Hi everybody. You know life has changed when you’re hanging out with Jane Fonda backstage. There is no greater embodiment of being outspoken on behalf of what you believe in – and being ‘all in’ in every way – than Jane Fonda and it’s a huge honor just to even briefly have shared the stage with her.
It’s also a great honor to receive this award from an organization whose leaders and members I admire and whose goals I heartily embrace.
The relationship between the UN and the United States is among the globe’s most important, and Ted Turner, Kathy Calvin, Tim Wirth, Felice Gaer, and the UNA-USA deserve immense credit for keeping our ties durable and strong, and for never forgetting that we need to nurture and grow the constituency in this country that believes in that relationship.
I want to begin my remarks tonight by paying tribute to the man in whose name this award is presented. He was not a well-known man; I did not know him, Leo Nevas. He was on the board of the Kennedy School of government before I began teaching there. But I am sure if I had known him, I would have loved him – what’s not to like?
The seventh son of Lithuanian immigrants, Leo Nevas broke through a wall of anti-Semitism in the 1930s to establish himself as a lawyer in Connecticut. During the Cold War, he became a sort of go-between for Soviet Jews, traveling to the USSR often, bearing gifts and sometimes wearing multiple coats so he could leave a few of them behind. Officially, anti-Semitism was banned in the Soviet Union, but the Communists were adept at finding euphemisms to justify prejudice. So although Jews were not officially denounced, so-called “rootless cosmopolitans” were.
Leo Nevas publicized the plight of Soviet Jews, even meeting and becoming friends with the Nobel prizewinning dissident, Andrei Sakharov. More broadly, Nevas believed in the UN and, among many other posts, served as the chair of its committee of human rights NGOs. Even closer to home, he joined with Paul Newman in supporting the Hole in the Wall camps that to this day provide recreation and warmth to children who are seriously ill. As Mr. Newman recognized when he conceived this human rights award, Leo Nevas showed us how to live a brave and compassionate life, and I am truly honored that you’ve given me this connection to this remarkable man.
Now, if you had known me growing up, you would have been astonished to see me up here tonight receiving a human rights award. As a teenager, my idea of human rights was breaking curfew. I loved sports, above all, and might well have ended up as a sideline analyst during March Madness, or part of Ted Turner’s other empire, back in the day with the Atlanta Braves. But in college, I was stopped cold by the televised image of a young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square; it made me think: What is this all about? How did it happen? How did a person so alone simultaneously come to stand for the rights and aspirations of millions – and why are so many people around the world compelled to risk their lives just to obtain freedoms that most of us here just get to take for granted?
From Leo Nevas we see two things: an insistence on tending to the needs of the less fortunate and a determination to oppose bigotry and discrimination. From this young man in Tiananmen Square, we see the importance of free speech and political openness, which are enablers to the enjoyment of all other rights. These are three very different dimensions of human rights work, and I would like to highlight three contemporary issues that underscore the difference that each of us can make in any of these realms.
First, if we are to take inspiration from Nevas’ generosity, the first place that springs to mind today is Syria. The people there are desperate for our help – literally desperate. The UN has issued two appeals totaling $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid, and that includes food, medicine, shelter, and critical winterization materials. Only half of the necessary funds have been raised. The need exceeds anything that we have seen in our lifetimes, and that’s saying something. There are now seven times as many Syrian refugees today as there were at this time last year. It gives you a sense of the gradient – the steepness of the gradient. Overall, more than nine million people will need to be reached with humanitarian assistance in the coming year. And, even if we can raise this money – which we must do, but which we should admit have never done before at this scale – we must also recognize that opening up our checkbooks and our hearts is not enough. The Syrian regime is denying aid workers access to towns that they are besieging, even as it is allowing international chemical weapons inspectors into the country. This is outrageous.
Humanitarian workers, whether from the UN or from independent organizations, are having their visas held up while Syrians are unable to receive the food, medicine, and warm clothing they have to have to survive this winter. More than two million Syrians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas are unable to receive assistance of any kind, and many of them have not been reached in almost a year. We do not know the state of the health of these people.
According to the World Health Organization, up to 70 percent of the country’s hospitals and health care centers in some areas have been badly damaged or closed. From the beginning, forces loyal to Assad have been making it impossible for doctors and nurses to do their jobs, even dragging patients from sickbeds because – according to a very perverse logic – anyone wounded by a government bomb or bullet – and those treating them – must be an enemy.
Being a doctor now in Syria means that the life you save today may cost you your own life tomorrow. And that is why, of the 5,000 doctors who worked in the town of Aleppo before the conflict began, only 36 remain – 36 out of 5,000.
We have to raise the political temperature on those who would deny assistance. In a conflict where there seems no shame, we must somehow reinvent it. Yes, it is true that Leo Nevas left his coats behind in the Soviet Union, but he also pushed at a political level for attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. He understood that humanitarian work is never strictly humanitarian. We must do the same – combining generosity and, in this case, political pressure on the regime such that they allow the very same access to humanitarians as they are now giving to chemical weapons inspectors.
