Speech: Michael Posner at the 2010 Human Rights Award Ceremony
It is a great privilege for me to be here today and to honor this year’s award winner Abel Barrera Hernandez of Mexico. Abel has devoted his life’s work to protecting Mexico’s indigenous and peasant communities in his home state of Guerrero. He and his colleagues are part of the global human rights movement. They testify to the enduring truth that human rights are best defended at home. We in this country, as well as sons and daughters of Guerrero in Mexico, must defend human rights in their own communities first and foremost. And Abel Barrera Hernandez has given us an example of how the most powerless can be empowered.
I have been coming to this ceremony since 1984 when Ethel, Kerry and the Center began presenting these awards. For several years, I was privileged to serve as a judge, reviewing potential nominees, and more recently to serve as a member of the Center’s board. I have seen firsthand the power of these awards to shine a spotlight on human rights violations. And I have marveled at the support that Monika and the Center’s dedicated staff provide to frontline defenders like Abel who are working to protect those most in need.
But today I come here wearing a different hat – as a proud representative of the Obama administration and this President’s vision of principled engagement.
Principled engagement means that even—and especially—in countries where the U.S. has significant strategic and economic interests, human rights will be an essential element of our agenda. Egypt is an important ally of ours in the Middle East, and we work with the Egyptian government on issues of common interest and concern. We recognize and value that important relationship, but we also believe that friends should be able to speak frankly and openly with each other. So during a visit there last month, I urged officials to hold free and fair elections, respect religious minorities and to lift the state of emergency. Our approach to China is similar. I also was recently in Beijing and talked with government officials about ways we can continue our dialogue on issues like the rule of law. But I also strongly urged the release of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. He is serving an 11-year prison sentence for helping write and disseminate Charter 08, a petition urging greater openness and respect for human rights in China.
Principled engagement also led us to join the UN Human Rights Council last year. We are working hard to transform that international body so that it can live up to its potential.
In this and many other areas we are committed to applying a single human rights standard, based on the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, to every government including our own. As Secretary Clinton often has said, we need to lead by example. Two weeks ago, I was part of a U.S. delegation in Geneva that presented the first-ever Universal Periodic Review of the United States to the United Nations. Our delegation, representing 11 federal agencies, presented the U.S. human rights record from a position of strength, reflecting honestly and openly both our many accomplishments and the challenges we still face in our nation’s continuing pursuit of a more perfect union. This is just one example of how the Obama administration is building a firm foundation for global leadership on human rights. Leading by example on human rights is the best way to engender support for U.S. leadership in the world in the 21st century.
We pursue our policies mindful of the fact that sustainable progress on human rights must come from within each society. The U.S. government can and should provide support to those who seek to advance human rights within their own societies – we can and should provide a lifeline of protection when those who advocate and agitate for progress get in trouble, as they often do. We must help amplify their voices on the international stage. This also has been the core mission of the RFK Center for Human Rights over the past 27 years.
And that core mission was driven by the examples set by Bobby and Ted Kennedy. Like so many in this room, the Kennedy family sparked my early commitment to public service. As a young boy, I saw Bobby Kennedy speak to a group of corporate lawyers in California. Rather than talk to them about what they expected and felt comfortable hearing, he focused on the gap between the rich and poor in our society. He implored them to volunteer their time and energies to serve the most vulnerable. So when he ran for President in 1968, there I was, a high school student in Chicago, passing out his campaign literature on a street corner. Bobby Kennedy touched a nerve – he inspired me and countless other of my generation to get involved because of his dedication to human rights and social justice. His legacy continues to inspire and motivate me every day.
The same can be said for Ted Kennedy. In 1978 I went to work for a new NGO called the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, now Human Rights First. One of the first and most important lessons I learned was that if you wanted to be an effective human rights advocate in this country, you needed to make your way to Senator Kennedy’s doorstep. For almost three decades, he was our go-to-guy. Let me give you one early example of why.
In 1980 he was the principal sponsor of new refugee legislation in Congress to reform the admission of Indochinese and other refugees to this country. Spurred by our work with Haitian refugees, I asked Senator Kennedy to include protections for asylum seekers, like the Haitians, in his pending legislation. He immediately embraced this cause and set the wheels in motion, turning this idea into law. Without him it simply would not have happened. For 30 years, this provision has provided protection to literally hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who have fled persecution and sought freedom in our country. Ted Kennedy had a rare combination of personal passion and commitment to human rights, coupled with political pragmatism that enabled him to get results. It’s been 15 months since his passing, and we miss his powerful presence but draw strength from his example.
Senator Kennedy shared something with today’s honoree – a passion for indigenous and minority rights. He supported the work of Amilcar Mendez, an RFK award recipient who stood up for the rights of the indigenous in Guatemala. He advocated for the human rights of the Sahrawi in Western Sahara. He spoke out on behalf of the Tibetan people. And together with Senator Cranston, he drafted legislation to protect the rights and cultures of indigenous people globally through U.S. policy.
Abel Barrera Hernandez studied indigenous communities from a theological and anthropological perspective. Then he decided to act. In 1994 he founded the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Montaña in his hometown of Tlapa. Today it provides the indigenous and peasant communities with everything from psychological support and rehabilitation to legal aid and dispute resolution services. And it advocates at the local, national and international levels for improved access to legal representation, healthcare, housing and education.
This multi-faceted approach – domestic and international, legal and political, behind-the-scenes and public – has achieved remarkable results, with brave staff members continuing their work even in the face of personal threats and targeting. In two years alone, the Center responded to more than 1,500 complaints, and won favorable judgments or resolutions for more than 100 legal cases. And in 2009, the Center brought a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, alleging that members of the Mexican army had raped and tortured two indigenous women in 2002. Just last month, the Court published its ruling, recognizing and condemning the military abuses.
Guerrero is not an easy place to operate. It is among the poorest of Mexico’s 31 states. Its indigenous people speak 20 languages but only 38% speak Spanish. In some indigenous communities, more than 80% are illiterate, compared to 7.2% across Mexico.
And although the government generally respects and works to promote human rights, instability and drug-related violence present a threat to Mexicans in many parts of the country, including Guerrero. The government is making strides to address these issues by expanding its federal police force, and reforming its judicial system, but the security situation in the region continues to be volatile and there is still a pattern of serious human rights violations. In Guerrero these violations range from homes and crops being destroyed to arbitrary arrest and murder of civilians. Human rights defenders are threatened with death and subject to arbitrary arrest, disappearance and executions.
In spite of these challenges – or perhaps because of them – Abel has not backed down. Instead, he looked around at the world he grew up in, and, as Bobby Kennedy once said, dreamt of things that never were and asked why not. Abel has given his community a voice, he has appealed their cases before the courts, and he has provided for their basic needs. And because of him, this often overlooked community has greater rights and greater hope for a brighter future.
Robert Kennedy observed that moral courage “is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.’’
He believed that those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.
Abel, today you are surrounded by a roomful of companions. We celebrate your courage, your desire to change your world and the remarkable impact you have on people’s lives. We stand by you, the people in your community and the work you do. And it is an honor for me to join with Ethel and Kerry in presenting you with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for 2010.