Thank you, Tom, I am honored to be here and want to begin by congratulating you, Sara Bloomfield, Josh Bolten, and the entire Holocaust Memorial Museum team for your leadership and vision. Your commitment to education and remembrance is vital to ensuring that the victims of evil are not forgotten, that truth is not rewritten, and that knowledge compels citizens and countries alike to act to prevent future crimes that shock the conscience.
If we are to learn from it, truth requires a daily and dutiful defense. This Museum is one of our best weapons against those who seek to obfuscate facts about the most horrific event in modern history. As we heard from Sara Bloomfield tonight, in the face of a striking upsurge in anti-Semitism in Europe and outrageous rhetoric from Iran, we have our work cut out for us. This Museum and its researchers, documents, oral testimonies, photos, and films provide an indispensable storehouse of truth, a storehouse we must draw on continually to remind the world of the full scope, full meaning, and profound reality of the Holocaust.
American visitors to the Museum leave haunted by something else, by the searing exhibits on the U.S. failure to bomb the train-tracks to Auschwitz and on the decision to turn away the St. Louis. The Museum ensures that our memory of World War II is unvarnished, and in so doing it has made us better citizens and more determined patriots. I would note also – as one proud to serve in the U.S. government – that by entering our collective psyche, these exhibits have strengthened our collective commitment to leave no stone unturned in trying to prevent genocide in our time.
On this score, the institution, this museum and its leaders have moved boldly to transform the act of remembrance into a living and concrete commitment to halt future atrocities. Because of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the larger Committee on Conscience, every visitor to the Museum knows that while the Holocaust was a singular evil, campaigns to destroy ethnic or religious groups are with us still. Visitors cannot bring back those killed in the Holocaust, those we meet in our journey through the museum, even as we wish we could. But the museum commits us both to remembrance and to take contemporary action on contemporary crimes.
We are grateful for those gifts just as I am grateful for the assignment you have given me tonight. Never before have I been given the chance to present to one of my heroes an award named for another of my heroes. To the Nazis, Elie Wiesel was a number. To the world and all of us here tonight, he remains an inspiration, a teacher, and a living challenge.
The Earth has circled the Sun almost 70 times since the liberation of Buchenwald, where Elie lost his youth and his dad; yet he – and the dozens of brave Holocaust survivors whom we are so honored to be with tonight – continue to prod us to think deeply about what we should demand of ourselves. In that spirit, tonight is an opportunity for us to take stock on how far we have come in mobilizing the tools needed to prevent and respond to outbreaks of mass violence.
Such thoughts are particularly apt now, some twenty years after the start of the Rwandan genocide. Three weeks ago, when representatives from all around the globe gathered in Kigali to mark that date, that 20 year anniversary, we bowed our heads together in memory of the more than 800,000 men, women and children who were so brutally deprived of life in a 100 day period. Together, we recalled the history and dedicated ourselves to the unfinished tasks of recovery. But as the ceremony progressed, we began hearing screams and wails, at first isolated, but then all around us. Rwandan women – mothers, daughters, sisters, wives – were spontaneously reliving the genocide and giving voice to what had been taken from them, what they would never get back. Two hundred people – two hundred women – had to be carried out of Amahoro Stadium, overcome by grief.
The stadium itself was the place where, during the genocide 20 years before, 12,000 terrified and near-starving men and women had been sheltered under the eye of a small UN force commanded by General Roméo Dallaire. 12, 000 people would not be alive today if not for General Roméo Dallaire, just from that single stadium alone.
Nothing could have prepared the General for what happened in Rwanda. His job when he got there was to monitor compliance with an agreement between the Hutu-led government and a predominately Tutsi rebel force. But as General Dallaire soon learned, heavily-armed Hutu militants were already planning a war of annihilation. The General alerted UN headquarters in the now infamous Dallaire fax, but his warning went unheeded. In April 1994, the genocide began. When Belgian and Bangladeshi peacekeepers pulled out, Dallaire was left with a force of several hundred brave but under-equipped troops from Tunisia, Ghana, and elsewhere.
Instead of giving up, he insisted on staying and asked in vain for reinforcements. In the weeks that followed, ignoring personal threats to his life, he pushed himself far beyond the point of exhaustion, yet he somehow amid it all retained his moral bearings. Denied the help he needed, he was forced to negotiate directly with the leaders of the genocide – as he grasped one of their hands, he noticed a man’s skin was flaked with dried blood.
By not coming to his aid, the world community failed General Dallaire and the people of Rwanda. President Clinton has described America’s lack of effective action as the greatest regret of his presidency. The UN’s internal investigation accepted blame for its part in this human catastrophe.
