New York City, New York
RICHARD N. HAASS: Good morning. I'm Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And I want to welcome all of you.
I want to thank you for your patience. And I want to make it clear, for the record, that the first lady departed Washington on time. And the responsibility for the delay clearly falls on air traffic control and traffic here in New York. One of the principles of the Bush administration is punctuality. And I want everyone to know, in no way was that principal compromised today.
I want to extend a special welcome to the first lady. We are honored to have you with us today.
Over the past eight years, Mrs. Bush has brought grace and graciousness to the White House. But also as befits someone who hails from Midland, Texas, she has also brought grit.
She has championed the cause of reading and literacy. She has cast much-needed light on the plight of girls and women, in Afghanistan, who have suffered so much under the Taliban. And she has criticized the government of Burma for its refusal to accept international help for its people.
It is no coincidence then that Mrs. Bush is here with us today, December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was then and is still extraordinary, both in what and in who it covers. At the same time, this declaration raises profound issues for this country and for those who lead it.
To say one supports human rights immediately raises the question of how much. Human rights are a real interest of our nation. But they are not the only national interest.
Promoting concern for human rights, at the same time the United States seeks cooperation from other governments, on foreign policy endeavors ranging from stemming the spread of nuclear materials and climate change to maintaining a functioning world economy, is often easier said than achieved.
There is as well the matter of how best to promote human rights. How much should be public? How much should be private? When is persuasion called for? And when is criticism?
When are political and economic sanctions warranted? And of course, there is the question of military force, of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. And all of this touches on the most basic elements of world order.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the same organization that is on record saying that nothing in its charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.
So balancing the rights of individuals with the sovereign protections of the state is one of the most complex and controversial matters in contemporary international relations. So for all these reasons and more, we are fortunate in having the first lady here today, to discuss issues tied to these important questions.
We are also fortunate in having Kitty Pilgrim of CNN to preside. Kitty, as all of you with cable will surely know, is a correspondent for CNN business news and appears regularly on "Lou Dobbs Tonight." She is also an experienced and award-winning journalist who's covered international stories ranging from Russia to Cuba to South Africa. And I am proud to say she is also a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Mrs. Bush will begin by making some opening remarks, and then she and Ms. Pilgrim will have a conversation, after which the meeting will be opened up for questions from our members.
We're starting a few minutes late, and I hope the schedule of everyone here will allow them to stay a few minutes late, because we don't want to in any way give the subjects today or our guests -- we don't want to cut back on the opportunity.
So with that, let me again welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations the first lady of the United States, Laura Bush.
FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH: Thank you very much, Mr. Haass. Appreciate it very much. And thanks to all of the members who are here, members of CFR who've come today.
This is my opportunity to use the 60th anniversary of the international declaration of human rights to talk about some things that I'm particularly interested in: the rights of women; and two countries that are of special interest to me, Afghanistan and Burma.
And I found it really interesting, when I was looking back on the signing or the adoption of the international declaration of human rights, that Afghanistan and Burma were both countries that were the original -- of the original 48 countries that signed the international declaration.
Today, as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we know that this document proclaims the rights that belong to every human being of every religion, race, class or gender. I've met thousands of women from many nations, and I've seen that women everywhere have the same dreams. They want to be educated. They want to raise their children in peace. They want to enjoy good health, to be prosperous, and to be heard.
In Afghanistan, women are working to overcome years of oppression to secure these basic rights. Since 2001, millions of Afghan voters have turned out for two democratic elections, and 40 percent of these voters were women. Women now make up 28 percent of Afghanistan's parliament. They're taking jobs in every sector, from journalism to the national police force. And today more than 6 million Afghan children, including almost 2 million girls, are in school.
But as we see on the news every single day, the women of Afghanistan still face intimidation and violence on their path to equal rights. Just last week, or a couple of weeks ago, we all watched in horror our television screens when we saw the stories of the female students and teachers in southern Afghanistan who were assaulted with acid as they walked to school.
The school's principal called the attackers the enemies of Afghanistan. And the most seriously injured victim, a 17-year-old girl, said, and I quote, she would continue her schooling "even if they try to kill" her.
The problems that we see that -- of -- all the problems that we see in Afghanistan are the huge charge it -- huge challenges that a failed state faces when they try to rebuild. Most people in Afghanistan want to live their lives free from the Taliban. And the Afghans will need our support and the support of the international community probably for years as they rebuild their country.
