Remarks at a White House Briefing for Human Rights Supporters


December 3, 1987


Thank you, and I appreciate all of you being here. You represent groups that have a keen interest in the discussions that will be taking place during the upcoming visit of General Secretary Gorbachev. And I'm happy to have this opportunity to confirm to you that, although we're making a serious effort to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, we will not do it by compromising our national interests or diminishing our commitment to the universality of human rights.


Our dedication to liberty and justice for all is not negotiable, not to this generation or not to any generation of Americans. This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution, which of course contains not just an organizational structure for the Federal Government but also the Bill of Rights. The structure divides power so that no person or group can be so powerful that they can trample on the rights of the people. And I think it's interesting to note that the reason the Bill of Rights was added to the document was that some believed the Constitution might not have been ratified otherwise. Such was our forefathers' devotion to liberty.


The United States declared its independence with a document that proclaimed rights to be inalienable gifts from God, not just those who could make it to our shores but to all people, everywhere. Ben Franklin, the grand old man of the Revolution, once said: ``God, grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the Earth so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say, `This is my country.'''


Well, 200 years later liberty has not spread as wide as Franklin would have wished but, consistent with his vision, is a spirit of solidarity that exists between the free peoples of the world. We see the violation of anyone's human rights, acts of repression or brutality, as attacks on civilization itself. The United States, as the most powerful of the free nations, is looked to for leadership by those who live in freedom and as a mighty source of hope to those who languish under tyranny. This is a weighty responsibility that no American, especially a President, can take lightly.


In my upcoming meetings, I know that sitting next to me will be unseen guests, men and women whose only hope is that they're not forgotten here in the West: dissidents who are inhumanely committed to mental institutions, often subdued with mind-altering drugs; Soviet Jews, Armenians, Germans, and others who have applied to emigrate and have endured incredible hardships as a result; divided families and spouses who are cruelly separated from their loved ones. These people are not now, nor will they ever be, forgotten by our administration. Well, let me assure you and, through you, all those whose cause you champion, we deeply care about the well-being of these unseen guests, and their presence will be felt throughout my summit discussions. The goal of this visit and any subsequent visits is not simply arms reduction. Certainly, that's one priority, yet it remains on a par with solving certain bilateral issues: ending regional conflicts and of course improving human rights.


It wasn't long ago that a story was making the rounds in the Soviet underground about the dissident who was condemned by the Soviet judge to a Siberian work camp. ``The sentence is too light,'' the dissident protested. ``What do you mean?'' asked the judge. ``Well, if America is so bad, why don't you send me there?'' [Laughter] Seriously though, much has been said about glasnost and reforms in the Soviet Union, and there does seem to have been modest progress. Soviet officials not that long ago refused to discuss human rights, claiming it was their internal affair. General Secretary Gorbachev even told a French newsman shortly after the Geneva summit that there were no political prisoners in the Soviet Union.


Well, today our discussions on this issue are wide-ranging, and human rights is accepted as an integral component of our bilateral discussions. In the last 2 years we've witnessed a loosening of the grip. Over 200 political prisoners have been released from the gulag. There's a higher rate of emigration. Some long-divided families have been reunited. There has even been a relaxing of some of the controls on freedom of expression. Earlier this year, for example, there were demonstrations in the Baltic nations on the anniversaries of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the day marking the beginning of the Soviet occupation in 1940. The fact that these protests were permitted at all was heartening.


The free people of the West are watching to see if the emigration doors, now cracked, will continue to open. And inside we wait and pray for believers, people of every creed. All prisoners of faith have not been released, and clearly religious freedom is still an aspiration yet to be achieved. We care about people whose human rights are violated and who are abused or imprisoned in every country. We care of what they symbolize and because they're human beings. And we're outraged at the way they're being treated.


George Bernard Shaw once wrote: ``The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them: That is the essence of inhumanity.'' Well, today, we're pleased with any releases, any unification of separated families, any lessening of the iron grip on the freedoms of expression and religion. But we will not be indifferent to those who are left behind, and we will not be lulled into ignoring the fact that the apparatus of the state repression remains intact in the Soviet Union. The real joy will come, and trust between East and West will flourish, not only when prisoners are released but when the instruments of repression are dismantled and repressive laws and practices are abolished.


Early in this century, President Teddy Roosevelt said: ``. . . for the world has set its face hopefully toward our democracy; and, O my fellow citizens, each one of you carries on your shoulders not only the burden of doing well for the sake of your own country but the burden of doing well and seeing that this nation does well for the sake of mankind . . .'' So, it's not just up to any one government official: It's up to all of us. I'd like to thank each of you for participating in this discussion and the exchange of ideas with members of the administration in preparation for the upcoming summit. We need your involvement, your continued support, and your stalwart commitment to our country's ideals.


Now, I thank you for all you're doing. God bless you all. And now, I'd like to turn over this meeting to Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead. Thank you again.


Note:  The President spoke at 10:10 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.