On Thursday, December 7th, the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) hosted its annual Human Rights Awards Reception at the National Education Association (NEA). This event correlated with the 69th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Human Rights Day, celebrated internationally on December 10th.
Awards were presented to Ambassador Keith Harper (ret.), former US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council in Geneva; His Excellency Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Nancy Rivard, Founder and President of Airline Ambassadors International; and Bread for the City, whose award was accepted by its CEO, George A. Jones.
The ceremony began at 6 pm with remarks from UNA-NCA President Stephen F. Moseley and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss, with additional remarks from Michael Marsh for Northern Trust and Ray Friday for UNFCU, main program sponsors.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres then shared a message with the audience. "Human rights are the foundation of peaceful societies and sustainable development," he noted. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes the equity and dignity of every person. It makes governments responsible for ensuring people can enjoy their inalienable rights and freedoms. Today, we see disturbing hostility towards human rights in all regions. Let us stand together against these negative forces. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world."
"Let us together make sure the words are translated into action. Let us stand up and speak out for human rights."
Ambassador Jorge Lomonaco, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the Organization of American States (OAS) presented the F. Allen "Tex" Harris Human Rights Diplomacy Award to Ambassador Keith Harper (ret.)
"I receive this award for our collective success," Ambassador Harper said, calling out State Department colleagues in the audience. "I know whatever we did we did together and accomplished together. It was due to your dedicated service on our team and to our Nation."
"I recognize that we are in a dark hour – but you will persevere and we will self-correct as a Nation."
"In the aftermath of World War II, the community of nations, with keen awareness of the devastation of this second great war in 30 years, knew the old ways had to change. With mere conventional weapons of such might – tanks, artillery, fighter jets, machine guns – war was now catastrophic, by definition. And in the advent of the nuclear age, the World was swiftly moving from risk of cataclysm to manmade devices posing an existential threat to mankind."
"It was of this absolute necessity that for the first time, led by efforts of the United States, that the community of nations were able to agree to a rule-based international order."
"The order was based on simple but profound propositions such as: Respect for the territorial integrity of States; self-determination for all peoples; the use of force should be authorized only under limited circumstances; and respect for the dignity of all individuals, in other words, Human Rights."
"For all its challenges, for all the multilateral systems imperfections, for all the times when our collective responses have proved inadequate, this international, rule-based order has created the most secure and prosperous world mankind, writ large, has ever known."
"We have lost focus on why we have this rule-based order. We can no longer remember that the UN and Human Rights grew out of the abject misery of war. It emerged from desperation and growing realization that 'might is right' would always prove wrong," Harper shared.
"Too many of us cannot see that our security, our prosperity is grounded in this international, rule-based order. Further, too many of us fail to see that our collective security and prosperity is not preordained. There is no magic sustaining the world as we know it. It has been nurtured and cultivated over many years by hard working, diligent and dedicated women and men from around the globe. They have fought the forces of autocracy. The have fought discrimination in all its forms. They have battled the purveyors of cynical nationalism. This work is the essential ingredient to sustain the secure world we enjoy."
"And let’s be clear about one thing, the United States of America has played a leading role in sustaining this rule-based order. I do not say this out of some misguided self-back-slapping national hubris. I say this out of deep humility grounded in the acknowledgement that with the power to effectuate positive change, comes the responsibility to do so. Since Eleanor Roosevelt led the initiative for a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our Nation has consistently been at the forefront of supporting this international order – with Human Rights as an essential element."
"Our leadership has mattered. Our example has mattered. We work with our partners and allies to ensure success, but sustaining of this order cannot happen without American leadership."
"If the United States retreats from our values, there is no magic out there that will sustain the liberal order. And with disorder will come the insecurity of the past. That should not be a world we bequeath to our children."
"As we re-litigate our role in the World, we must remember how we got here. We have to remember what things looked like before the Universal Declaration. We have to recall the devastation of a world at War and how with technological advances, the outcome today will be far worse. And when we do remember these things, we will conclude as they did in the aftermath of World War II, that investing in these normative systems is not optional. And we must further recollect that the United States of America must lead."
Ms. Felice Gaer, Director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and Vice-Chair of the UN Committee Against Torture presented His Excellency Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the Louis B. Sohn Human Rights Award.
"Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, almost 70 years ago this week, human rights norms have grown in scope and authority. As Michael Ignatieff has reminded us, human rights having such power invites challenge. Some of the challenge has been intellectual, stemming from academia which argues about multiculturalism and questions whether human rights are indeed universal. More recently, challenges have come from political leaders who question whether core rights -like freedom of expression, or the prohibition on torture- matter at all in the modern age and whether the institutions built to promote and protect them can’t simply be torn down —or more likely, just abandoned by them."