As for General Dallaire, he has since become a highly effective participant in a global movement to prevent what happened in Rwanda from recurring. This is something new: a concerted grassroots campaign to stop genocide; a campaign embraced by religious and civil society leaders; connected by modern technology; sustained by the energy and optimism of the next generation; and animated by a commitment that transcends every border of race, nation, and creed.
And although I admit it often doesn’t feel that way, this effort is having a profound impact. Twenty years ago, there was virtually no public pressure to halt the slaughter in Rwanda. People expressed greater concern about the country’s fabled gorillas in the mist than they did about the Tutsi and moderate Hutu victims. One Congresswoman said that I’m getting more calls about the gorillas, but nobody is calling about the people.
In Washington, the number of top-level meetings convened during the critical first month of the crisis was zero. Congressional and media attention was also both sporadic and late and focused on a “civil war” and not on the genocide.
Since that time, our capacity for responding to mass atrocities has been enhanced on a number of fronts. Governments and international organization have dedicated officials with explicit responsibility for coordinating efforts to prevent and respond to mass atrocities; institutions have been established to help hold perpetrators accountable – courts and commissions of inquiry. And regional bodies – like the African Union – have taken on an increasingly critical role in responding to unrest and violence, spurred on – in places like Darfur and the Central African Republic – by capable troops from Rwanda who for obvious reasons take seriously their civilian protection mandate.
In the United States, it was at the Holocaust Museum that President Obama announced a whole series of steps to address striking flaws exposed by our American response to the genocide in Rwanda. Information about a potential genocide must quickly reach those with the power to act. And options must be considered and plans developed before a potential mass atrocity has already metastasized into an actual one.
If we are serious about our commitment to prevent mass atrocity, then we must organize ourselves accordingly. And that is what President Obama has led the world in doing, influenced profoundly by the recommendations put forth by the commission sponsored by this Holocaust Museum. Of course, no Atrocities Prevention Board or executive order or senior White House appointment can be expected to rid our world of this terrible phenomenon. But it is within our power, as individuals and as governments, to act earlier, smarter, and more effectively. The President’s leadership made an enormous difference in Libya, where the U.S. and NATO acted quickly to protect civilians and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. In Cote d’Ivoire, the U.S. worked with regional partners to bring an end to a deadly electoral standoff, and in Kenya, high level engagement proved crucial to preventing another outbreak of destabilizing electoral violence. The President’s decision to dispatch military advisors to aid in the search for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has helped to scatter that renegade force, causing defections and dramatically reducing the number of casualties inflicted by the LRA. And in the Central African Republic the U.S. military has flown in and equipped African peacekeepers, while in South Sudan we are expanding a UN peacekeeping mission and sanctioning those who terrorize civilians. In both places we have set up Commissions of Inquiry – an important step toward building an evidentiary record toward eventual accountability.
But against all of this, there is Syria.
There are no words to describe what is happening in Syria, but the pictures paint a story that none of us can ignore. President Assad is deliberately targeting his own people – using indiscriminate air attacks, introducing the world to barrel bombs, denying civilians food in starvation campaigns and practicing systematic, industrial torture – all of this to force the Syrian people to submit to his will. It is no secret that the international community’s efforts have fallen short, but we must not give up on pushing for a resolution of the crisis and an end to this killing. That is why we are working every day to identify new ways that we can get food to the starving, new strategies to hold the killers accountable, and new approaches to end the bloodshed. Everyone is painfully aware that there are no simple solutions in Syria right now. But what is clear is this: what is happening is intolerable, and all of us must do more.
Syria is not the only place where we are confronted by the horrors that people can inflict on their neighbors and the limits of our current tools.
Last December, in the Central African Republic, I met with a Christian human rights lawyer. He told me “I want to join the anti-balaka militia so I can go and kill Muslims.” This was a human rights lawyer. When asked why, he responded with a question: “Have you ever watched your family be killed?” He hadn’t either, but he knew people who had and that was enough for him.
It is too easy to relegate hate to something that is just wrong, that must end, that is contagious. Hate is all of those things. But what is most disturbing about this Central African Republic human rights lawyer’s comments were that they suggested that hate is not just wrong and contagious, but at times hate can feel and seem frighteningly logical. This past weekend, when 1,200 Muslims in Bangui, the capitol of the Central African Republic – some of the last Muslims in a town where Muslims and Christians once lived in harmony – when those 1,200 Muslims were bussed out, a Christian mob descended on their vacated homes and the local Mosques, looting and desecrating and chanting in celebration “the Muslims are gone! the Muslims are gone!”
