Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights
Social Business Day 2014 Conference
Great to be here.
I want to thank all our International visitors and especially the many women and men from Bangladesh for joining us this morning.
Thank you Dr. Yunus.
Being here in Dhaka is a life-long dream come true. I remember as a ten-year-old hearing about the genocide in Bangladesh committed by Pakistani troops against the Bengali people. And the horror I felt when my President, Richard Nixon, along with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said it was against American interests to interfere in the sovereignty of another state.
I was so proud of my uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, for his insistence on US support of the people here. He travelled to India in 1971 and told our family and the world about the refugee camps teaming with women men and children forced to flee in the face of mass killings, and promised to return when their dream of a homeland came to fruition.
Just months later, after the Mukti Bahini and Indian forces defeated the Pakistani Army, Teddy kept his promise. In February 1972 he was among the first international visitors to Dhaka, opening the door for official US recognition of Bangladesh in April.
At the time he said, “Freedom is yours and the future belongs to the people of a new Bengali nation. For generations to come, the story of Bangladesh will
be a lesson to the world. The birth of the Bengali nation will be an inspiration to other people in other lands, a symbol to all who share your love of life and the spirit of your courage, but who did not yet share your freedom.”
Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis perished in the name of freedom. I wonder what they would say if they could see their homeland today.
Surely they would be proud to see the tremendous progress in gender equity, universal primary education, food production, health and population control. They would be proud to know that both the Prime Minister and the head of the opposition party are women, and that women are the driving force behind the apparel industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. They would be amazed to learn that tiny Bangladesh is a major competitor with China, and manufactures 5% of the apparel in the world. And they would be proud to know that Bangladesh provides more UN peacekeepers than most countries.
And, most especially, they would have to be proud to say that while Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the statue of Liberty, and Cairo has the Pyramids, Bangladesh boasts not bricks but a man — a man admired by every country on earth, a man who has become synonymous with all that is admirable about Bangladesh, Dr. Muhammad Yunus.
I met Dr. Yunus in Virginia in 2008. I interviewed him for the book I was writing about the most courageous human beings on earth called “Speak Truth to Power.”
Dr. Yunus told me about the success he and his team had helping people lift themselves out of poverty in rural Bangladesh by providing them with credit without requiring collateral.
Grameen bank has provided $4.7 billion dollars to 4.4 million families in rural Bangladesh. With 1,417 branches, Grameen provides services in 51,000 villages, covering three quarters of all the villages in the country. Yet its system is largely based on mutual trust and the enterprise and accountability of millions of women villagers.
Today, more than 250 institutions in nearly 100 countries operate micro-credit programs based on the Grameen Bank model, while thousands of other micro-credit programs have emulated, adapted or been inspired by the Grameen Bank. According to one expert in innovative government, the program established by Yunus at the Grameen Bank “is the single most important development in the third world in the last 100 years, and I don’t think any two people will disagree.”
Dr. Yunus, I am so very grateful to be with you this morning.
When I asked Dr, Yunus what I should say, he said talk about how you became involved in human rights.
I have ten siblings, including seven brothers. And when you grow up with seven brothers you get a keen sense of human rights at a very young age.
My earliest memories visiting my father, Robert Kennedy, at his office, where he was Minister of Justice. His brother, John F. Kennedy, was President of the United States. It was the height of the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King led efforts to stop American apartheid and end repression of the African American minority.
In the state of Alabama, the racist white Governor stood in the doorway of the University and would not let African American students enter. Daddy and his brother called in thousands of troops to stop the governor and allow the students access. On that day he wrote me a letter:
“Dear Kerry, today was an historic day, not just because of your visit. Two African Americans registered at the University of Alabama over the opposition of the Governor. It happened just a few hours ago. I hope these events are long past once you get your pretty little head to college. Love and kisses, Daddy.”
In almost every way I had an ideal childhood. But, it was punctuated by a series of horrors which threw my world into chaos again and again.
When I was three, my uncle Jack was assassinated. Five years later, Martin Luther King was killed and then a few weeks later my father was also felled by an assassin’s bullet. I am grateful to the many people who took up his unfinished work after he died. But the greatest loss of the death of a parent is that it leaves the work of love undone.
When I was in fifth grade my friend told me her father was beating up her mother. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if it was a secret or if I should tell my mother. I didn’t know how to protect my friend or her mother whom I loved. And I didn’t know how to think about her father, who came to our house all the time, and whom I loved as well.
Then when I was in high school two friends were raped by men they had recently met. And then one of my best friends from high school was one of the earliest known victims of HIV/AIDS in the United States. He was gay, but was never out of the closet, because he was afraid that he would be ostracized and hated simply because of the people he loved.
I have a brother-in-law who was falsely accused of murder in a politically charged case and spent 17 years in ja
il for a crime he didn’t commit until he was finally exonerated.
And my cousin was also falsely prosecuted for murder. He had incompetent counsel and spent 11 years in jail.
All these things made no sense to me — they were the chaos in my life.
Then as a college student I took an internship at Amnesty International in Washington, DC.
I learned about the International Declaration of Human Rights.
And I learned all the craziness had one thing in common
They were all violations of human rights — political assassinations, violence against women and sexual minorities, impunity and violations of due process.
I learned there was a world full of people who were using that document and the human rights covenants to stop the very violations I had experienced. And I learned that through human rights organizations I could learn to stop the violations myself. That changed my life.
And so today the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights teaches human rights and trains defenders from kindergarten through law school.
One of the lessons we teach is about your own Muhammad Yunus, the right to credit and the eradication of poverty
At Amnesty I learned of activists working to stop the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, democracy activists in Chile.
The cause was compelling, the enemy dangerous and powerful. But I found myself surrounded by Davids, who, with little more than the slingshots of their hearts and nerve and sinew to support them, stood up against a world full of Goliath’s.
