The last time Bill Clinton was at UConn, it was to dedicate the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on Oct. 15, 1995.
Yesterday, he returned to receive the seventh Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights, along with Tostan, an international human rights organization based in Senegal.
Along with being recognized for achievements in human rights, the prize, which is given out every other year, awards $50,000 to each recipient. This year, Clinton gave his share, which was to go to the Clinton Foundation, to Tostan, bringing them a total of $100,000 from the award’s endowment fund.
The Clinton Foundation works globally on healthcare, women’s rights, childhood obesity, economic growth and climate change, among other issues.
Tostan, according to its website, empowers “African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights. We believe that through this mission we can ensure every person—woman, man, girl, and boy—is able to live a life of dignity.”
Before the ceremony, members of Students for Hillary Clinton passed out stickers near the Jorgensen Center for Performing Arts, sometimes directly next to a group of students unaffiliated with any university organizations who were distributing leaflets detailing some ostensibly objectionable domestic policies of Bill Clinton’s while he was in office.
The Daily Campus also spoke with UConn President Susan Herbst beforehand, who expressed her excitement for the ceremony.
“I am most looking forward to celebrating the Dodd Center, because I think it’s one of the gems here at UConn, and it has inspired so many students to go on to either work in human rights, or major in human rights, and it’s something that’s unique, in the country, so I’m really proud of it,” Herbst said. “I was told that Duke [University] called us recently to find out about the human rights major and how that works, so I think that’s just one more piece of evidence of how we are a leader in this field.”
Duke University is Herbst’s alma mater. Upon the mention, she simply laughed and said, “We’re just shooting out ahead of them.”
Abby Katz, a first-semester marine science major, said she was happy UConn chose to honor Bill Clinton.
“Since he [Clinton] put work into developing the Dodd Center, I think it’s worth him coming back and receiving an award for all the work he’s done,” Katz said. “Both he and Hillary have done a lot of work over the past decade that’s notable, so I argue that it’s definitely an award he’s deserving of.”
The event began with Provost Mun Choi giving opening remarks, and pointing out the Dodd Center, and, by association, UConn, is at “the forefront of universal human rights.” Choi’s backdrop, along with the other speakers, was a time lapse with occasional still pictures, of members of the UConn community walking across the courtyard of the Dodd center.
Choi garnered applause when he said UConn has “the finest reputation of human rights in the United States.”
He added, “No other university in this country works as hard…in this area.”
Choi then introduced former Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd, the man who began the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, to honor his father.
Dodd touted Clinton’s domestic record, as well as his record abroad, mentioning how Clinton brought the Family and Medical Leave Act into law, how Clinton called for a permanent international criminal court, and how, overseas, “more than 10 million people have access to affordable AIDS and HIV medications.”
To conclude his remarks, Dodd told the Jorgensen audience of his close personal relationship to Bill Clinton, and invited the crowd to recognize the difference Clinton has made in the world.
Helena Foulkes, the Chair of the Dodd Center’s advisory board and the niece of Chris Dodd, spoke next, calling Hillary Clinton a “wise woman” for her early praise of Tostan and commending Tostan for their work in encouraging “the abandonment of female genital cutting and child forced marriage.”
The founder of Tostan, Molly Melching, spoke next. She talked about how the organization worked to educate Africans in preparation for leadership.
“The goal of the program was to create a model in working with communities in which they themselves were the center,” Melching said.
Melching also spoke to “the grassroots human rights revolution of 1996,” which was the new focus on efforts of African women empowerment, most notably through education, helping them gain governmental positions, and again battling the engrained practices of genital cutting and child marriage.
Since then, over 7,000 African communities “have announced their intention to end these harmful practices,” according to Melching.
Tostan and the Clintons began a productive relationship during Clinton’s presidency, Melching distinctly mentioned.
After a standing ovation from those in the Jorgensen, Foulkes came back onstage to introduce Bill Clinton. He joked about being old, before saying, “I want to thank the UConn family for welcoming us here.”
Clinton said that Tostan has been a member of the Clinton Global Initiative since 2007, and thanked Chris Dodd for his support.