At the Afghanistan support conference in Paris last June, I announced that the United States had dedicated an additional $10.2 billion to help Afghanistan implement its National Development Strategy. The international community matched this contribution with a commitment of $10 billion as well.
We must now live up to our pledges to help the Afghan government promote agriculture, build roads, harness renewable energy and, on an issue that's close to my heart, improve access to education. The right to an education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration. But worldwide, more than 770 million adults live without basic literacy skills.
Nearly two-thirds, of course, of these adults who cannot read are women. Expanding education to women and girls is especially important, because educated women are much more likely to be advocates for their children's education. And we know that educated women raise healthier, better-nourished families.
As honorary ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade, I've worked with UNESCO to lay the groundwork toward achieving literacy for all. With support and strong encouragement from the United States, UNESCO launched the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Program, or LAMP, which is the first of its kind, ever, assessment effort for country-specific literacy needs. These countries that have these literacy needs can use LAMP, supported by UNESCO, to really determine what their statistics are. And many of the most illiterate countries obviously don't have any statistics or assessments of any indicators in their countries, but especially literacy indicators.
UNESCO then also developed Learning Initiative for Empowerment, or LIFE, which is targeting the U.N. resources to the 35 countries with the highest illiteracy rates in the world, and that does include Afghanistan.
In 2006, the White House hosted a conference on global literacy to highlight successful programs in these areas: literacy for health, literacy for economic empowerment and literacy for women and girls. That first conference was held here at the New York Public Library during the united -- the week of the United Nations General Assembly meeting, so that spouses of world leaders and education ministers were here in New York for the conference.
This conference inspired six subsequent UNESCO regional conferences in Qatar, China, Mali, India, Azerbaijan and Mexico.
UNESCO built on this momentum by establishing a United Nations Literacy Decade Fund -- which, as you might guess, the United States is the largest contributor, with a contribution of $2 million -- or a little over $2 million -- to promote literacy strategies and programs with measurable results. We've looked for additional contributions from other governments and foundations and donors worldwide. And I will -- I look forward to continuing my work as honorary ambassador until the end of the decade in 2012.
International Human Rights Day is an opportunity to celebrate the efforts to live up to the promise of the universal declaration. It also calls the world's attention to those who are denied nearly every right the declaration enshrines.
Today, especially, my thoughts turn to the women of Burma. For decades, Burma's military regime has crushed peaceful dissent and carried out violent campaigns against ethnic population. Children's are -- children are conscripted as soldiers and families are forced to perform life-threatening labor. Human trafficking is pervasive and rape is used as a weapon of war.
At a roundtable I hosted in 2006, Burmese activist Hseng Noung was asked to describe the youngest and oldest rape victims she had worked with. Her response silenced the room. She said that the youngest victim was eight and the oldest victim was 80.
The women of Burma have responded to this brutality with inspiring courage. On the border between Burma and Thailand, Dr. Cynthia Maung operates the Mae Tao Clinic. Hundreds of patients pass through her doors every day. Most of these men and women are migrant workers or refugees from Burma. Many others make the dangerous crossing border journey to Thailand because they have no access to health care in Burma.
At Dr. Cynthia's clinic, I saw an American doctor performing eye surgery, removing cataracts, which let people who'd had these very severe cataracts see again for the first time. And it was a really -- it was a thrill to get to see that. And also I saw victims of land mines waiting for treatment in the clinic.
Dr. Cynthia left Burma right after the generation -- '88 uprising in 1988. She moved right across the border and opened this clinic with the idea that she'd be there maybe for a few months. And now 20 years later, she's still there on the Thai border. The ruling junta has labeled Dr. Cynthia an insurgent and an opium-smuggling terrorist, but she continues her work to give the people of Burma the care their government denies them.
A single voice can be a great weapon against a regime that denies basic human rights. In April, I presented the Vital Voices Human Rights Global Leadership Award to Charm Tong. At the age of 17, Charm Tong stood before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to describe the military campaign being carried out against the women in Burma's Shan State.
She spoke unflinchingly of rape and abuse, though her audience included representatives of the regime she condemned. Charm Tong continues to speak out about the regime's abuses, and she ministers to the needs of those who have fled Burma.
