41 years ago, Robert Kennedy said “Peace and justice and compassion towards those who suffer. That’s what the United States should stand for, and that’s why I’m running for President of the United States.”
Robert Kennedy dreamed things that never were and 4 decades later, we are blessed to have a “why not ” president. Why not stop torture? Why not bring troops home from Iraq? Why not close Guantanamo? Why not restore the standing of the United States as the Beacon on the Hill for Human Rights. Mr. President and First Lady Michelle Obama, thank you for welcoming us to your home and for using the torch that was passed, to light the fire and spread the audacity of hope for justice and freedom across the world.
Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the 26th annual RFK Human Rights Award Ceremony. The Tour de force behind the RFK Center is now and has always been Ethel Kennedy.
I’d like to thank the many people who made today possible. Thank you to the members of the Kennedy Family, Phil Johnston and our board of directors, the RFK human rights Award judges, RFK leadership council members, Lynn Delaney, Monika Kalra Varma, John Heffernan and the RFK Staff, Dean Rudoy and Tom and Lori Macpherson for underwriting the Awards, and all our donors and supporters gathered here today. Thank you to the Members of the diplomatic community, Members of Congress and the many friends who are our colleagues in the field who join us today.
And a special thanks to our past RFK human rights award laureates, heroes one and all, with whom we have the honor to work on ending farm worker slavery, establishing the rights to health care, food and water, stopping ethnic cleansing, and more. Lucas Benitez, Stephen Bradberry, Delphine Djiriabe, Loune Viaud, Dr. Mohammed Ahmed, and Dr. Doan Viet Hoat.
Robert Kennedy understood that he had a role to play as Attorney General, bringing the force of law to the civil rights struggle, but he also understood that he could only succeed if he partnered with Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, John Lewis and the civil rights defenders at the cutting edge of social change on the ground in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and beyond.
So today, The RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights defends heroes who are the champions of justice… the Martin Luther King’s and Cesar Chavez’s of their countries. People who face imprisonment, torture and death in the quest for protection of human rights. We partner with them for a six year period and provide capacity building, strategic advocacy and alliance opportunities to help achieve laureates’ social justice goals. Through Speak Truth to Power, we tell their stories, we educate students and the general public alike about our laureates work, and we give students a tool kit for action so they can create change in their classrooms, communities, countries and our shared world.
The worst form of abuse, say survivors of torture, is not the beatings and the cattle prods, but the taunt by wardens that you are alone. Forgotten. No one cares. This year’s RFK human rights award laureates have been collectively tortured too often to remember and imprisoned more than one hundred times.
So, Magodonga and Jenni, I want you to know, that, from this day forward, you will never be alone. Today is the beginning of a long term partnership. Look around this room. No matter what the bullies do, we will stand with you, shoulder to shoulder in your struggle for women’s rights, peace and justice.
There’s one gaping hole in this evening’s picture perfect program and that’s the annual speech by Uncle Teddy. He served on the RFK Board since its inception in 1968, and spoke at nearly every RFK human rights award ceremony.
Last night I came across a letter Teddy wrote to me forty years ago today, dated November 23, 1969, in which he wrote about daddy talking about grandpa. It reads, “Your father’s words ‘he called forth the best that was in all of us’ is something you should always remember. Although grandpa is no longer with us, we shall never forget his love for all of us. Love, Ted.”
Teddy called forth the best in all of us and we miss his love, his leadership, his laughter. He was a true hero for human rights.
Please watch the video tape.
Thank you Magodonga and Jenni, for your work, and for showing us what the human spirit is capable of achieving, even under the worst of circumstances
For the past thirty years, the people of Zimbabwe have suffered under the relentless tyranny of Robert Mugabe. 15 % of adults in Zimbabwe have HIV/AIDS. Maybe 1 in 10 kids will not see their 10th birthday. Few will ever drink a clean glass of water, and inflation has surpassed all other nations at a rate of over 80 sextillion – that is 10 to the 21st power.
The damning facts go on and on. And the people who suffer most under Mugabe’s oppression, are predictably, the women.
When the cupboard is bare, the mother can see it in the tears of her children and hear it in her baby’s cries. When the tap is turned off or the river runs dry, it is the woman who must walk the extra mile to haul the bucket of water. When the teachers aren’t paid and the schools close, it’s the mother who is left to tend to her kids, complete her chores, and worry about how her children will be educated.
In the face of this misery, WOZA members approach their activism from the unique perspective of being a woman in Zimbabwe. This is not about their physical attributes, but their role in society. Like women across the world, WOZA members are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives-people who identify themselves largely by their relationship to other people. And they are bound together by the responsibility they feel, responsibility born of the love they share with others. This collective concern is the strongest root system for a flourishing democracy.
It is in this context that WOZA was formed. This is a group of 75,000 women. They do not communicate by email or cell phone or text. They communicate solely by word of mouth. And then thousands of them they take to the streets, where they are met by the batons of the riot police.
They are battered, still they demand food and water, and they hand out roses. They are beaten. Still they demand medical care and education and speak about non violence. They are brutalized. Still they demand democracy. And talk about compassion. They are raped. Still they demand an end to violence against women. And act with love.
And after they are finally released from days, weeks, months in prison, they talk with one another, hold meetings, go onto the streets, and do it again – for their daughters and sisters, for their fathers and sons, for their families, their communities, for the country they love.
The women of Zimbabwe are doing their job. It is time for the rest of the world to do our job as well. To start, the RFK Center will urge our friends here today from the Southern African Development Community to hold Mugabe and all political leaders accountable for violations of the Global Political Agreement, which is the power sharing deal negotiated last year, now largely violated with total impunity by Mugabe and other forces. As of today, the RFK Center and all of us in this room are watching and galvanizing support for the women of WOZA. We will investigate, advocate and educate on the issues WOZA confronts. We will stand with the women of WOZA as they speak truth to power.
Robert Kennedy implored us to tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of the world. Today, Magodonga, Jenni, and the women of WOZA are taming the savageness of men. And, as they make gentle the life of Zimbabwe, they make gentle the life of the world.
I would like to end with these lines which capture the spirit of WOZA, written by the most famous woman poet. Anonymous:
Today is ours, Lets take it
And love is strong, Lets give it
A song can help, Lets sing it
And peace is dear, Lets bring it
The past is gone, Don’t rue it
Our work is here, Let’s do it!
The world is wrong, Lets right it
The battle is hard, Lets fight it
The road is rough, Lets clear it!
The future vast, Don’t fear it!
Is faith asleep, Lets wake it!
Today is ours, Lets take it.