Clinton’s speech, lasting over half-an-hour, was a meandering one. Although laden with musings and anecdotes, but continuously made his point clear: humans need to focus on commonalities, the basis for human rights.
The Human Genome Project, which the Clinton administration funded, found that humans are 99.5 percent the same genetically.
“Since the dawn of time…most human beings have spent 99.5 percent of their time thinking about the half percent of themselves that’s different,” Clinton said. “We want to identify who is them and who is us, and when we’re insecure we all want to return to home base to just be with us, and not with them.”
Clinton then paraded examples of changes for the common good that have occurred over the 20 years since he had come to UConn. For example, today, Vietnam is an American ally, because, in Clinton’s eyes, “they were convinced we came there based on a mistake of the mind, and not the heart.”
Clinton went on to profess his passion for human rights.
“My life has largely been focused, not just by design but also by circumstance, on trying to stop the abuses of human rights, and open the horizon of human possibilities,” Clinton said.
There is much work to be done, as Clinton said in his speech. ISIS is killing innocent people and there are oppressive governments around the world and terrorist groups in Africa serving as “blatant examples of abuses of human rights.”
But, Clinton added, “it’s important to remember that there are a lot of other things going on too,” and that “most of us who care about these things have to support places like the Dodd center…and other non-governmental efforts.”
The former President went into his human rights record of combating climate change, bringing medical supplies to countries in need, and fighting human trafficking. Much of his speech was a call to action.
“Every one of us, in some way or another, have a personal responsibility to…make as much good happen as possible, and not to be paralyzed by the fact that we cannot…solve every problem,” Clinton said. “If you have choices in your life, and you have the courage to live exactly the life you want, chances are you won’t want to go to war…chances are you’ll try to stop human trafficking, and if you don’t have those choices, the chances you become a victim or victimizer, go up.”
With some controversy over Clinton’s record coming up after the original announcement from UConn that he would be receiving their human rights award, he nodded obliquely to the questions raised, mentioning “opportunities I could’ve had and didn’t seize,” and saying “once you have the power to do something, you are saddled with the responsibility of your action or inaction, just like I will always be responsible for those that I did, and those that I didn’t do.”
To close his speech, Clinton humorously yet poignantly noted that, while people are prone to self-destruction (calling out global warming deniers and those who denied the horrific nature of the Nazi party until it was too late), “you live in a country that has never been perfect, but seems always to be stumbling in the right direction.”
“You all have the power to be soldiers for human rights. In the spirit of Thomas Dodd, his wonderful son…and that legacy, I urge you to use that power,” Clinton said as his closing remark, causing another standing ovation.
This previous Wednesday, the day before the ceremony, Bill Clinton attended a $1,000-per-ticket fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen’s home in West Hartford.
This is not the only Clinton UConn has hosted over the past three years. Hillary Clinton came for a $250,000 hour-long chat with President Herbst two years ago.
Some of the previously-mentioned policies that hurt Clinton’s human rights record include his zero tolerance crime bill, enacted into law in 1994, which caused mass incarceration in the United States of predominantly black men, and his decision not to assist Rwanda during a genocide in the country that resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 people.
Recently, Clinton has been regretful of his inaction in Rwanda and his support for the crime bill, the latter of which he showed remorse for at the annual meeting for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
While noting that Clinton was dissuaded from intervening in Rwanda by outside, international sources, and that he issued an apology to Rwanda after the fact, seventh-semester international relations and human rights double major Alexandra Mayer criticized Clinton’s handling of Rwanda.
“He refused to call Rwanda a genocide to the point that a reporter asked ‘how many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide,’ and his administration said it would be unconstitutional to block racist radio airwaves advocating slaughter because of free speech,” Mayer said. “There was another genocide in Eastern Europe before Kosovo he didn’t intervene in either.”
Haddiyyah Ali, a third-semester political science and Africana studies double major, was critical of Clinton’s domestic record in a recent interview for WNPR.
“If I had tickets to see him, I would ask him why he thinks it’s appropriate to tote our culture around and talk about how he was the 'first black president,' and he’s so down, and he put an entire generation of black men in jail, and has failed to ever fully acknowledge that,” Ali said.
Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.