RFK Center - Defending Human Rights In This World
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Awards (News)
Remarks by Senator Edward Kennedy: 2002 RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony

Thank you, John, for that generous introduction. You've always been a great friend to the RFK Memorial over the years, and we're honored you're here with us today.

We're honored to have with us the mother and sister of our recipient this year, as well as a number of our previous recipients. We also welcome from Massachusetts, State Representative Marie St. Fleur, Father Gabriel Meshell and the leadership of the Boston-based non-profit Partners in Health.

It is also appropriate to pay tribute to one of our greatest friends, Senator Paul Wenstone. Paul was a dear friend of many of us here today and a great friend of human rights.

Like Robert Kennedy, Paul fought skillfully and tirelessly for social justice everywhere. His death is a great loss for all those around the world who look to the United States for leadership in the continuing battle against inequality and injustice. His death has left a void that we all must work to fill.

Today we honor the inspiring leadership and extraordinary achievements of an impressive leader in this battle - Loune Viaud of Haiti.

The American author Herbert Gold once wrote, "In Haiti all the important things are beautiful; only reality needs a bit of improvement." In the face of staggering poverty and disease, our recipient has dedicated herself to meeting the real health care needs of the Haitian people.

Tragically, the people of that nation have long been struggling with a health nightmare of unspeakable proportions. After generations of violence, civil strife and poverty, Haitians must now endure appalling health conditions. Among all the nations in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has the highest mortality rate for children under the age of 5, the shortest life expectancy, and the highest adult HIV infection rate. The Haitian poet Mark Rej is writes eloquently and movingly of the urgent need to break poverty's devastating grip on the Haitian people:

Oh poverty! get out of Haiti.
You've strangled her
With misery day after day
Oh poverty! get out of Haiti so she can
Regain with dignity her title, "The Pearl of the Antilles."

That goal is far from being realized today. In shantytowns across the countryside, thousands of Haitians live without schools, adequate shelter, or electricity. Human waste accumulates in the streets, the marketplaces, and the drainage canals. Only a quarter - a quarter - of the population have access to clean water.

Preventable diseases such as polio and tuberculosis have been largely eradicated throughout the hemisphere, but they often go unprevented and untreated in Haiti. Only a quarter of Haitian children receive needed vaccinations. Far too many children die of malaria, even as their parents die of AIDS. Life expectancy has dropped to less than 53 years.

This misery has plagued Haiti far too long. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was America's ambassador to Haiti in the 1890s, spoke eloquently of the island's squandered potential, saying:

"No other land has brighter skies. No other land has purer water, richer soil ... She has all the natural conditions essential to a noble, prosperous and happy country. Yet, there she is, tom and rent by revolutions; by clamorous factions ... floundering her life away year after year in a labyrinth of social misery."

That social misery, as seen in Haiti's appalling health conditions, is not inevitable. In fact, Haiti's 1987 Constitution guarantees the right to health care and access to health services for all. But year after year, that guarantee is an empty promise. Poverty and sickness, along with politically-motivated violence and chronic political instability, are still too often a way of life for the Haitian people.

No wonder Haitian men and women and their children will do anything - even risk their lives - to escape this misery, as we saw so dramatically on the beach in Florida three weeks ago. Their plight was heartbreaking, especially knowing that these refugees in need may well be sent cruelly back to Haiti because of a policy by the U.S. Department of Justice that, in practice, still unfairly singles out Haitian asylum seekers for harsher treatment.

The Department of Justice, hiding behind a veil of legitimacy, now says that it will detain all foreign nationals pleading asylum, regardless of nationality. But, in practice, the overwhelming majority of persons affected by this new policy will continue to be Haitians. This policy will subject Haitians arriving by boat to mandatory detention, without the possibility of parole, even after they establish a credible fear of persecution.

This is unacceptable. Such a policy violates well-established international refugee standards and, considering the current escalation of violence and human rights violations in Haiti, the life and death implications of this policy are far-reaching. Haitian refugees deserve to be treated fairly by the United States, just Re any other asylum seekers from any other nation. Anything less mocks the United States commitment to sheltering the persecuted from harm.

We can all agree that the long-term answer to Haiti's plight is improving the lives of its people. Even in our own country it has never been easy to deal with poverty and disease. In Haiti it may seem an impossible dream. Yet the recipient this year of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award has courageously taken on this challenge, and she has courageously persevered.

