By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a U.S. human rights agenda on Monday calling for universal standards that apply to all nations, prompting rights groups to urge the administration to live up to its rhetoric.
Just days after President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while defending the concept of a just war, Clinton outlined a human rights policy calling for people to be free from tyranny but also free to "seize the opportunities of a full life."
Human rights experts said the speech was important, coming at a time when the Obama administration's message on human rights had become increasingly muddied but they said the proof would be in the administration's actions.
Clinton angered rights groups in February when she said U.S. concerns about human rights in China would not disrupt financial or other diplomatic relations with Beijing.
An op-ed piece in The Washington Post sharply criticized the administration on Sunday, saying that "from China to Sudan, from Burma to Iran, a president lauded for his commitment to peace has dialed down a U.S. commitment to human rights."
Clinton, in her speech at Georgetown University, outlined a pragmatic approach toward human rights that would press for democratic principles and development but be flexible in the methods it used to pursue the policy.
"This administration, like others before us, will promote, support and defend democracy," she said. "Democracy has proven the best political system for making human rights a reality over the long term."
Clinton said a commitment to human rights started with universal principles. She noted that Obama wanted Guantanamo prison closed and had issued an executive order his second day in office prohibiting the use of torture by any U.S. official.
She said the United States would report next year on human trafficking both at home and abroad, and would participate in a U.N. review of "our own human rights record, just as we encourage other nations to do."
Rights experts welcomed the address, but said the administration must follow through.
"It goes a long way to laying out a vision of where human rights sits in the Obama administration," said Sarah Mendelson, head of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
She said Clinton's discussion of the United States' own compliance with human rights principles was a philosophical shift from the Bush administration.
"By placing our own human rights record as fundamental ... that is really, I think for a lot of us, very critical, very important," Mendelson said.
Amnesty International said Clinton "rightly identifies accountability as the centerpiece of any successful human rights agenda for the United States."
"But if the administration means what it says, then it needs to follow through and back up rhetoric with action. Discussion of human rights can't be an empty rebranding exercise."
Clinton said the administration's approach to pursuing its rights agenda would be "pragmatic and agile," upholding its principles but "doing what is most likely to make them real."
"When old approaches aren't working, we won't be afraid to attempt new ones," Clinton said, pointing to the recent U.S. efforts at engaging the military-led government in Myanmar after years of trying to isolate it.
She said the United States would approach major powers like China and Russia with "principled pragmatism," recognizing that cooperation is critical to the global economy and for dealing with security issues like North Korea's nuclear program.
In both countries, she said, the United States would engage with the government as well as individuals or groups that are working to advance human rights and democracy.
"We support change driven by citizens and their communities," Clinton said. "The project of making human rights a human reality cannot be just a project for governments. It requires cooperation among individuals and organizations."
(Editing by Eric Beech)