Another Burmese woman, Su Su Nway, defied junta representatives who tried to force her and her fellow villagers to repair a road. She brought the local officials to court under a law prohibiting forced labor, and she won. But the government filed a complaint against Su Su Nway for insulting and disrupting a government official on duty. This labor activist was sentenced to 18 months in jail. She was released in June 2006 and then returned immediately to advocate for human rights. Then she was arrested in November, just this last November -- or actually November 2007, after posting flyers near a U.N. official's hotel. She's since been sentenced to 12 years.
These female dissidents follow in the footsteps of Aung San Suu Kyi, the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner. As leader of the democratically elected National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the past two decades under house arrest. Her party, the National League of Democracy, won the last country-wide election in 1990, and then obviously none of them were ever allowed to take office.
Her example of strength has earned support from around the world, including from here in the United States. In May 2007, days before her sentence was set to expire, I stood with Senator Feinstein, Senator Hutchison and other members of the bipartisan U.S. Senate Women's Caucus on Burma to raise awareness of Aung San Suu Kyi's plight. Days later, right after this, the regime extended her detention for another year, and then they did that again this May 2008.
Ruling General Than Shwe has promised a democratic transition for his country, but the junta has engaged in an effort to silence its opponents before the next planned elections in 2010.
Since the Saffron Revolution of 2007, the number of political prisoners in Burma has increased from around 1,100 to more than 2,100 now.
Female activist Nilar Thein was forced to leave her newborn child and flee into hiding. After a year on the run, she was captured and jailed this September. Her husband is also imprisoned.
The United Nations and members of the international community have repeatedly called on the regime to release these women and all political prisoners. Burma's ruling junta has ignored these appeals, and it's treated the United Nations special envoy with disregard.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reports that last month alone, the junta arbitrarily sentenced at least 215 political activists to terms as long as 65 years, and dozens of dissidents, poets, monks and bloggers have been transferred to prisons far from their families, where the abuses are less likely to be reported.
We committed -- the United States -- committed $96 million to aid the people of Burma during the last fiscal year. This included about $75 million worth of cyclone relief that we flew in to Burma, and the junta did allow us to fly the big cargo planes, at least a hundred flights, cargo planes into Burma. And the rest of this money goes to programs to help refugees on the camps. It's very difficult to be able to help people within Burma without attracting the attention of the government.
Today I'm happy to announce that the U.S. government, through USAID, will provide an additional $5 million in disaster assistance funds to communities devastated by cyclone Nargis. This assistance will support the efforts of nongovernmental organizations like the World Food Program and Save the Children to assure access to clean water, adequate shelter, basic health services and other essential needs in the most affected areas.
The BBC recently sent a reporter down into the delta that was most affected by the cyclone, and we saw photographs of the shacks that the people who live in the delta are building -- rebuilding -- to rebuild their homes, and they were built out of the rice sacks that were stacked with USAID and American flags. So we do know that some of this relief we're sending in to the cyclone area is getting to the people.
As we increase our support for the Burmese people, we're restricting the flow of income to Burma's ruling generals and their associates. Over the past month, President Bush has expanded U.S. sanctions against the regime and tightened sanctions against the top leaders. In July, he signed the bipartisan Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act. This bill, like other legislation concerning Burma, was approved unanimously by Congress
The bill itself delineates a special position for an envoy by Congress -- designated an envoy by Congress in the Lantos act. President Bush has nominated Dr. Michael Green, one of your members and one of your recent speakers, to serve as a special envoy and policy expert on Burma. Unfortunately, his confirmation could not be achieved this fall in the Senate. So I urge the Congress to act on Dr. Green's nomination as soon as possible.
I know that the next administration will continue the United States' work to support the people of Burma, because this has always been a bipartisan effort.
We're not alone in protesting the junta's abuses. Last month, foreign ministers of the European Union said that the 2010 elections will have no credibility unless the junta unconditionally releases all political prisoners. The EU has also tightened sanctions against Burma's regime, and it's imposed an embargo on some of the regime's top sources of revenue.
In the United Nations, a resolution condemning human rights violations in Burma passed the Third Committee of the General Assembly. And last week 112 former presidents and prime ministers signed an open letter urging U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to press the junta to free all political prisoners by the end of this year.
The United States calls on Burma's neighbors, including China, India and Burma's fellow ASEAN members, to use their influence to help bring about a nonviolent, democratic transition. By acting multilaterally, we can increase the pressure on the junta to engage in a genuine tripartite dialogue between the regime, the democratic activists and the ethnic minority leaders. Dialogue and national reconciliation should make way for a peaceful transition to civilian democracy.