Second, if we are to follow Nevas’ lead in fighting discrimination, we have the opportunity to do so this very week on an issue of profound importance – promoting the rights of persons with disabilities. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday resumed consideration of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – and I want to thank UNA-USA for its stalwart backing as we strive to persuade legislators to approve this landmark treaty.
I hope Capitol Hill is listening because our message is clear: the rights of the disabled are not in a category separate from, or less important than, other forms of human rights. Consider, for example, the five and half million disabled American veterans who might want to travel to a foreign country, but are afraid to do so because services are unavailable and mobility is impossible.
An acquaintance of mine, Dan Berschinski, was an Army infantry officer who lost both of his legs to an explosive device in Afghanistan. He traveled overseas to a World Cup match where every curb, step and stair proved an ordeal. And that World Cup match was in South Africa; it wasn’t in the jungle some place; it was in a mainstream capital. Other veterans have been told, while on airplanes, to store their artificial limbs in overhead bins. Some blinded veterans have had their guide-sticks confiscated by airport security after they were mistaken for weapons. One wounded veteran, who climbs mountains, says it is easier for him to ascend a mountain than to actually get to it.
Among the disability treaty’s leading supporters is former Senator Bob Dole, whose statement yesterday to the Foreign Relations Committee concluded in this way, and I quote: “Years ago, in dedicating the National World War II memorial, I – Bob Dole – tried to capture what makes America worth fighting for – indeed, dying for. This is the golden thread that runs throughout the tapestry of our nationhood. The dignity of every life, the possibility of every mind, the divinity of every soul…In ratifying this treaty, we can affirm these goals for Americans with disabilities.” Unquote – and Amen.
Third, and finally, for all the challenges Leo Nevas faced, and all the discrimination he encountered, he lived in the United States, where even men, lawyers, journalists, and advocates could use the first amendment to fight for human rights. This luxury does not exist in many quarters around the world, and it was this ability to choose one’s fate and to speak one’s mind that the young man who braved the tank in Tiananmen seemed to be seeking for himself and for his countrymen and women. Around the world, even in societies that are partly free, we are today seeing a massive crackdown on civil society.
A growing number of governments – especially those that are insecure about their own legitimacy, but even some democracies – are borrowing from one another a widening, sophisticated array not of best practices, but of worst practices.
Some regimes demand that NGOs be registered and then delay acting on their applications. Some impose overly burdensome reporting requirements. Some criminalize contact between a domestic NGO and foreign funder. Some use Soviet-style euphemisms to equate legitimate dissent with subversion or treason. And some use government-controlled media to vilify a whole sector of NGOs, such as those working on behalf of democracy, women’s rights, or the LGBT community. All told, more than 50 countries have, within the past few years, enacted new laws or new regulations aimed at restricting the activities of civil society.
That’s why President Obama convened heads of state, foreign ministers, and leading civil society activists in September – just this last September – on the margins of the UN General Assembly, to shine a spotlight on this crackdown and to challenge the world to act.
Now, this term we use – crackdown – is suggestive, but it’s also a little bloodless. The human reality behind it can be found in Sudan, where families mourn the death of loved ones killed by security forces during anti-inflation protests; in Belarus, where acclaimed human rights activist Ales Bialiatski is serving a multi-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges; in Cuba, where the family of Oswaldo Paya is still seeking a credible inquiry into the democracy leader’s death; and in North Korea, where there is no legal civil society whatsoever – where a UN panel reported last week on the existence of at least four fully operational prison camps, where people face torture and starvation for the crime of gaining access to foreign media or the crime of professing faith in God. For many North Koreans, it is illegal to leave the country and hell to stay.
We cannot allow the enemies of civil society to win; we have to fight back with all the persuasive powers and organizational skills we in this room have collectively – and we must persist until the space where people seek to exercise freedom is a safe space.
Let us not forget that the leaders of civil society represent the long view; they’re the people who lay the foundation for lasting progress. In our own country, theirs is the type of commitment that ended slavery, enabled women’s suffrage, brought the dream of civil rights closer to reality, improved workplace safety, and reduced the pollution of water and air.
On the global stage, in just the past few decades, civil society has helped to end apartheid, extend democracy on every continent, fight back against human trafficking, raise awareness about global warming, and curb the trade in dirty diamonds.
The world today is not enmeshed in a clash of civilizations, but we do face a battle of ideas – and the idea that civil society is an essential contributor to human progress must be defended when and wherever it is in peril.
That principle of citizen action is at the core of the issues I have highlighted tonight – of meeting our obligation to others, of fighting bigotry, and of enabling all people to organize freely and to advocate for change without fear. It reflects, as well, the aspirations of those who conceived and drafted the UN Charter long ago; it is what prompted the founding of UNA-USA; it is what animated the life of Leo Nevas; and it is what brings all of us here together tonight.
And so this evening, as you humble me by honoring me, please accept my congratulations to you, for what you do every day – individually and collectively – to promote human rights and human dignity.
- Cross posted from U.S. Mission to the UN