Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986

Author: Ronald W. Reagan  | Date: December 10, 1986

Remarks on Signing the Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights Day, and Human Rights Week Proclamation
December 10, 1986

The President. Today we renew our allegiance to those human rights which all free men cherish and which we Americans, in particular, hold so dear. It’s love of freedom that binds a people who are so richly diverse. It unites us in purpose, and it makes us one nation. At birth, our country was christened with a declaration that spoke of self-evident truths, the foremost of which was that each and every individual is endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. And our creed as Americans is that these rights—these human rights—are the property of every man, woman, and child on this planet and that a violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere.

When talking about human rights, we’re not referring to abstract theory or ungrounded philosophy. Jefferson, who penned our great Declaration of Independence, years later wrote: "Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of the person under the protection of habeas corpus and trial by juries impartially selected-these principles form the bright constellation which has guided our steps through an age of revolution and transformation." Well, our country does not have an unblemished record. We’ve had to overcome our shortcomings and ensure equal justice for all. And yet we can be proud that respect for the rights of the individual has been an essential element, a basic principle, if you will, of American Government.

It was 195 years ago this coming Monday, on December 15, 1791, that our forefathers put legal force behind their ideals when they ratified the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to our Constitution. Our forefathers knew that they were writing the first lines of a new chapter in human history. Another page in that same chapter was written 38 years ago today when the General Assembly of the United States [United Nations] adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document, a triumph for the higher aspirations of mankind, is but words on paper unless we’re willing to act to see that it is taken seriously. We owe it to ourselves and to those who sacrificed so much for our liberty to keep America in the forefront of this battle. Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, once said, "Our defence is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own front door."

And how fares human rights on this day’? Well, there are many encouraging signs. Less than a decade ago, democracy seemed in retreat. Communism, which has turned the suppression of human rights into a science, was on the move. Military regimes and authoritarian dictators held power in much of the non-Communist world. A traumatized United States was overwhelmed by self-doubt and uncertainty. Our optimism today flows from renewed confidence in our principles and from the trend of history which is now clearly on the side of the free. Since the beginning of the decade, we have witnessed one of the greatest expansions of democracy on record. Latin America, once the bastion of the caudillo, the Latin strongman, is now, for the most part, democratic territory. Ninety percent of the people live in countries that have returned or are in the process of returning to democratic rule. I’ve always felt that the Americas, placed as they are between the two great oceans, were put here to be found by people with a special love of freedom. Democracy and human rights are the birthright of all Americans. We should not be satisfied until every country in this hemisphere is free and living at peace with one another. Incidentally, when I said all Americans, I’m speaking of all of the people from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America to the North Pole. We are all Americans.

Indeed, we’ve learned through painful experiences that respect for human rights is essential to peace and, ultimately, to our own freedom. A government which doesnot respect the rights of its own people and laws is unlikely to respect those of its neighbors. In this century democratic governments have not started wars. Our confidence today also comes from the realization that the mystique of communism has, at long last, been shattered. Young intellectuals can no longer be seduced by a philosophy that has so blatantly and demonstrably failed. The only thing produced in abundance by Marxism-Leninism has been deprivation and tyranny. From Ethiopia to Cuba, from the Soviet Union itself—which is beginning to fall even further behind the Western democracies—to Vietnam, throughout the Communist world, the cupboards are empty, and the jails are full. This is the natural consequence of a fatally flawed philosophy. The other day, someone told me the difference between a democracy and a peoples democracy. It’s the same difference between a jacket and straightjacket. [Laughter]

We’re honored this morning to have with us Mr. Yuriy Orlov and Mr. Natan Shcharanskiy, who, along with other brave individuals, took it upon themselves to monitor Soviet compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki awards [accords]. Mr. Orlov, Mr. Shcharanskiy, and their colleagues, people of extraordinary moral courage, have suffered—many are even now in labor camps or Siberian exile—for the ideals that we proclaim today. Mr. Anatoly Marchenko, who we are saddened to hear recently died while in prison, was a martyr for the cause of human rights. The Soviet Union, along with 34 other European and North American nations, freely signed the Helsinki accords 11 years ago. Mr. Orlov and Mr. Sheharanskiy, I can promise you, Mr. Marchenko and so many others have not died in vain. The United States intends to hold the Soviet Union to the human rights commitments it made at Helsinki.

The Soviet Government, despite a few gestures this year—gestures that reflect posturing more than flexibility—continues its systematic violation of human rights. The new Soviet emigration law, for example, purports to case restrictions. Yet for far too many the opposite is true. The restriction of emigration, the suppression of dissent, the lengthy separation of families and spouses, the continued imprisonment of religious activists in Ukraine and throughout the Soviet Union are the orders of the day. These realities remain unacceptable, and we will continue to do our utmost to press for change and to bring our moral and diplomatic weight to bear on behalf of those brave souls who speak out within the Soviet bloc. We and our allies are, for example, doing this at the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is now taking place in Vienna.