At the Mae La refugee clinic, more than 38,000 men, women and children wait for this transition with longing. One group that I met when I was just there, on that border, are the Burmese refugees who've been and spent their -- many of them young people who've spent their entire life in this refugee camp, now being resettled in the United States.
And I saw the buses as they loaded up for the very long drive to Bangkok to get on the planes to be flown to the United States, and little kids would say, "I'm going to South Carolina!" or "I'm going to Texas!" It was really very moving, but also very sad.
In August I met a student of English who wrote his story on the chalkboard to show me how good his English was, at the refugee camp, and he said, "My life in refugee is better than Burma, but I don't have an opportunity to go outside the camp." And another refugee told me, "Our dream is to go home, but there's no peace or democracy in Burma."
If the promise of the international declaration of human rights is to be met, the international community, and especially the world's democracies, cannot accept that any people are condemned to live under tyranny.
The people of Burma have shown their resilience and their commitment to a peaceful, democratic nation. By holding Burma's ruling generals accountable for their abuses, the international community must now show our commitment to the principles we honor today, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Thank you all. (Applause.)
MS. PILGRIM: Thank you. I am absolutely delighted to lead the question-and-answer session. Let me go through a couple of things first. Members, please join in the conversation. Wait for the microphone; speak directly into it. State your name and affiliation as you ask a question.
And I reserve a few questions for myself, to begin. (Chuckles.)
MS. PILGRIM: Mrs. Bush, I really would like to point out that on May 5th of this year, you walked up to the White House press podium and, straight-up and in no uncertain terms, declared that the government of Burma was abandoning the needs of the people. Not only had the government not warned the state media of -- the state media had warned them of the approaching cyclone, they had abandoned the -- rejected disaster relief, which you just referred to.
Now, I watched you declare in those clear, firm tones, and it came up on the giant monitors of CNN and it went out all over the world. To my mind, it was a great moment in television and the power of the media.
You also are the first first lady to deliver the president's weekly radio address, and in 2001 you used that broadcast to decry the oppression of the women and children in Afghanistan.
My first question is a media question. You have used the media very, very effectively to call these problems to light in these societies that are so closed. We have seen other closed societies in the Middle East use media very effectively to show women in their societies the way to live in other ways. I point out "Oprah" in the Middle East, some of the soap operas, books, magazines that go into these closed societies.
In Afghanistan can you see the role of media expanding, and can we do more with media?
BUSH: We can definitely do more, but yes, the media has expanded. There are lots and lots of radio stations now and television stations, most of them independent. And I think that's really important. But journalists, especially female journalists, are still targeted. I know -- I think you all probably saw this story of the one radio journalist who was shot in front of her baby in her home. So we know that they are targeted.
But there are a lot of ways that we can support the media in all of these countries, especially Afghanistan, because there is a broad amount of free media now, or independent media. But we can also mentor journalists, and that's one of the things the U.S. Afghan American Women's Council has done. Women journalists in the U.S. are partnered with women journalists in Afghanistan to mentor them, to show them ways they can be the most effective as media people. And I think it's really important for us to do that.
We shouldn't forget, either, the power of the Internet to get into these countries that are so closed, like Burma, because Burma does not have, obviously, a free media. Their -- the ruling junta does not let reporters in. It's very difficult for the international community to be able -- international media to be able to get in.
Right after the cyclone we saw that, where the rest of the world really couldn't get a very clear picture of what was happening or what the damage was. And what we mainly got at the very first were Internet scenes from people on the ground, citizens of Burma on the ground, and then the junta cut off their Internet access.
But I do think we -- but the whole freedom movement needs to be -- to think about how we can -- we can use the media in ways that are effective, just like Voice of America or Radio Liberty or any of the radio stations that were so important during the Cold War and at the end of the Cold War, to continue to direct those into parts of the world that are still suffering under tyranny and then to figure out ways -- and the media can be very helpful in this, too, to mentor these independent stations or independent journalists.
MS. PILGRIM: In the coming months and years, will you continue to speak out? Will you write a book? Will you write? Will you -- I have to get that in -- will you continue to speak out in media?
