"Today we can say again in a loud and clear voice, the United States should never condone or practice torture anywhere in the world,” Clinton said.
The former secretary of state, accepting an award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, acknowledged that Americans are frustrated by the country’s “division and polarization” that often seems to block progress.
"That should be absolutely clear as a matter of both policy and law, including our international treaty obligations, and if that requires new legislation, then Congress should work with President Obama to quickly enact it and it shouldn't be an issue of partisan politics," Clinton said of eliminating the use of torture techniques.
“America is at our best when our actions match our values,” she said.
Clinton’s statements follow an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday that found almost six in ten Americans believe the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. About half of Americans believe the CIA did use torture, while 53 percent think the interrogations produced critical information that could not have been obtained any other way. Just 31 percent of those polled reject this claim, revealing a focus of the recent debate.
Clinton also spoke about recent unrest following police-related deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, telling attendees “black lives matter,” repeating a phrase used by activists after grand juries failed to indict officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
If Kennedy were alive, he would say that it is "possible to keep us safe from terrorism and reduce crime and violence without relying on torture abroad or unnecessary force or excessive incarceration at home," she said.
She made sure to praise both intelligence workers and police officers, saying so many “inspire trust and confidence rather than fear and frustration.”
Clinton wondered what Kennedy – who was assassinated in 1968 – would think of the country if he could see it now. She thought he would celebrate the progress that’s occurred during recent decades, but questioned how he would react to the country’s inequalities.
“What would he say to all those who have lost trust to our government and other institutions, who shudder at images of excessive force, who read reports about torture done in the name of our country, who see too many representatives in Washington quick to protect a big bank from regulation but slow to take action to help working families facing every greater pressure?” Clinton asked.
The former senator from New York – a title she reminded the audience she shared with Kennedy – said if alive he would remind the nation to “take hold of these challenges, to organize, to legislate and yes to vote... the choices we make matter, policies, politics, priorities matter, but values matter even more,”
De Niro made a subtle reference to her possible presidential bid, saying, “When we agree that it’s a human right to have reasonable and responsible medical care, we won’t fight about Obamacare, or whatever it will be called,” before pausing to ask: “Hillarycare?” The mere mention received huge cheers from the crowd.
The award honors leaders who “demonstrate commitment to social change,” according to the group. The event showcased the group’s human rights work with actors telling the stories of courageous human rights activists around the world. Clinton sat next to Kennedy matriarch Ethel Kennedy during the event and other notable attendees included New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Joseph Kennedy, grandson of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, as well as celebrities including America Ferrera, Melanie Griffith, Catherine Keener and Harvey Keitel.
ABC’s Gary Langer contributed to this report.