"Louis Sohn said his favorite animal was the giraffe," she said with a smile, "because it was so emblematic of the international lawyer: it has its feet on the ground, and its head in the clouds! Today, with so many international human rights treaties in place, with monitors on the scene, and international institutions and courts as well, we don’t see human rights law as being up in the clouds. I think that Louis Sohn would have agreed that Zeid has just the right combination of aspirational views and practical achievement to merit this award in his honor."
"Zeid causes us, here in Washington DC, to remember Ted Kennedy’s famous call to advocates and activists alike: 'The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream will never die.'"
Accepting the award, His Excellency shared that "The need to re-assert the primacy of people's human rights is absolutely evident, and urgent. But there is also a great need for the anchoring force of principles, for practical and ethical guidance, among the workers who function within the digital labyrinth which is reshaping such a large part of our political, economic, social and cultural landscape."
"When the entire weight of a country, feral and menacing, falls like an axe on an illiterate young woman of humble station with no means to mount a proper defense, it brings home to me, and with terrific force, the unchallengeable need for universal rights."
"Do not dare to tell me human rights are not universal. Do not dare."
"It is easy to be cynical, and to carp from a great height that universal human rights are unrealisable, or a fiction – perhaps a marketing tool for Western capitalism, or maybe a stalking horse for a socialist agenda. But not when you are facing the victims of deep injustice – victims of deprivation, discrimination and violence."
"The Rohingya; the people of Syria; Yemen; South Sudan; the Central African Republic; migrants, the world over – people Western economies need, and who are nonetheless mistreated, dealt with almost like disposable units."
"When I meet victims, and listen to their stories, I know the answer. All these people have exactly the same rights as you and I."
High Commissioner Zeid continued, "This Sunday, as you may know, is the 69th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That mighty document has helped change the world. Drafting it was not an easy process, and the impulsion to do so came from many sources: leaders and thinkers whose people were being crushed by colonial exploitation and discrimination [...] Drawing on cultural and religious traditions from across the planet, they determined the values that are common to all humanity, and which together add up to justice; equality; human dignity."
"They determined that human rights are inalienable. No Government or other actor may legitimately violate the human rights of any individual."
"In perhaps the greatest speech of his career, and in reference to his four freedoms, President Franklin Roosevelt said, 'That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception — the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.'"
"[...] the work of civil society activists and human rights defenders is absolutely essential to each of these advances; my admiration for their struggles is boundless. But it is not the whole story. Without a universal point of reference – a legal destination, in the form of an international human rights treaty; a universal agreement that endorses the absolute legitimacy of their claims – the journey for civil society, and for the Governments inclined toward it – would be less focused, more aimless."
"Indeed, many of us fear that today, this situation is growing worse – that the very basis of human rights principles, and the multilateral institutions which underpin the process of achieving those rights, are being undermined. Our world is lurching from crisis to crisis."
"If we continue along this path, we will be making our way back to the beginning of our story – a planet devastated by suffering and destruction."
"Conflict, discrimination, poverty, inequality and terrorism are mutually reinforcing man-made disasters that are hammering too many communities and individuals. They are constructed. They are contagious."
"My message today is that we can set our planet on a course of greater inclusion; more sustained prosperity; more justice; more dignity; more freedom; more peace. We can build in human rights. We can encourage leaders to embrace the voices of their people, instead of cutting themselves off from their most precious resource. Conflict can be prevented. Peace, security and development can be built. Brick by brick. Equality. Dignity. Participation. Respect."
"The Universal Declaration is not a tired collation of ideals – a gigantic Hallmark card of pretty sentiment. It is a program of hard-headed action. And human rights are not expensive: they are priceless. They are not luxuries, for times of peace: they are the workhorses, the load-bearing bricks and mortar which build resilience, and greater security, for us all."
Ms. Annette Lantos Tillermann-Dick, Chair of the Advisory Board for the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, presented the Perdita Huston Human Rights Award to Ms. Nancy Rivard, Founder and President of Airline Ambassadors International.
"All of us want to harvest the fruits of a life well lived, but how do we do that?" Ms. Rivard asked, looking out at the audience. "By searching for a way that we, uniquely, can serve."
"I gave up my corporate job at American Airlines to become a flight attendant again, to embark on a profound search for meaning that took me all over the world. It became clear that we had to shift public consciousness to an understanding of our common humanity if we were going to solve the global problems that faced us. But how? I deeply pondered this and how I could use my life to be of service."
"I noticed two things in all my travels: There were millions of children in the developing world who lacked basic amenities. Clean water, food, medical care, access to education or a comfortable place to lay their heads at night. I also noticed my colleagues in the developed world with too many things…that weren’t really making them happy. Many wanted to make a difference, but they didn’t know how."
"What if there was a way for ordinary people to match their unique interests and skills to actual world need?"
"I had seen unused seats on the airplanes I flew, empty overhead bins and room in the cargo hold. Why not use that space to transport humanitarian aid and mobilize flight attendants to hand deliver it?"
"We officially launched Airline Ambassadors as a non-profit organization, (in the office of the former Congressman Tom Lantos), providing a way for ordinary travelers to be a living link between world resource and world need."
"We have accomplished far more than we ever dreamed escorting over 3,000 children for needed medical care and hand delivering over 60 million in aid directly to 500,000 children."
"Every month we saw vulnerable children, but it was not until 2009 after saving a little girl in Cambodia, we learned of a dark reality in our world. As president of Airline Ambassadors, I knew we had to get involved in the fight against human trafficking. Amazingly, the following month, our team correctly identified trafficking on 4 different airlines. One of those cases led to the bust of a pornography ring in Boston, saving 86 children."
"Thousands of victims are trafficked across international borders annually. Traffickers move victims frequently to keep them powerless and exploit them for labor or sexual slavery."
"We cannot let the critical infrastructure of the transportation industry be used to facilitate trafficking. As the late Tom Lantos said, 'The veneer of civilization is paper thin, we are its guardians, and we must never rest.'"
"Each of us can be alert to the world around us and have the moral imperative to report suspected incidents. Your action can save a life."
Councilmember Trayon White, Sr., Representative of the 8th Ward to the Council of the District of Colombia, presented the Distinguished Community Human Rights Award to Bread for the City. It was accepted by George A. Jones, who has served as CEO of Bread for the City for more than 20 years.
"Since 1974, Bread for the City has provided the DC families and individuals living on low incomes free food, medical care, clothing, legal and social services," Mr. Jones shared with the audience. "Over the same period and more and more intentionally, we have partnered with our community members to advocate for the institutional and structural reforms needed to address the systemic inequities."
"I believe addressing these inequities is key to eliminating the inequality experienced by people with low-incomes living in DC; people who are almost exclusively people of color."
"In truth, all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the world a comprehensive blueprint for making cities, states and countries more just and well sustainable. Still, it was the first SDG, 'Ending Poverty in all forms' that I found especially powerful and inspiring," he shared.
"It reminded me about a recent conversation that took place among a group of social justice advocates here in DC. We were there to discuss the things we wanted to push DC policy makers to address, and the meeting quickly devolved into a debate about a handful of incremental budget requests. [...] I found myself becoming inpatient about this modest list of familiar budgetary and policy demands."
"I suggested to the group that we risked doing the same thing, asking for the same incremental investments that would doom us to the same middling outcomes we’ve seen in previous years. Incremental investments that allowed the growing income and socioeconomic divide that grips not only DC, but is playing out in every urban city in the United States. Disparities that as the United Nations (UN) knows better than most, are replicated to varying degrees in every continent and country throughout the world."
"I finally said 'Why aren’t we making a more audacious request of our local government?' Why aren’t we asking our policy members to commit to addressing the economic injustice unfolding in DC in complete and comprehensive way?'"
"[...] as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 'There is nothing new about poverty, what is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.'"
"In Washington DC, we have the resources to get rid of poverty. And like Dr. King and the United Nations Association, Bread for the City believes that it is important to state explicitly that our goal is to end Poverty."
As the inspiring evening drew to a close, UNA-NCA Executive Director, Ms. Paula Boland, and UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee Chair, Ms. Heather Hill, provided closing remarks.
Ms. Hill announced that UNA-NCA is proud to be the recipient of a Stand Up Grant by the United Nations Association of the USA. This grant is part of the UN's global campaign, Stand Up for Human Rights, and will be used over the next year by UNA-NCA to collect and share stories of violence against women in DC. More information is coming soon on the project and launch event, as well as how interested parties can participate. You can also sign up below for more information.
Complete remarks of the awardees can be found below, in addition to a full gallery of photos from the evening.
Additional information about the event, bios, and articles from each of our awardees, can be found in the Program Book. If you are interested in learning more about our awardees, we encourage you to check out the Spotlight! interview series on the UNA-NCA blog.
UNA-NCA is very grateful to our sponsors, award presenters, photographers Rachel M. Fry and Tselmegtsetseg Tsetsendelger, and UNA-NCA Board Member Jill Christianson and the NEA for providing the space for the Awards reception.
Congratulations to all of our awardees and we look forward to your continued, active engagement in 2018!