High Commissioner's Remarks at Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony, Washington, DC, Wednesday 28 October 2009
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Mrs. Kennedy, ladies and gentlemen,
During my time as Prime Minister of Portugal and in my current position as High Commissioner, I had the great honor and pleasure of meeting with Senator Kennedy on a number of occasions. I could not help but be immensely impressed by him -- impressed by his compassion and his unwaivering commitment to human rights and refugee protection. What he famously said of his brother is so true of him as well: he saw wrong and tried to right it. He saw suffering and tried to heal it.
When he traveled to East Bengal in 1971, he recalled a sight that seared his memory. I quote - " …a 10-year-old girl out foraging for something to cover the body of her baby brother." Thirty five years later, he wrote of those who fled the war in Iraq, "refugees are witnesses to the cruelty that stains our age." His powers of observation and compassion never waned. His conviction led to action that rescued scores of uprooted lives.
UNHCR depends on visionary statespeople like Senator Kennedy. His relentless support for refugee protection, at home and abroad, greatly strengthened the system for protecting and assisting refugees all over the world.
All the speakers here this evening, including those in the video, have joined me in recognizing Senator Kennedy's lasting contribution to laws promoting and protecting the rights of people forced to flee.
What moved him privately became his public commitment. This was a broad and inclusive concept of fairness, in which everyone in need of protection would be treated equally, regardless of nationality or ideology. The international community is still trying to live up to these ideals, and Senator Kennedy's example will continue to inspire the world for decades to come.
It is in converting his personal commitment into public law that Senator Kennedy most significantly made his mark in international refugee protection. I was struck by Senator Simpson's observation that Senator Kennedy could compromise on issues without compromising himself. Indeed there would be no other way for a single individual to have ensured that no less than 300 bills would be enacted into law.
Taking into account only those bills relating to refugees, it would be necessary to cite 70 documents spanning 46 years. I do not intend to do that. The true measure of Senator Kennedy's contribution is, in any event, in its quality.
Senator Kennedy's compassion provided him with a coherent vision of how things ought to be. The international community still struggles with distinctions he saw past in the early days of the Vietnam War.
International law recognizes as refugees only those whose fear of persecution displaces them across a border, not those who seek safety within their own country. Senator Kennedy saw both groups as essentially the same, noting in his memoir that both had been displaced and that this experience was the common denominator.
To this day, third country refugee resettlement remains largely unavailable to the internally displaced even though it was precisely these people whose "festering camps" in Vietnam had so moved Senator Kennedy.
I must pause a moment longer on resettlement. The large-scale resettlement program established by the Refugee Act of 1980, which Senator Kennedy championed, has provided new lives in the United States for nearly 3 million refugees. That is about one percent of the total population of the country. The United States' resettlement program remains the largest in the world, offering more places than those of all other countries put together.
Senator Kennedy fought for his ideals and became - as he was well known -- the "Lion" of the Senate. He gave us all a half a century of passionate commitment to fairness, justice and opportunity.
Never, perhaps, have Blake's words been truer than in summary of Senator Kennedy: "The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God."
Mrs. Kennedy, ladies and gentlemen,
We were all deeply saddened by Senator Kennedy's passing earlier this year.
The Nansen Refugee Award, named after the Norwegian polar explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is awarded in recognition of extraordinary service to refugees. It is the highest honour UNHCR can bestow. There can be no worthier recipient than Senator Edward Moore Kennedy.
Thank you very much.