Also with us this morning is Armando Valladares, a remarkable Cuban poet. His heartrending ordeal in Castro’s gulag—detailed in his book "Against All Hope"—is an outrage against civilization. Even more outrageous, the horrors and sadism Mr. Valladares endured are not unique, not some freak accident, but intentional government policy which continues to this day. Many others suffered and continue to suffer the same grotesque brutality. Also with us is Senor Ramon Grau Aleina, who arrived in our country less than 3 months ago, after 21 years of imprisonment in Cuba. His crime: helping parents arrange to get their children to safety before the Castro regime was able to fully grab power. And recently, the Castro regime smashed a tiny, domestic human rights group with an iron fist. All of its members have been imprisoned except one. Its leader, Dr. Ricardo Bofill Pages, has sought asylum in the French Embassy in Havana.

What happened in Cuba is now happening in Nicaragua. An unmistakable pattern: repression, attacks on the church, the closing down of newspapers, the destruction of independent unions, and the construction of concentration camps and prisons on a scale never imagined. The Sandinista regime has repeatedly hampered the Organization of American States attempts to investigate charges of human rights violations. A short time ago a message was smuggled out of a Sandinista prison which revealed stories not dissimilar to those of Mr. Valladares.

The violation of human rights, whether in Kampuchea or Paraguay, Afghanistan or North Korea, whether it be the murder of Baha’is in Iran or the repression of ethnicTurks in Bulgaria, is the rightful cause of all free peoples. We remain deeply concerned, for example, about the denial of human rights in Africa. The system of apartheid and the state of emergency in South Africa are unconscionable and must be ended. The brutality and repression in Ethiopia, Angola, or any other repressive African regime are of no less concern.

Whatever the regime, if progress is to be made, it will require not only support from governments but the active commitment of citizens, individuals unhampered in their humanitarian activities by politics or affairs of state. I’ve always been an advocate of this kind of personal involvement, knowing that energetic, dedicated individuals inside and outside the government are essential to solving problems. Amnesty International, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, has always sought to mobilize the world, government officials and private citizens, on behalf of political prisoners and in defense of human rights. One of that organization’s guiding spirits, Ginetta Sagan, who is with us today, has been a vital force for decency, humanity, and freedom throughout the world in these last three decades. Unlike so many others who opposed the Vietnam war, for example, Ginetta did not look the other way once the Communists assumed power. She has made serious efforts to call the Government of Vietnam to task for their massive violations of human rights. In Chile, Poland, and so many other countries, this woman has saved lives and championed the cause. Ginetta, would you stand? You are the kind of hero every American can be proud of. Thank you for all you’ve done.
Ms. Sagan. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. You know, she doesn’t want me to tell you this, but I know a little about her that I think you should know. During the latter days of the Second World War, Ginetta was a courier for the resistance forces in Italy and in February 1945 was captured. She knows firsthand the suffering, the torture, the despair of those imprisoned by despots. Her tormentors, Fascist secret police, tried to break her body and her spirit. They told her no one knew she was alive, that she was utterly alone, isolated. At the darkest moment of her ordeal, a guard kicked open the door of her interrogation cell and threw in a small round loaf of bread. Inside that loaf she found a matchbox that contained a tiny piece of paper on which was written one word: Courage.

Today that’s our job, our duty. America must continue to be a beacon of hope, sending this message to the oppressed of all nations. Those who suffer for freedom are not alone. We think of them, and we are with them. And that’s what Human Rights Day is all about. I want to thank each and every one of you for what you’re doing to further this cause. Now, I thank you, and God bless you. And I understand it’s time for me to sign the proclamation.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. Following the ceremony, the President met privately with Natan Shcharanskiy in the Oval Office.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Ronald W. Reagan, "Remarks on Signing the Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights Day, and Human Rights Week Proclamation," Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986 in Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), P.1659 1617–1618. Original Sources, accessed November 28, 2023,

MLA: Reagan, Ronald W. "Remarks on Signing the Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights Day, and Human Rights Week Proclamation." Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986, in Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), P.1659, pp. 1617–1618. Original Sources. 28 Nov. 2023.

Harvard: Reagan, RW, 'Remarks on Signing the Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights Day, and Human Rights Week Proclamation' in Public Papers of Ronald Reagan, 1986. cited in , Federal Register Division. National Archives and Records Service, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Ronald Reagan, 1986 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1956-), P.1659, pp.1617–1618. Original Sources, retrieved 28 November 2023, from