Remarks by Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett; Lantos Prize Event 2011

Good Morning, I am Katrina Lantos Swett and along with my sister Annette and my mother Annette, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the 2011 Lantos Human Rights Prize award ceremony. Many years ago when I was a very young, newly minted lawyer working on Capitol Hill for then Senator Joe Biden, I was being romantically pursued by another Hill staffer. This young man, who shall remain nameless, had the most thought provoking pick-up line that I was ever on the receiving end of. And although I never actually went out on a date with him, I also never forgot his question. It was the following:

“If tonight as you prepare to go to bed, the light in your room grows brighter and brighter and you find yourself miraculously in the presence of God and He tells you, I will answer any single question for you; what would you ask? I thought long and hard about how I would use such a precious opportunity. I didn’t want to ask a question that I probably already knew the answer to such as what is the greatest thing in life? Love! Or how can we achieve peace and reconciliation? Forgiveness and mutual understanding.

In the end I decided I would ask God a very personal question because I believe that to the extent he works in this world, it is most often through us. And so the question I determined I would ask was: “What will be the greatest moral challenge I will face in my life and will I be equal to it? Will I meet it in a way that makes you proud?” Our honoree this year, Mr. Paul Rusesabagina, has answered that question and has done so resoundingly in the affirmative.

World renowned author, Nobel Laureate and last year’s recipient of the Lantos Prize, Professor Elie Wiesel has written that “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must, at that moment, become the center of the universe” Seventeen years ago when Rwanda desperately needed to be the center of the universe the world instead turned away. As a genocidal assault was unleashed on the Tutsi people, the community of nations, to their everlasting shame, stood by and did nothing and as a consequence nearly a million Rwandans were massacred in just 100 days. But while the mighty and powerful found reasons and excuses to turn away, Paul Rusesabagina, a self-described “ordinary man” did not turn away. Paul’s brave and profoundly decent actions as the manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines, helped save the lives of over 1,200 hundred Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had taken refuge in his hotel.

What is remarkable about Paul Rusesabagina’s achievement is that it was not the result of a grandiose plan to thwart the evil that was raging outside the gates of his hotel. No not at all. Paul would be the first to say that minute to minute – day to day- making it up as he went along, he was simply determined to do one more thing to try and save lives for one more day. Where did he find the strength and humanity to do this-to live out the idea that he was indeed his brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? I don’t know, but I do know that we can perhaps hope to find similar strength and humanity from following his example.

Paul’s story is one that particularly resonates with my family because it reminds us of the heroic rescue mission of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, including my father Tom Lantos. In 2012 we will celebrate the centennial of Raoul Wallenberg’s birth and it is fitting indeed that Paul has previously been awarded the Wallenberg medal for his outstanding humanitarian actions on behalf of the defenseless.

I spoke earlier of wanting to inquire of God what might be the great moral test of my life. Paul met his great test and he would have been more than justified in seeking a life of quiet and peace in which he could be recognized for his good works but also left alone to enjoy the simple ordinary pleasures of his family and friends. Perhaps it is not surprising that Paul instead chose the path less travelled and more fraught with risk. While recognizing the significant progress that has been made in Rwanda under President Kagame, Paul has nonetheless dared to speak out against the serious challenges to democracy and human rights that exist in Rwanda today. His call for a peace and reconciliation process is the right prescription for a country that still faces deep rooted tensions that, if not addressed could pose a serious risk to the people of this region who have already suffered so much. Sadly, Paul’s willingness to publicly confront these issues has made him the target of bitter attacks on his character and motives. Unfortunately these attacks appear to be consistent with a disturbing pattern of censorship, intimidation and even violence that has been directed against those who have dared voice concerns about the government of Rwanda. This pattern is not unique to Rwanda. As Mark Twain observed, history may not repeat itself but it often rhymes. Raoul Wallenberg was arrested and sent to the Soviet Gulag for his heroic deeds during the Holocaust, Martin Luther King Jr. who was hailed in America when he became the youngest Nobel Laureate, became the subject of bitter denunciation when he spoke out against our involvement in the Viet Nam war, and last year’s recipient of the Nobel prize, the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, languishes in a Chinese prison for daring to write about a democratic future for his country. I suppose we could say that Paul is in good company and as he told me just a few weeks ago, “I am not threatened and I will not be silent” As Charlie Clements, the director of the Harvard Carr Center for human rights said recently: “It has never been Paul Rusesabagina’s nature to stay in his place. He would not have saved lives in the hotel had he stayed in his role as hotel manager”

We are so proud at the Lantos Foundation to be adding our recognition to the many others that Paul has rightly received. This “extra” ordinary man never wielded a gun, never swung a machete, but he used his words and his humanity to find a small path in the darkness and helped hundreds of his fellow human beings follow that path to safety. Paul Rusesabagina has set a path for us to follow as well.

Thank you very much.