The Americans take justifiable pride in our country’s legacy as the world’s leading promoter and defender of human rights. But the current Administration is neglecting this historic role, instead relegating human rights to the realm of mere rhetoric.

At a time when we are trying to marshal the civilized world to stand up to violent extremism and terror, today we absurdly find ourselves on the defensive in our human rights policy. In the face of sustained criticism of our own failure to adhere to universal human rights standards in prosecuting the war against terror, the United States has gone nearly mute rather than speaking out, as we used to do. And in the meantime, human rights observance deteriorates around the globe.

This year’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, issued by our Department of State, documents an alarming slide in adherence to human rights standards around the globe. The State Department has officially characterized 2006 as “the year of the push-back,” citing aggressive campaigns to suppress civil society in “a disturbing number of countries.”

Some of the most salient examples of the “push-back” against human rights documented in the Reports include:

new restrictive NGO laws and contract-style killings of pro-reform officials and prominent journalists in Russia;

a systematic campaign to limit Internet freedom in China;

an increase in disappearances of activists and political opponents in Pakistan;

expansion of Egypt’s emergency laws to suppress freedom of speech and expression; and

increased harassment of opponents and the press by the Chavez regime in Venezuela.

Yet, instead of standing up to and sanctioning the world’s most evil and illegitimate regimes as they become ever more brazen in brutalizing their dissidents, we seem to pull our punches.

The most conspicuous recent example of this defeatism in our human rights diplomacy is the decision of the Administration, for the second year in a row, that it will not run for a seat in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.

America’s retreat from this body has enabled a cabal of military juntas, single party states, and tin-pot dictators currently led by Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Cuba to outmaneuver our timid European allies and hijack the new Council, turning it into a sham, whose only purpose is to vilify Israel and castigate the United States.

Sadly, the U.S. recoil from multi-lateral human rights advocacy also extends to our bilateral relationships with major human rights violators that we are in a position to influence. We are wasting the chance to chasten and challenge such oppressive states as Russia, China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It is long past time for the world’s “indispensable nation” to recover from this wobbly period of moral doubt and confusion. We must re-emerge as the world’s most vocal and uncompromising advocate of the universal values that are enshrined in our Constitution and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Such a U.S. re-emergence will help to reverse the alarming deterioration we see in global adherence to human rights standards. It will also help us to win the war on terrorism by encouraging the growth of modern, pluralist forces in nation-states that might otherwise threaten to veer dangerously between secular autocracy and medieval theocracy.

We should be under no illusions: the United States has never been a perfect paragon of the principles we aspire to and champion. The history of our nation is one of a slow narrowing of the hypocrisy gap between what we aspire to and what we currently are.

Certainly, our transgressions in fighting the war against terrorism are startling reminders of just how imperfect we remain. But our current struggle to maintain our values in fighting this war, and to hold our leaders accountable for human rights violations made in prosecuting it, should never cause us to abandon those who are struggling and giving their lives to achieve human freedom.

In reviewing this year’s catalogue of human rights abuses and assessing our government’s response to them, our Committee is privileged to have before us today two extraordinary and very distinguished former Assistant Secretaries of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor:

Ambassador John Shattuck, the Chief Executive of the Kennedy Library Foundation;

Dean Harold Koh, dean of the Yale Law School; and

I will briefly introduce them when it is their turn to speak, and will very much look forward to their testimony. But first I want turn to my dear friend and colleague from New Jersey, who has been a proud champion of human rights globally: Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey.