Remarks by Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

  • October 31, 2013

Thank you, Esta, for that wonderful introduction and greetings to you all.

I am delighted to be here and deeply appreciate the invitation to participate in this august gathering.  I’m tempted to say there is no place I’d rather be today.  But – I know what you’re thinking – after digging through ADL archives in preparation for this speech, there might be one place I would rather be and that is at the forty year celebration of ADL.  In attendance at that gathering were President Eisenhower, most of his cabinet, four Supreme Court justices, Abba Eban, and, most tellingly, Jackie Robinson.  I’m just hoping Big Papi is wandering around here somewhere.  

In all seriousness, this 1953 turnout – a high-powered turnout similar to this and all other events the ADL has organized in its centennial year, I think it’s just one testament to the depth and breadth of ADL’s influence – then and now.  

I note also that the light hand of government is well represented here today, and you will hear from Ira Forman, the State Department’s Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism; our Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel; and from one of Secretary Hagel’s distinguished predecessors, Leon Panetta as well.

This showing is evidence of the administration’s profound interest in the topics to be discussed during this annual meeting.  It is evidence, also, of the irresistibility of one Abe Foxman.  

Throughout his career, your national director, who I think is here – there he is – has been a fearless advocate of fairness and an outspoken defender of truth – and by outspoken, I mean breaking-the-sound-barrier outspoken.  When most leaders speak, people listen.  When Abe Foxman speaks – what other choice do we have?

I should add that, as visible and audible as Abe is; he is only reflecting the values of ADL supporters – and I know that it is your energy and commitment that inspire him; so heartfelt thanks are due to all of you.  

I’d also like to thank your national chair, Barry Curtis-Lusher and Barbara Balser, your centennial chair, for putting together an outstanding agenda.  If I didn’t have a day job that keeps me up half the night, I would love to be with you from start to finish; because I could learn a lot about how I should be spending my time – and the difference I should be seeking to make.

I admire the ADL in part because you recognize the right to remain silent but are never afraid to speak up; and as those around me can attest – I can relate a little bit to that.

For a full century, the ADL has upheld the principle of non-acceptance – non-acceptance of bigotry; non-acceptance of harmful stereotypes; non-acceptance of bullying; and non-acceptance of lies.  Given the current state of the world, that is a lot to fight against but the ADL has never shied away from dreaming big, nor has Abe Foxman.

We all know that it is one thing to imagine a globe free from animosity and quite another thing to actually create one.  Yet here the ADL is: summoning us all to build that better world without hate.  

Why would you do that?

Perhaps it’s because, over time, you have witnessed every imaginable manifestation of hate and some that could not be imagined.  And you have adapted more quickly than the haters.

When, after the Russian revolution, the American media routinely equated Bolsheviks with Jews, the ADL complained to the Associated Press which then promised to ban racial and religious prejudice from its reporting.

When the automaker Henry Ford published material based on the infamous and fictitious Protocols of Zion, the ADL enlisted prominent individuals, including three presidents, to denounce what he had done – and then kept the heat on for seven long years – until Ford apologized.

In the 1930s, when Father Charles Coughlin used the air waves to promote anti-Semitism and Fascism, the ADL proved he was a plagiarist and that the person whose words he had been stealing was none other than the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

When, after World War II, the United States was being divided and diminished by discrimination, the ADL helped enact landmark civil rights laws, including the 1965 Voting Rights bill -- whose integrity we must all continue to uphold today.

When Louis Farrakhan began blaming Jews for slavery, oppression, poverty, slums, and even the HIV/AIDS virus – the ADL was there to rebut his propaganda with facts.

And that is just the beginning.  Over the past quarter century, the ADL has been a pioneer in defining and outlawing hate crimes; it was one of the first voices to warn about the dangers posed by Internet hate; one of the first to back equal rights for the LGBT community; and one of the first to endorse comprehensive immigration reform.

That is why the ADL story reflects a drama larger than any one organization; it is the story of how we— individually and collectively – fight against hate.  There is no battle more important or complex – because hate frequently comes disguised.  It may hide behind the mask of ethnic or national pride, or be a symptom of ignorance, or a sign of fear.  At times, the costuming is quite intentional.  Today, many websites that might fairly be described as “Lies are Us” are carefully crafted to seem like centers for objective research.  We must not be fooled, nor can we allow others to be taken in.

The ADL has much to teach all of us, including me.  In the past twenty-five years, I have viewed your many campaigns and struggles from the standpoint of a student with a dawning awareness of the world, a journalist and witness to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, a writer about the Holocaust and genocide in Rwanda and other crimes against humanity, a human rights activist, and now – my most important role of all – not the one you think – but that as a mother to two small children.

Three months ago, I had the privilege to begin serving as America’s UN ambassador.  I see my job and America’s role as world leader in the same light that we have all come to view the ADL; we must not remain silent in the face of lies; we must not walk away from the necessary battles; we must never rest in seeking the truth; and we must never allow temporary setbacks to so frustrate us that we withdraw from the pursuit of justice and peace.

In that context, let me say that the administration is grateful for the strong public support that exists, including from the Jewish community, for the current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, talks to which we, as you know, are deeply committed.  As the president said in Jerusalem earlier this year: peace is not just necessary; peace is possible.

More broadly, we must recognize that there are times when just and humane goals can only be achieved by means that are not, in themselves, strictly humanitarian.  

The only reason we were able to get Syria to consent to the destruction of its chemical weapons was because President Obama made clear he was prepared to take military action – a decision that was strongly supported by the ADL.  After two years of paralysis, the Security Council Resolution mandating the complete and rapid destruction of those weapons marked the first meaningful step the Council had taken to address the bloodletting, some of the worst bloodletting we have ever seen.

The urgency of finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis cannot be exaggerated.  Public health experts believe that -- even a century from now -- this war will be remembered for shredding the doctrine of medical neutrality; a principle conceived 150 years ago this week at the Geneva Conference of 1863.  Forces loyal to Assad have been destroying hospitals, making it impossible for doctors and nurses to do their jobs. They’ve been dragging patients from their sickbeds because -- according to the perverse logic of the regime -- anyone wounded by a government bomb or bullet must therefore be an enemy and deserving of death.  
Being a doctor now in Syria means that the life you save today may cost you your own life tomorrow.  Perhaps that is why, of the 5000 doctors who worked in Aleppo before the war, only 36 remain.

As we meet, the grim status quo is unsustainable.  Through a combination of inspections, diplomacy and humanitarian aid, we are pushing ahead toward the goal we seek, which as Secretary of State Kerry has described it, is a halt to the killing and a new Syria “that is representative of…all religions, all points of view, all politics [and] all sectarian affiliations.”

Let me turn now to the subject of Iran.  And let me be absolutely clear:  President Obama is determined to ensure that the Islamic Republic does not acquire a nuclear weapon.  Let me repeat: the United States cannot and will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.  

That is why the president assembled an international network of support for sanctions that are not just bilateral, but multilateral and tough enough to cause Iran’s government to shift tactics abruptly.  

Although our government welcomes the more constructive tone in Iran’s recent official statements, the level of mistrust inherited from the past, as you well know, is deep.  We understand why some of you are skeptical about engaging Iran.  But please remember that we are not engaging Iran for the sake of engaging Iran.  By engaging, by probing, by negotiating, we are striving to secure an unambiguous and verifiable guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program is a peaceful one and that its government will not build or acquire a nuclear weapon.  

We must get this done and, if we do, the world will be safer and prospects for stability throughout the region will improve.  But as President Obama has reiterated, no deal is better than a bad deal.  We will not accept a bad deal.

Both the virtues and shortcomings of the United Nations are well known to most of you, and I will not dwell on them now, except to say that I have made it a priority – in the spirit of the remarkable lineage that I am now part of, the spirit of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the spirit of Richard Holbrooke and the spirit of my recent predecessor Susan Rice, among others -- to oppose every example of anti-Israeli bias in the UN system.

On my watch, we will push ceaselessly for the further inclusion of Israel in regional groups.  We will demand objectivity in resolutions affecting Middle East peace.  After all, it is not the UN’s job to pre-judge issues that can only be addressed through direct negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors.  And there is no basis to exclude Israel from full participation in the United Nations system.  

I am personally deeply committed and have personally engaged our European colleagues about expanding regional and thematic groupings to end the continuing discrimination against Israel in the UN system; that discrimination is not right and it must end. As President Obama has affirmed in every General Assembly appearance, the United States will combat any effort to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as a full and equal member of the community of nations.

In pursuing that policy, this administration’s preferred approach is to engage, and not to walk away.  We do this, not because, again, that we believe engagement is an end in itself, but because we have learned that the best way to fight a pernicious idea is with a good idea.  

In a forum such as the UN’s Human Rights Council, that means insisting that we fight to prevent Israel from being singled out and that we push the Human Rights Council to start doubling down on the globe’s truly egregious violators of human dignity.  

It also means working with our Israeli colleagues to facilitate and make known the Jewish state’s many contributions to global progress in such areas as agricultural technology, science, the empowerment of women, and the fight against dirty diamonds.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment today to welcome Israel’s decision, earlier this week, to re-engage with the UN’s Human Rights Council and the Universal Periodic Review process.  Israel is justifiably proud of its democratic traditions and values, its free elections, and its open society.  The Universal Periodic Review is an important forum for encouraging concrete, positive improvements to the promotion and protection of human rights in states under review.  Civil society relies on this process; civil society in repressive states relies on this Universal Periodic Review around the world, and it’s really become an important tool; so we’re very appreciative of Israel’s step to re-engage, despite what we know are the Human Rights Council’s shortcomings.

Remembrance is part of our agenda, too, which is why I am pleased to announce that the UN has agreed to make available to us a full copy of its War Crimes Commission Archives for transfer to Washington and the Holocaust Museum.  This transfer will be of considerable benefit to scholars at a time when Holocaust denial is embraced by many who prefer diversionary fantasies to inconvenient facts.

That general tendency – to ignore the hard lessons of the past – remains all too present in the world today.  Even in the United States, according to the Justice Department, one hate crime is committed every hour.  

In mid-October, I accompanied the Security Council to the Great Lakes region of Central Africa where the waves of terror created by the 1994 Rwanda genocide continue to disrupt and claim lives.  While there, we visited the Rwandan equivalent of Yad Vashem, their memorial.

Beneath the green lawns and colorful gardens, there lie the bodies of 250,000 people buried in that single mass grave under the memorial.  The memorial is designed to educate but also to warn – an alarm that is not being heeded well enough around the world today.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, ethnically-based guerrilla groups are fighting with each other and with the government; the violence there has been brutal, waged partly by children, by child soldiers, and accompanied by what the UN now calls “sexual terrorism,” – mass rape -- and other gross violations of human rights.  

In the Central African Republic, gangs of thugs have created virtual anarchy in some areas, perpetrating atrocities against civilians, and targeting communities simply on one grounds, religious affiliation.  

In Pakistan, the Taliban has vowed revenge against Malala Yousafzai, the courageous teenager who – despite being shot in the head – continues to advocate for the rights of girls to attend school.  

In Egypt, extremist groups have attacked Christian churches and, in Burma, Buddhist radicals have persecuted the country’s Muslim minority.  

In Europe and elsewhere, as your own research shows, anti-Semitism is neither defeated, nor dormant, nor dead; in fact, it appears to be surging.  On every continent, there are instances where ugly myths have been dug up; ridiculous conspiracy theories circulated; and spokesmen for extremist parties celebrated.  

These and other challenges disturb us deeply, but we cannot say that they surprise us.  We have – sadly – lost our capacity for surprise.

Sixty-eight years ago, representatives from around the world gathered in San Francisco to launch the United Nations.  Like members of the ADL, these men and women were not naïve.  On the contrary, they were witnesses to the Holocaust and the survivors of global war.  Addressing the delegates was the powerful leader of a coalition that had only recently rescued Europe from the most malignant ideology humanity has ever known.  

“Fascism,” President Truman told the delegates, “did not die with Mussolini.  Hitler is finished – but the seeds spread by his disordered mind have firm root in too many fanatical brains.  It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than it is to kill the ideas that gave them birth… Victory on the battlefield was essential, but it was not enough.  For a good…[and] lasting peace,” Truman continued, “the decent peoples of the earth must remain determined to strike down the evil spirit which has hung over the world.”

That presidential summons is also the message that ADL has been broadcasting from the rooftops for generation upon generation.  And, as I look around this room, I know it is having a vital and uplifting and mobilizing effect.  What began in an office in Chicago 100 years ago is now central to the vast network of civil society groups striving to prevent the differences that define us from obscuring the common humanity that binds us.  To build a world entirely without hate is audacious – it’s an audacious ambition – but we must never forget that hate is not inevitable; hate is a choice; and what we have the ability to choose, we have the power to change.

Early last month, a Syrian-American by the name of Wasim participated in an inter-faith unity walk sponsored by the Islamic Center in Washington.  The event was a way of marking the anniversary of September 11th, and Wasim told a reporter “I came to the United States when I was 18, and I had a choice.  I had to let go of everything I had learned about who my enemy was, or constantly be in pain.”

To me, the message in that story – the timeless and yet always timely message in that story -- is that hate is the wrong choice – the choice that both inflicts pain on others and invites pain for ourselves.

Whether the object of our concern is a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a white, a black, an Asian, a Roma, a gay, a lesbian, or an immigrant of any description – hate is a dead end; tolerance is a way of running in place; and respect, true and mutual respect, is the way forward for us all -- as individuals, as groups, as nations, and as the common inhabitants of a shrinking globe.

To the members of ADL, let me say that for all you have done in the past to help us move forward, I salute you; for what you are doing now and will do in the future, I applaud you; and for your kind attention to here this afternoon, I thank you most sincerely.  Thank you so much.

"For a full century, the ADL has upheld the principle of non-acceptance – non-acceptance of bigotry; non-acceptance of harmful stereotypes; non-acceptance of bullying; and non-acceptance of lies.  Given the current state of the world, that is a lot to fight against but the ADL has never shied away from dreaming big, nor has Abe Foxman." Share via Twitter Share via Facebook

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