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Diplomacy in Action

Rescue and Refuge: Tribute to Persons of Courage

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Ben Franklin Reception Rooms
Washington, DC
April 6, 2011


Remarks as drafted

Thank you, Andrea. And thank you all for joining us here today to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. This is one of several events we’ll host this year to pay tribute to the Refugee Convention, reflecting the deep commitment of the Obama Administration to human rights and humanitarian principles. And what an honor – and what a pleasure – to work for Secretary of State Clinton, who is herself a tireless champion of the world’s most vulnerable people.

I’m so very grateful to be here today, with our honorees and their families, in person and via video link. Secretary Clinton will be speaking more about these remarkable individuals when she joins us later this morning. Let me also offer a quick word of thanks to the many others in my Bureau, in the Department, and in partner organizations, who helped make this event possible – and, of course, our Ambassadors in Dakar, Kigali and Sarajevo.

I’d like to take a moment to describe how this event took shape, and what it means to our government, and to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).

As we began planning our commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, we reflected on the story of the S.S. St. Louis, and thought that a photographic commemoration of the experience of that unfortunate ship and its doomed passengers ought to be in the State Department, and in our Bureau – as a critical symbol and reminder to us all.

As many of you know, the St. Louis was a ship carrying 930 Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939. And the ship’s passengers, unable to find refuge in Cuba, the United States, Canada, or elsewhere, were forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 of them eventually perished in the Holocaust.

We thought a photographic commemoration of the St. Louis would serve as a reminder of the critical importance of humanitarianism, and the costs of failure to assist those in need.

But on reflection, we thought that this was inadequate; that while we need to confront past failure, we must also recognize the most noble and heroic impulses behind the Refugee Convention – and honor those whose actions have embodied that spirit. PRM protection experts worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Yale University Genocide Studies Project, the Proof Project, U.S. embassies, and others to identify six honorees, recognizing that there are many more individuals who have acted heroically in times of conflict.

To be sure, all those who seek to realize these principles, day in and day out, have not been tested the way our honorees have been tested. But as we commemorate the Refugee Convention, who better for us to recognize than heroes – ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways to realize this spirit of refuge and protection –

Those who have demonstrated great courage, a willingness to persevere in pursuit of a higher objective despite serious risk, danger or other personal sacrifice;

Those who acted with integrity, with consistency of character, and a genuine commitment to maintaining core principles that guided their actions;

And finally, those with a commitment to humanitarianism, a basic belief that every individual is fundamentally deserving of respect, dignity and welfare.

A hero is made when someone is tested in extraordinary circumstances and demonstrates each and every one of these three qualities – courage, integrity and humanitarianism. But even those of us who are not so dramatically tested can seek to vindicate each of these qualities in our lives, every day. We’ll hear from the Secretary about heroes from the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. But let me take the opportunity to talk about two others whom we recognize, and who will be part of our photo exhibit.

Let me begin with the story of a woman who was born just 80 miles from here, born a slave on a plantation in Eastern Maryland. Every American schoolchild knows the name she took after she escaped to Philadelphia and began working for the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman bore the physical and spiritual scars of her ordeal, as many modern refugees do. She had whip scars on her back and neck, and the searing memory of having witnessed her two older sisters being sold off and dragged away. Yet once she made it to freedom, she sneaked back into the slave South – not once, but more than a dozen times. She rescued a sister, four brothers, and then her parents. She told her abolitionist friends that as soon as she got her family out, she would stop her dangerous missions.

But she didn’t. And when the Civil War began, she once again went behind Confederate lines, helping run raids on plantations that freed hundreds of slaves.

We honor Harriet Tubman today not only for her extraordinary heroism in fighting against the evils of slavery in her own time, but also because her legacy lives on – here in the United States, and around the world. And of course, her inclusion reminds us that modern slavery continues to plague us.

Today we also honor Raoul Wallenberg, credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust through his creative efforts as a Swedish diplomat in Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944. He forged thousands of Swedish passports, and then he distributed them to Hungarian Jews facing deportation. He bribed and blackmailed Nazi officials to save Jewish lives. And he himself is believed to have died in a Soviet gulag.

And of course, after the horrors of the Holocaust and the massive dislocation resulting from the second world war, the international community came together to adopt the Refugee Convention, which we commemorate today.

The six individuals we honor embody the principles of the Refugee Convention at the most fundamental level. They demonstrated heroism – enormous courage, integrity and humanitarianism in the service of others. We cannot all be heroes, but the stories of these remarkable individuals can inspire each of us – in government, in the NGO community and in civil society – to persevere in pursuit of this higher purpose – whether it is by defending our own neighbors, going above and beyond the call of duty to keep peace and help distant countries in conflict, bearing witness to atrocities, or ensuring our government and our non-governmental organizations are leading the effort to address suffering – and are provided the resources – the funds – to do that job effectively.

We all understand that ultimately humanitarian crises require political solutions. At the same time, humanitarian crises and human suffering demand immediate responses. Such responses help to promote stability and peace in fragile countries and make the U.S. safer and more prosperous, but they also reflect our highest ideals and aspirations.

The United States has led the world in provision of overseas support for humanitarian protection and assistance, and we have provided asylum and refugee resettlement for millions over the last three decades – and before. But there is so much more to do – and the model, the lesson and the inspiration provided by those we honor today will only help us to sustain and strengthen these efforts.

Thank you.

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