In Haiti today the government does not have the resources to guarantee the right to health care. There is only one physician for every 10,000 Haitians. Our recipient is working effectively to deal with this over-whelming challenge. She is deeply committed to enabling Haiti to live up to the health care promise of its Constitution and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

For most of her life, Loune Viaud has been a dedicated advocate for the rights of the impoverished in Haiti. Her activism began in the 1980s, when she worked in the slums of Port- au-Prince with Jean-Bert-and Aristide, who was then a local parish priest. She organized programs for street children to obtain nutrition, education and recreation. She taught the young about civic responsibility, community activism and respect for human rights and other basic values, in spite of threats from the military regime in Haiti in those years.

She paid a high personal price for her commitment to the rights of Haiti's impoverished communities. In 1988, she barely escaped a massacre that took the lives of many of her friends and colleagues. On occasion, she was forced to flee her home and even her country to protect her safety.

She took refuge in the United States, settling in Boston. During these troubled years of exile, her work-on behalf of the poor in Haiti continued. She began a partnership with the Boston office of Partners in Health whose mission is to help meet the health care needs of the world's poorest and most vulnerable. There she found inspiration from her colleagues, whom she calls her heroes.

In Boston, she also sought to address the difficult health problems of the Haitian immigrant community. Among her most significant accomplishments was the founding of a program called "Haitian Teens Confront AIDS," the first peer-outreach program for Haitians living in the United States.

In other ways as well, she sought more just and equitable treatment of Haitian refugees. She was at the forefront of efforts in Boston to document the refugees' plight and protect their civil rights.

After Haiti's first democratic election in 1990, she returned to her native land to work in the impoverished Central Plateau region. She helped to found the first women's health clinic in the area, and participated in literacy and AIDS prevention programs for the surrounding rural communities.

The medical complex she established is now the largest provider of health care for the poor in the entire Central Plateau. Its hospital and outpatient clinics, its center for tuberculosis treatment, and its health office serve patients in over 100 outlying villages.

The results have been impressive. More than 56,000 Haitians used these services last year. This year, almost 200,000 patients win be treated. Its tuberculosis facility is now the primary referral site for the entire country.

Concerned that more than 6% of the adult population in Haiti, almost a quarter million people, are HIV positive, she helped develop HIV prevention programs and founded a new treatment center. Because of her leadership, impoverished patients with WV/AIDS now have access to medication that they could never have afforded before.

The philosophy she brings to her work is as impressive as her specific accomplishments. Her approach is grounded in the belief that health care can never be just an expensive privilege for the few. Her patients understand that the care they now receive is not charity care - it's their basic right.

Every day, she demonstrates anew her dedication to improving the lives of Haiti's poor. She drives a truck through the hills to visit sick patients and take them to the clinic. She repairs broken machinery and obtains clean water for peasant families. For her, no task is too mundane if it helps to break the cycle of disease, poverty, and early death suffered by so many Haitians.

Every day, she strives to help Haitians live another day and a better life. She has been called "a quiet giant in the field of human rights."

Her leadership proves that individuals and private organizations can make an enormous difference anywhere. She demonstrates the indispensable value of engaging private citizens and organizations to save lives and improve the quality of life.

There is a role for America, too. As Robert Kennedy said in a speech to the Senate in 1966, "there is one element of our policy that must be clear - one constant thread running through all our days: that we associate ourselves with the aspirations of the Latin American people for a better life."

When there are diseases that can be cured or prevented for so little, and when the human misery is so great, America should be doing more to see that desperately needed assistance is made available and spent appropriately to deal with the public health crisis.

Assistance to Haiti on health care can be a test case to see whether public, private and non-governmental organizations can work together there to save lives. If new health programs are carried out effectively, they will demonstrate that similar direct assistance to the government of Haiti on other issues can be effective, too. The people of Haiti deserve no less, and the United States should do no less.

In 1966, at the University of Capetown in South Africa, Robert Kennedy said: "Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change." I know that my brother would be proud of the extraordinary moral courage of our recipient in seeking great change in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She inspires us all to work harder to ease suffering in the world, wherever it is found, and she eminently deserves the award she receives today.

I am honored now to ask Ethel to join me in presenting the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award to this "quiet giant in the field of human rights" -- Loune Viaud of Haiti.