11.13.08

Remarks For Presentation Of The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award To Aminatou Haidar

Thank you for that kind introduction. 

 

I also want to thank Ethel, Kerry and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights for inviting me to speak here today.  It is an honor to stand in for my good friend Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been, and continues to be, such an eloquent force for human rights in this country and around the world.

 

Whether he is reminding us of our moral obligation to provide a safe haven for Iraqi refugees, leading the fight in Congress against apartheid in South Africa, or championing the rights of political prisoners in China, Senator Kennedy has led the way on the most important human rights issues of our time. 

 

It is a remarkable record that the rest of us in Congress should strive to emulate. 

 

This is especially important today, after the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which have so sullied our international reputation.  As the new Obama Administration and the Congress work together to reintroduce America to the world, we must reaffirm our unequivocal denunciation of the use of torture and our commitment to human rights. 

 

This is as necessary here at home as it is abroad.  The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is a living reminder of a time when Robert Kennedy, at such a young age, showed this country what the role of the Attorney General of the United States could and should be. 

 

He was not just the Attorney General for the President or his Administration.  Not just the Attorney General for those of privilege and power.  No.  He was the Attorney General for upholding the law for all Americans. 

 

That principle was trampled on shamelessly during the past eight years.  It must never happen again.   

 

The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award not only informs us of a laureate’s cause and courage, it also provides the recognition and support to enable him or her to continue working, often at great personal risk, for the principles we cherish. 

 

This year’s laureate, Ms. Aminatou Haidar, has been called the “Sahrawi Gandhi.”  She is one of the best-known human rights activists of her homeland, Western Sahara. 

 

Aminatou Haidar’s personal story is both tragic and inspirational.  Tragic for the suffering she has endured in seeking to promote respect for universal freedoms.  Inspirational for her courage, her devotion to her people and to human rights, and for what her life says about the resilience of the human spirit.

 

Her commitment to non-violence began as a young university student, witnessing the abuses of the Moroccan security forces.  As Kerry just described, in 1987 Ms. Haidar was imprisoned and tortured because she dared to speak out.  For four years she was “disappeared,” and during that entire time she was blindfolded, totally cut off from her family and the outside world.  Her health was permanently damaged by the abuses she suffered. 

 

After her release in 1991, Ms. Haidar described herself as “a ghost, a living dead, a young woman back from a kind of hell that bears no name.”

 

As the Sahrawi poet, Mohamed Ebnu wrote, “And we still wait for a new dawn.  We still wait to begin again,” Ms. Haidar resumed her work to call attention to the denial of human rights inWestern Sahara. 

 

In June 2005, when Ms. Haidar was again arrested, again beaten and injured, and again arbitrarily detained, she did not give in to anger or despair.  Instead, she and a group of 37 other Sahrawi political prisoners held a 51-day hunger strike in an effort to obtain more humane prison conditions, investigations into allegations of torture, and the release of political prisoners. 

 

For seven months she was separated from her two children, knowing nothing of their fate.  Those of you who are parents and grandparents, as I am, can only imagine how agonizing that would be, and for her children as well. 

 

During her detention, Ms. Haidar gained international renown as a dedicated and determined human rights defender.  She was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, and she gained the support of other human rights organizations and the European Parliament. 

 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights conducted an assessment in the Western Sahara, finding serious human rights abuses and concluding that “the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara must be ensured and implemented without further delay.”

 

Since her release in 2006, Aminatou Haidar has continued her non-violent struggle tirelessly.  She is President of the Sahrawi Collective of Human Rights Defenders – CODESA – which Moroccan authorities have denied the right to legally register in Western Sahara. 

 

Her courage to speak out has also provided other Sahrawi women the strength to talk publicly about their own suffering, including those who have been victims of the previously unspeakable crime of rape.

 

Her humility, despite her importance in the human rights movement in Western Sahara, may be one reason that she is so revered.  Another, undoubtedly, is her unwavering commitment – with grace and honesty, with bravery as her strongest tool – to end the abuse suffered by her people and to demand their legal and inalienable right to self-determination. 

 

A colleague of hers perhaps said it best:  “She is neither a polemicist nor an ideologue, but simply a woman who has seen and experienced too many abuses to remain quiet anymore.” 

 

Over the years, following Senator Kennedy’s lead, I and other Members of Congress have called for a referendum on the future of Western Sahara.  The right to self-determination is one that the founding fathers of our own country recognized as both just and necessary. 

 

The United Nations has adopted numerous resolutions reaffirming the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. 

It is important to recognize and commend the Government of Morocco for its recent efforts to protect human rights.  Morocco has become a party to most of the major human rights treaties.  It is also a valued friend and ally of the United States.  It is now time for Morocco to fulfill its treaty obligations to uphold the civil and political rights of the Sahrawi people. 

I cannot help wondering where Ms. Haidar finds the strength – despite provocations and abuse, despite the threat of being returned to prison knowing she might not survive.

 

As Robert Kennedy said in Capetown, South Africa, “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 which yields most painfully to change.”

 

Perhaps, when Ms. Haidar speaks today, she will tell us.  But I do know that her example inspires each of us, not only to continue to support her and the Sahrawi people, but to defend the rights of so many others who struggle as she does, often in obscurity, against forces far stronger. 

 

That is the mission of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and we embrace it again here today.

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