In many countries, we hear stories of farmers and herders picking up guns not because they are religious zealots or political ideologues, but because they are angry or they are afraid.
Every time they make that choice, they contribute to shortages of food that kill more widely and just as surely as any bullet or machete. And that’s just on top of whatever crimes they commit themselves.
We cannot accept this. To prevent hate from breeding more hate, we must find new tools and we have to sharpen the ones we have. We have to change the calculus of individuals who everyday are deciding – how far do I go today? What are the cost and what are the benefits? What are the risks of being a bystander and what are the risks and benefits of standing up for religious harmony, for ethnic coexistence, and for peace.
Under President Obama, the United States has made the prevention of mass atrocities a core national security priority. We need to lead others to do the same. We need countries around the world to organize themselves similarly, to commit themselves equally, and to translate that commitment into the kind of practical action that the United States has undertaken. Part of our challenge honestly, and this has really been brought home to me here tonight, is that most other countries don’t have a Holocaust Museum or a Committee on Conscience. It makes a profound difference.
Second, in preventing mass atrocities, we must redouble our emphasis on early engagement. The sooner we act, the more options we will have. That requires developing solutions to potential atrocities before they become actual ones. And to those who would argue that a Head of State or government has to choose only between doing nothing and sending in the military – I maintain that is a constructed and false choice, an accompaniment only to disengagement and passivity.
Third, we must stress accountability that is neither collective nor delayed, but individual and certain. Our goal should be to persuade anyone plotting to commit mass atrocities that the result of pursuing that path will not be destruction of the other, but will instead be the denial of his own life’s ambitions.
Fourth, we must confront the problem at its roots by taking a stand against all crimes of hate, all violations of human rights, and every assault on personal dignity. It doesn’t matter whether the victim of persecution is a Christian in Egypt, a Roma in Europe, a Muslim in Burma, a gay or lesbian in Uganda, or even a visitor to a Jewish community center in Kansas. The principle is the same: no one, no one, should be put at risk merely because of who they are or who some hatemongers thinks they are.
Finally, we must remember that preventing mass atrocities is a global responsibility requiring contributions from all. We aren’t the world’s policeman, nor do we have the solution to every crisis. But we can and must ensure that both we and our partners have the organization, the capacity, and the will to engage and to act. A good place to start is by strengthening international peacekeeping. Strengthening the universe that Roméo Dallaire himself tried so hard to make better.
At a time now in 2014 when UN peacekeeping operations are at an all-time high. When we have more peacekeepers spread across more continents than ever before in history, too few resources are available to ensure their success. While it is a marker of our progress that many UN peacekeeping missions now have strong mandates to protect civilians – much stronger than General Dallaire had back in 1994 – too few countries with able militaries are stepping up to contribute peacekeepers, depriving these new, more assertive operations of the well-equipped and well-trained troops that they need. We must be as efficient as possible, but nothing is more wasteful than the unnecessary loss of a human life.
Make no mistake: every time a dispute is settled without fighting; every time a rapid response saves lives; every time farmland is preserved from devastation; every time a war criminal is convicted; every time a child in jeopardy does not become an orphan; the right precedent is set, and the world grows a little more secure. There is no way to put a price tag on that.
I might add that each time the supporters of the Holocaust Memorial Museum gather; or the words of Elie Wiesel are brought to mind; or the survivors of genocide and the Holocaust share their wisdom; our collective courage and determination are renewed.
Those who have borne the most searing witness to the depredations of evil are also the most effective in summoning us all to defend human dignity, real justice, and perhaps above all – even in the face of those who deny or distort it – to insist on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
In closing, I want to repeat my thanks to all of you for your generosity, your supreme generosity, in supporting the mission and mandate of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I’d like to turn once again to the example of General Roméo Dallaire.
You, General, have stood between the killers and their prey. You have heard the piercing screams of victims, and the deafening silence of a world unable to muster the will to act. You have turned that deadly silence into a personal – and now global – crusade to help summon meaningful action to protect peoples endangered by crimes of unfathomable and unconscionable proportions. In 1994, you were doing your job, at a time when no one else was willing to do theirs. Your story is a call to action, your commitment is an inspiration, and your courage is unmatched.
I am honored to invite Holocaust survivor Nessie Godin and Rwandan genocide survivor Yvette Rugasaguhunga to escort the recipient of the fourth annual Elie Wiesel award to the stage. Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in welcoming General Roméo Dallaire.
- Source: U.S. Mission to the UN in New York