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WSJ Op-ed: U.S. Must Stand for Human Rights by Jimmy Carter

This op-ed by Jimmy Carter was published in The Wall Street Journal.

The only title higher and more powerful than that of president is the title of citizen.

We Americans are in the midst of a political transition that is reassuring in its constitutional orderliness even as it is fraught with uncertainty about what comes next. Just as each new U.S. president does, we, as citizens, should use this moment to remember the values that have defined us as a great nation.

Our 50 states have been united by a belief in equality and human rights for all—regardless of race, religion or economic advantage. It’s a lodestar that freedom-seekers the world over have followed for more than two centuries.

Our pursuit of a more perfect union has followed an imperfect path. The U.S. was born in slavery, a national sin whose penance was bloodshed and divisions that continue to this day. We denied women and minorities the right to vote; we murdered indigenous peoples and drove them from their ancestral lands; and we rounded up and imprisoned our own citizens because they shared an ethnic heritage with our enemy in war.

In recent years, we invaded a country that did not attack us and sacrificed individual rights on the altar of national security by committing torture and carrying out remote-control killings in foreign lands. And we have largely abandoned many brave people sitting in prison or otherwise persecuted for fighting for freedom and human rights in their own countries.

Saturday is Human Rights Day, commemorating the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. I have observed previously that America did not invent human rights, but in a very real sense human rights invented America. Ours was the first nation to be founded on the idea that all are created equal and all deserve equal treatment under the law. Despite our missteps and shortcomings, these ideals still inspire hope among the oppressed and give us pride in being Americans.

We must be vigilant to preserve our foundational values both in our policies at home and in our conduct abroad. We must always seek to protect the rights of racial and religious minorities. We must guarantee women equal access to leadership and protection under the law, self-determination, and earning power.

We must embrace everyone’s right to engage in debate and to criticize political leaders, and the right of the press to report and investigate public affairs. We must ensure that government serves all the people and not any individual or private interest; we must guard against the unnecessary or excessive use of American military might abroad and expect the police who protect our citizens at home to use force as a last resort. We must reverse environmental degradation that threatens our grandchildren’s prospects on this planet.

In our democracy, the only title higher and more powerful than that of president is the title of citizen. It is every citizen’s right and duty to help shape the future legacy of our nation. We must never abandon our principles; the U.S. must always stand for human rights both within our borders and beyond.

If we do this, we can face the future with confidence and optimism that the U.S. will continue to be the great nation we are blessed to call our own.

Mr. Carter, founder of the nonprofit Carter Center, was the 39th president of the U.S.

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