" approach that combines strategies of internal persuasion with tools of external sanction. To prevent future abuses, we must promote the principles of early warning, and preventive diplomacy. Third: we must also continue to articulate and defend fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly those freedoms that are fundamental to the creation and maintenance of a healthy human rights culture. A central focus of my Bureau's work over the next few years will be to bring to the core of our advocacy and protection efforts freedom of thought, conscience and religion; worker rights; the rights of women, and economic, social, and cultural rights.

Fourth and finally: we must recognize that no government can promote human rights alone; we are all Judges, executive branch officials, legislatures, intergovernmental organizations, private actors, and NGOs--all of us here--members of a global human rights community that now extends beyond public and private lines, that now crosses national and institutional lines.

To make this more concrete, let me explain how my Bureau is trying to combine these principles in our policies and programs regarding Kosovo. As you can imagine, the region presents an incredibly complicated set of human rights and democratization challenges. Since the spring, hundreds of thousands of Kosovars fled their homes with their identity documents destroyed. The physical infrastructure of parts of the region has been devastated, with no safe water or electricity in many areas, and landmines placed by Serb forces still pose a grave hazard to civilians-- perhaps especially to children. Until a few weeks ago, Kosovo had no functioning police department, criminal justice system, or system of civil administration.

Obviously, my bureau cannot address all of these issues. But we are doing all that we can to address those issues that intersect most directly with human rights and democratization. In keeping with our goal of truth telling, we are working with NGOs and intergovernmental organizations to document and make known to the world the atrocities that occurred in Kosovo over the past months. In May, we produced a report called "Erasing History: Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo," which detailed some of these atrocities; in September, we will release a second, follow-up volume. In this context, truth-telling promotes accountability in some very concrete ways: our reporting has been used by KFOR as the framework for their analysis of war crimes, and we have worked closely with the State Department's office of War Crimes Issues and investigators for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to help facilitate their investigative efforts.

We're also doing all that we can, in Kosovo, to reverse the reversible aspects of the ethnic cleansing that occurred over the past months. Specifically, we're working hard to re-establish a civil registry, since so many Kosovars had their identity documents confiscated or destroyed. By reestablishing a civil registry, we can help lay a foundation both for future elections and for other efforts aimed at restoring the rule of law. Similarly, we're working with the International Commission on Missing Persons to learn the fate of the estimated 20,000 Kosovars who still have not been accounted for.

In addition to trying to remedy and promote accountability for past abuses, we are creating the mechanisms necessary to address present and future abuses. We are pushing for the rapid introduction of trained human rights monitors into Kosovo, and for the prompt appointment of a strong human rights ombudsman by the UN Mission in Kosovo. Perhaps even more critical, in the long run, we hope to work with other organizations to promote the rule of law. We are working to help to establish a school to train magistrates and judges, to develop a network of international lawyers to support Kosovo's new judicial officials, and to ensure that arrests, prosecutions and any other judicial proceedings comport fully with international human rights standards.

Finally, we want to help rebuild a vibrant civil society that respects and promotes fundamental human rights and freedoms. We hope to establish a local media council to help coordinate international efforts to support local media outlets. We will also encourage the formation of indigenous human rights NGOs, and, in particular, we will work to support NGOs that highlight issues of concern to women, children, and minorities.

Let me close by asking for your help. As I said a little while ago, one of the fundamental principles that guide our Bureau is that no government can work alone to promote human rights. In keeping with this principle, our Kosovo work involves coordination with many, many partners: other national governments, the UN, the OSCE, the NGO community-and thousands upon thousands of individuals, here and abroad, who are also dedicated to furthering human rights.

It isn't only that we should not try to work alone; we cannot work alone. There is too much to do, and, the human rights movement remains ludicrously under-resourced. This is true, sadly, at every level: NGOs struggle for funds and talented personnel, as do government agencies in this era of deficit control. But I can think of no group more talented and knowledgeable than the group represented here tonight. It is one of my deepest hopes that a network of talented, committed lawyers like yourselves can be created, to do pro bono legal work on these pressing human rights issues.

Let me give you an urgent example of the kind of help we need. It will take a long time to rebuild a fair and effective justice system in Kosovo, and we have to make the strongest start possible now, while energy and attention are focused on the region. Inevitably, however, resources will be limited, and the assistance of volunteers with legal expertise will be critical. It is my hope that we can develop a program through which lawyers can volunteer to go to Kosovo for short assignments, to teach mini-courses for Kosovar magistrates or defense lawyers-in-training, for instance.

The very real power of pro bono human rights activism can be see in the outstanding recent work of the American Bar Association's Coalition for International Justice. Their pro bono attorneys played a key role in interviewing Kosovar war crimes victims at the refugee center at Fort Dix, and those interviews now play a crucial part in U.S. efforts to provide the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague with concrete, well-documented evidence of war crimes in Kosovo.

Obviously, the Kosovo situation is still very much in flux. But in the coming weeks and months, as we develop a clearer sense of the needs on the ground, I would like to be able to call on your talent, your experience, your expertise, and most of all, your sense of commitment, hope and adventure-to help rebuild Kosovo and other places that desperately need people with a dedication to human rights and the rule of law.

These tasks that lie ahead of us are daunting, but I think that they are attainable. One of the ironies of this job is that as I have seen more misery, I have become more optimistic. When I was in Belgrade last December, I gave an interview to B92, which, as many of you know, was an independent radio station until it was shut down by the Milosevic regime. The interviewer was understandably demoralized by the repression of the media in Yugoslavia. She asked: "What can you say to us that can give us some ray of hope?" After a moment, I said: "Madeleine Albright was born in Czechoslovakia. Her family was twice exiled, first by fascism, then by communism. Now she is America's Secretary of State. My family came here from Korea, and was forced into political exile when a coup toppled a democratic government. Now I am the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights. And now, incredibly, both Korea and the Czech Republic are free. A lot can change in just one person's lifetime. So please don't give up hope." Perhaps there is no greater sign of that hope than the solemn oath that newly appointed judges in Kosovo-- any of who were in refugee camps only weeks ago, none take upon assuming office. They say: "I ..., do hereby solemnly swear that: In carrying out the functions of my office, I shall uphold at all times the law and act in accordance with the highest standards of professionalism and with utmost respect for the dignity of my office and the tasks with which I have been entrusted.

In carrying out the functions of my office, I shall uphold at all times the highest level of internationally recognized human rights. In carrying out the functions of my office, I shall ensure at all times that the enjoyment of these human rights shall be secured to all person in Kosovo without discrimination on any ground such as: sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status."

Shortly after I became Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I heard my son tell one of his friends that his Dad had become the Assistant Secretary for Truth Justice, and the American Way. On reflection, he was not so far off. In many respects, I feel like I am fighting for Truth Justice, and the Yale Law School Way. It gives me so more joy than I can say I know that so many of you, my friends from our very special home in New Haven, are in this fight with me, pushing the envelope, still trying to see just how much we can change in our own lifetimes.

It's great to be here. Thank you all very much for listening.

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