Lantos Foundation Responds to Protests

CONCORD, NH – Katrina Lantos Swett, President of The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, responded today to a protest staged in opposition to the upcoming award of the 2011 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize to Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina:

“The protest staged today is only the latest attempt to smear the good name of this year’s Lantos Prize recipient, Paul Rusesabagina.  These protests were not staged when the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” was released, nor were they staged when Paul received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush.  It was only once he started to speak out about the need for more freedom and democracy in Rwanda, including a Truth and Reconciliation process, that these attacks were suddenly manufactured. Unfortunately these attacks appear to be consistent with a disturbing pattern of censorship, intimidation and even violence that has been directed at those who have dared voice concerns about the government of Rwanda. This pattern is not unique to Rwanda. Other authoritarian regimes have responded in a similar fashion.  

The most recent high profile example happened in 2010, when the Chinese government vehemently protested the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and tried to bully governments into boycotting the Prize ceremony.  The irony of such manufactured protests is that, in the end, they only serve to provide a brighter spotlight to the intended target. 

As the child of Holocaust survivors, I, along with the Lantos Foundation staff, have made particular efforts to listen to the concerns of Rwandan genocide survivors who have contacted us. While many have thanked us for our decision to honor Paul Rusesabagina, there are others who have expressed contrary views.   We have spent hours talking to these individuals by phone and email, and even meeting with some in person.  The bottom-line is that the more we speak to them, the more it becomes painfully obvious that there is a “script” in place.  This script is at times absurd and at other times petty. They accuse Paul of denying the genocide when in fact he has devoted his life to telling the awful story of Rwanda’s genocide and working to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation. They complain that Paul charged the guests who found refuge in the hotela fact that Paul readily shares in his book, in person and in the movie Hotel Rwanda- money was needed to feed the 1200 people living in the hotel and to bribe the ever murderous gangs that prowled outside the hotel gates. At the end of the day, it seems that his real offense in their eyes, is that he has been outspoken in defense of democracy in Rwanda even in the face of determined efforts to silence him.

 We did not intend to cause controversy with this year’s Lantos Prize, but it seems the controversy has found us anyway.  We did not intend to step into the political disagreements that are currently swirling in and around Rwanda, but it seems we are not able to avoid that either.  We originally chose Paul Rusesabagina as the Lantos Prize recipient purely based on his heroic actions during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, not for his work since then through the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation.   But we now find ourselves quite in awe of Paul’s willingness to stand up and speak out for freedoms in his home country, despite the backlash that work has caused.

In the end, the most poignant take away from today’s events is that the very freedom to take part in these protests is something that wouldn’t be allowed in Rwanda under the current government.  Paul Rusesabagina is simply asking for his native country to experience the same of freedom and openness that we deeply value here in America.”     

The Lantos Foundation established the Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2009 to honor and bring attention to heroes of the human rights movement. It is awarded annually to an individual or organization that best exemplifies the Foundation’s mission, namely to be a vital voice standing up for the values of decency, dignity, freedom, and justice in every corner of the world. The prize also serves to commemorate the late Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress and a prominent advocate for human rights during his nearly three decades as a U.S. Representative.  Former recipients of the Lantos Prize include His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.  This year’s award will be presented to Paul Rusesabagina in Washington, DC on November 16th.