BUSH: I will continue to -- I'm going to pay, really, a lot of attention to these two issues, the international issues that I've worked on the most, both Afghanistan and Burma, through the president's freedom institute that's he's going to build with his presidential library. And it'll start before the library is actually built, because it'll take, you know, a while to raise the funds and design and build the actual building. But we want to start the institute right away.
And to talk about both freedom from tyranny, but also freedom from disease, freedom from hunger, freedom from illiteracy, the other things that President Bush has worked on, but particularly in Africa, PEPFAR and President's Malaria Initiative and all of those -- but I will continue to be able to use that. I think the freedom institute is a vehicle for -- to continue to work with women in Afghanistan and Burma.
MS. PILGRIM: Certainly, another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, stepped into a very formal role internationally.
MS. PILGRIM: Do you anticipate anything of that sort?
BUSH: Not in the next administration. (Laughter.) No, I'm only kidding. Not really. I mean, I -- you know, I'm going to continue to have a -- to do what I can, but it'll obviously be outside government.
MS. PILGRIM: Let's turn to the economic crisis. We've certainly seen funding dry up for many very, very important causes. Do you anticipate that we will have difficulty in continuing to fund internationally some of these very important projects in Afghanistan?
BUSH: I think that's a very big worry. It's a worry all over the world for all the things both the United States government does and for all of the many, many American foundations or private charities, philanthropies that are active around the world. And you know, that's a worry. And we have to pay attention to it.
And I think both -- we need to make sure both privately -- private foundations and charities as well as government -- USAID and other ways our aid is directed -- to really make our priority so that we know that the aid that we give is used in the way we think it is most helpful, in the way that countries can use it best and that we make sure the money -- the aid that we get really gets to the people that we're directing it to.
But I think, I'm sure, that any -- many of you probably sit on the board of private philanthropies and charities. You have your own. And I imagine that each one of those boards are working to really pay attention to your priorities, really try to make sure that you're going to be as effective as you possibly can be, if what you give is going to be less than what it's been in other years.
MS. PILGRIM: We'll turn to questions from the audience.
QUESTIONER: Bruce Gelb, Council of American Ambassadors.
Mrs. Bush, just speaking for everyone in this room, this is a wonderful thing for you to be here today, to talk about some of the things that we haven't heard too much about, in this room, that our government has been doing directly and indirectly.
My question has to do with something that Richard Haass said at the very beginning. About 40 or 50 years ago, 40 or 50 nations signed the declaration, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since that time, the United Nations has grown to be an organization of about 192 countries. Many of those countries have an attitude that says that the declaration doesn't apply to them. They have a different standard of human rights.
Richard Haass also pointed out the problem of --
I'm heading to the question.
Is there a role for a United Nations that does not have a solid agreement that human rights of people, everywhere in the world, should be protected by the strength of the United Nations? Or is it merely -- (laughter) -- a paper or plastic tiger, in a world that needs an organization, of a universal sort, that has something behind it?
BUSH: Well, I think, obviously there is a role for the United Nations. And I think it's very important for member states, member nations to continue to encourage and work with the United Nations to meet these -- you know, to make sure countries do allow their citizens these universal rights that the United Nations itself adopted as the declaration.
You know, all of us look. We all look at the U.N. And we worry that it's not effective. And we worry that its message becomes diluted by states that all of us, in this room, look at and think are not well democracies or are not states that really promote the rights of their citizens.
But on the other hand, I think, it's a really good vehicle. It's the only one we've got. And I think we need to work with it, to make sure it becomes more effective.
My office certainly has worked with UNESCO. When they asked me to be the honorary ambassador of the Literacy Decade, I said yes. But I was not just going to be the ambassador for 10 years and have just, you know, some nice meetings where people talked about how important literacy was.
I mean, if UNESCO didn't have a specific strategy, then I wouldn't be the honorary ambassador. And we did work with them. And they did develop. I mean, this -- it was not what they thought what they were going to do immediately, I will admit, but they did developed a very -- develop a very specific strategy. And we wanted it to be not only specific but measurable.
And so they developed the LAMP program, which is the assessment program for countries to be able to use to assess what their real literacy needs are. And then this LIFE program that targets the 34 most illiterate countries, to -- and they do not work -- there are countries in that 34 that they're not working with because the governments will not cooperate. They just said, "We're not going to waste our time. If the government will cooperate, then we will direct U.N. funds there and we'll try to support them with curriculum and all the other things you would need for literacy."
But I do think it's important for the United States to keep a leadership role in the United Nations and continue to encourage all the U.N. agencies to work with and encourage all the U.N. agencies to live up to the whole idea behind the -- you know, this world of nations that the United Nations represents.
MS. PILGRIM: If you could keep your questions short, we are very short of time.
QUESTIONER: John Beattie (sp) from UBS. Afghanistan has become the leading -- one of the leading, if not the leading producer of opium. A problem with this is due to the high prices of opium, farmers have every incentive to produce opium as opposed to producing legitimate crops. What policies do you think the United States, working with other governments, can initiate in Afghanistan to give farmers sufficient incentive to stop producing opium and start producing legitimate crops for -- to quote an old adage, "human rights begins at breakfast."
BUSH: Well, that is a very good question. And that is one of the challenges that Afghanistan faces, and that is the opium production. And obviously, the amount of money -- and in fact, in the opium-producing parts -- those parts of the country with the opium production are the countries with the most violence and the most Taliban resurgence, if you call it that.
But I think it's very -- and the U.S. has worked with them to -- I think their opium production is down about 20 percent. We have worked with them on that.
But it's very important, obviously, for every country that has PRT teams in Afghanistan or other work in Afghanistan to continue to try to help them build agriculture, and not -- because they're starving. I mean, they are going to have a very critical winter. The World Food Program is going to need to go into Afghanistan with food and really soon, before all those passes are impassable because of snow and cold.
They've had another drought this year -- less snow, less rain -- and their remote areas are so remote. And especially in the winter, they're literally cut off from other parts of the country.
And so it's very important for Afghanistan to start to grow agriculture -- I mean, to grow wheat and grow potatoes, to grow food for themselves, rather than opium. And with the higher commodity prices, although commodity prices have dropped now -- but it might really be almost as lucrative if we can help, if there are ways the U.S. government and other U.S. private concerns, as well as the international community, can help them reforest Afghanistan, as well as replant Afghanistan.
One of the great things I saw when I want to Bamian province was a potato storage setup that an Idaho farmer had helped Afghanistan set up. It was the way his grandparents, when they moved to Idaho, had stored potatoes. It was very easy to build. It was inexpensive to build. It wasn't what Idaho uses now, but it worked perfectly well for his grandparents.
And this -- if we could -- if Afghanistan can have both roads for commerce, which we are working on and which Afghanistan has as part of their strategy that they went to the international donors conference with in June, and storage facilities, then they don't have to bring every agricultural crop on to the market the minute -- and glut the market and get low prices and then not have food to eat in the other part of the year.
So I think agriculture is a very important -- something that's very important for the United States to help focus on. All of our land grant universities, like Texas A&M, would be great partners with Afghanistan to help them really build their agriculture.
President Karzai went on the radio and said to opium producers: You're starving your nation, and you could be growing something else that they could eat. And I think it's going to take a very concerted effort by all the citizens of Afghanistan. It can't only come from the outside. The citizens themselves, just like the girl who said she was going to keep going to school, that she was not intimidated by having acid thrown on her -- now the people of Afghanistan have got to stand up too.
QUESTIONER: Norma Globerman, retired from the United Nations Development Program. Mrs. Bush, a few years ago Hillary Clinton was a guest at the council. She had just come back from a trip to Afghanistan. And within her remarks she said something which had a terrific impact on me and presumably on others, namely, that a big factor in the Russians' losing Afghanistan, having blasted out of there, was their support -- their strong support for the improvement of conditions of women.
BUSH: Was the Russians' strong support?
QUESTIONER: Yes. And my question is, is that a generally held interpretation in Washington? And if that is the interpretation, that that was such a big factor, how do we deal with that now?
BUSH: I don't know that -- I haven't heard that as an interpretation. The U.S. support of women, you mean, in Afghanistan is encouraging the Taliban? Is that what you mean?
MS. PILGRIM: No, the Russian -- a big factor in the Russian -- a big factor in the Afghan uprising against the Russians, obviously with a lot of money from us, and materials, was the determination by --
BUSH: Oh, by --
MS. PILGRIM: -- (inaudible) -- in Afghanistan to get rid of a government, the Russians -- backed by the Russians, that was helping to free their women.
BUSH: Oh, I see, because the society is so conservative, you mean, they don't want women to --
MS. PILGRIM: So determined to hold on to its prerogatives.
MS. PILGRIM: It was the issue. And how do we navigate and negotiate that situation?
BUSH: Yes. That's obviously a problem, that every -- I mean, that's exactly what we're looking at. That's the intimidation, the throwing acid on girls as they walk to school. And that's the whole -- I mean, that's it. That is the actual problem, really, when you look at it. It's the whole idea that men would do that, really; that they would rather throw acid on girls than girls be able to go to school. I mean, that's the cultural problem that is so severe it's very hard for Americans to even grasp.
But no, I don't think that is one of the reasons we're not succeeding. I think one of the reasons that it's very difficult to succeed is because Afghanistan is absolutely decimated. You know, there is no -- there are no educated people in Afghanistan. There's no capacity from the people in Afghanistan to do all the things that you need to do to be able to build another country, build a democracy.
And we know what we're fighting, and what we're fighting is this -- this view that people are not important. I mean, that's really it, that you would kill innocent strangers or disfigure innocent girls for -- you know, I don't think it's -- I mean, I think it's some sort of power play. It's not that it's some sort of philosophy that has any real basis.
MS. PILGRIM: We're out of time.
QUESTIONER: Oh, sorry.
MS. PILGRIM: We have time for one more question.
QUESTIONER: Josephine Linden. Mrs. Bush, first of all, thank you very much for your comments and your focus on something that is just such an important issue throughout the world.
I'm curious, and my question is that your focus has been on Afghanistan and Burma, and you talk about some chilling statistics of other countries' (and illiteracy ?). Can you tell me how you picked those two countries and why no other countries in terms of your issues that you've been dealing with?
BUSH: Well, I have -- there are other countries that I've worked with, obviously. I've been to 75 countries since George has been president.
I've had five trips to Africa. And I've worked very hard in Africa, both with literacy programs there as well as the Africa Education Initiative, which is a U.S. government-supported program that also targets women because also in Africa, girls are the ones most likely kept home to work, while the boys go to school, if a school is available.
But Afghanistan because obviously that was -- it's just been a very important part of the last eight years. The idea of al Qaeda having a safe haven in Afghanistan, the reason the United States went in to liberate the people of Afghanistan, all of those have made Afghanistan really one of the most important issues of the last eight years. And because I've been involved since I gave the radio address, in November of 2001, I've stayed very interested in it.
I'm not -- there are lots and lots of American women who are involved. I mean, I think, it's really amazing how the women of the United States, right after September, who might not have ever even heard of Afghanistan, looked at it and saw a country where girls are absolutely denied education.
I mean, it was very hard for American women to believe that there would be a country where women weren't allowed an education or weren't allowed to step outside of their house without male escorts.
And after I gave the radio address, I happened to be in Austin, visiting my daughter Jenna, who was at the University of Texas, and went to Saks Fifth Avenue in Austin. And the women who sold the cosmetics at the counter said, thank you so much for speaking out for the women of Afghanistan.
So I think it's something that women all over our country have been very involved in and watched, with great interest and with a lot of encouragement.
Many, many Afghan women have been to the United States, mostly the University of Nebraska, to be trained as teachers, where they live with families in Nebraska. And you can just guess what those families are like, in a state like Nebraska, who offer to put up, you know, a women from Afghanistan, to go to the University of Nebraska and stay with them.
I mean, they're just as solid a people as you would ever, ever meet. And that's what these people are getting to see. They're getting to see what American families are like. But that's one reason I've stayed so interested in Afghanistan, because obviously it's been a central issue in the last eight years.
And then Burma is a much more isolated country, so isolated that most people have never even heard of it. And I had the chance to shine a light on it because I was interested.
The secretary of State, who's also interested in it, has to -- her responsibilities are to every country and our relationship with every country. And so if I talk about Burma, it gets a lot more attention than if Dr. Rice mentions it, because it would be in the context of a number of other countries.
And just because I became interested in Aung San Suu Kyi and the idea that this woman, whose party was elected overwhelmingly in 1990 and never allowed to take office, and instead she was under house arrest for most of the 20 years since, was just also another story that I was interested in.
MS. PILGRIM: Mrs. Bush, may I say that your work is an inspiration.
BUSH: Well, thank you, Kitty.
MS. PILGRIM: And thank you very much for being here --
MS. PILGRIM: -- to explain it to us.
And I must conclude this meeting. Thank you very much for being here.
BUSH: Thank you all. (Applause.)
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