Looking back, it seems that the angels prevailed.
At the time, all of Latin America was under right wing military dictatorships; today all of Latin America is democratic (except Cuba).
At the time, Eastern Europe was under communism. Today, there is not a Communist government left standing in Eastern Europe.
And at the time, South Africa was suffering at the height of apartheid. Today, South Africa has had a series of freely elected governments elected by a majority of its people.
And, at the time, women’s rights were not on the international agenda: today, CEDAW, the women’s rights convention, has been ratified by 185 countries.
All of these changes came about not because governments, militaries or multi-national corporations wanted them to, but because people with few resources beyond their own determination fought for human rights.
Individuals created change. They harnessed the dream of freedom and made it come true. And their efforts created a ripple effect, encouraging others, building a tidal wave which swept down some of the mightiest walls of repression.
Margaret Mead said never underestimate the capacity of a small group of determined people to change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.
That is exactly what this conference at is all about. It is about all of us, small groups of people who have committed their lives to eradicating poverty or providing health care or education or human rights or women’s empowerment, talking together, learning from one another, forming coalitions, and creating change. And that’s why I am so happy to be joining you.
So today, when we consider the challenges that lay ahead, we must keep in mind that the angels are on the side of freedom.
The challenge to a free society censorship, a proposed repressive NGO law, which will be used to gag critics by threatening to withhold NGO status, journalists imprisoned, newspapers barred, television networks closed, controversial amendments to the constitution, and the fact that those who are seen as a threat to the status quo can expect a deliberate and sustained smear campaign, including false accusations rising to the level of wholesale character assassination, with no evidence and no hope for accountability, followed by manipulations of law and practice in order to strip the victim of position so the power hungry and greedy can grab control.
The challenge of obtaining justice when security forces act with impunity, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings go unsolved, abuse and torture of victims is routine, prosecutions can be politically motivated, and judges can either be dictated to, or, if they do attempt to act independently, face the threat of removal.
The challenge to a democracy where elections are anything but free and fair, where the election commission has become a subsidiary of the ruling party, where polling officers are banned from access to the polls, and where so many people have lost faith in the process that they refuse to even vote.
The challenge to society where women gain empowerment and secure a 150% wage increase yet still do not make a living wage, and must grapple with dowries and dowry violence and acid attacks, inadequate access to health care and education, child marriages and have too many children too early in life.
And the challenge to one of the poorest countries on earth of cajoling the lead actors to do their part in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster.
The brands should fully fund the victims’ relief fund and create economic incentives for all of the estimated 6,000 factories to rehab so that they are safe, clean, ventilated and well inspected. The government must develop a vigorous, well trained, corruption-free and well respected inspection force, and regulatory policies, protocols and enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, the special industrial police force, deployed in the factory areas, must act for the benefit of the workers, and not only act to protect the factory owners. Their constant acts of violence on protesting workers is a violation of the latter’s right to association, freedom of expression and the right to hold peaceful processions and assemblies. And the international community, which has benefitted for years from the back breaking labor of the people of Bangladesh, must do its part to fund the infrastructure necessary to make decent working conditions a reality.
When one considers all the obstacles to the realization of the freedom for which millions of your forefathers and mothers fought and died, it is easy to give in to a sense of futility; the belief that there is nothing one person can do in the face of the worlds ills: poverty, injustice, greed, global warming and more. And it’s tempting to retreat into our own narrow lives of work and family and leave the rest of the world alone.
But I spent two and a half years traveling around the world interviewing the bravest people on earth. They were people like Elie Weisel who survived the holocaust as a child. He said, “My hope for the future is that your children won’t have my past.” And Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the anti apartheid activist from South Africa who said, “We don’t have a god who says ‘Ahh, got you!’ We have a God who lifts us up and dusts us off and says ‘try it again.'”
Those to me are the bookend of human rights. On the one hand, trying to stop the atrocities and on the other, having this faith that the human spirit will triumph even under the worst of circumstances
I interviewed Marian Wright Edelman. She was the first woman and the first African American to become an attorney in Mississippi. She did that during the civil rights movement so she could defend Martin Luther King and his colleagues. She said that a certain point we all have to open up that envelope in our souls and take out the piece of paper that tells us what we are supposed to be doing here on earth. She said ‘I was blessed at a young age to find a cause that for me was worth dying for and that has made every day of my life worth living.’
That’s really what we want for ourselves and our children — to find meaning through service. And that what social business is all about.
John F. Kennedy said it like this, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
The idea behind social business is we are not in it for ourselves, but for our communities. Stopping poverty, assuring universal quality education, protecting and promoting healthcare, empowering women, stopping violations of human rights. That’s what social businesses do; that’s what this conference is all about. And that why the idea of social business appeals to the best in us, the part of us that says we can make a difference no matter how daunting the challenges may seem, the spirit that keeps pushing that boulder up the hill. That’s Dr. Yunus, that’s social business, that’s the speakers you will hear from in a few moments, that’s this conference.
During my father’s last interview he was asked how he would like to be remembered. He quoted Camus and said perhaps this will always be a world in which children suffer but we can decrease the suffering of children. He said, “I’d like to be thought of as someone who tried to decrease the suffering of children.”
So I want to thank all of you involved in social business because you are decreasing the suffering of children.
I’d like to end with these lines from my favorite poet, Langston Hughes. It’s about America, but when I think of all the Bengalis who gave themselves to make this country free, I think this poem could just as easily been written about Bangladesh.
“O, Let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—
The land where everyone is free.
The land that’s mine—
The poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s me–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
We, the people, must redeem
Our land, the mines, the plants, the rivers,
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America, America again!”
So as you begin this conference, hold fast to your courage and your commitment, and make Bangladesh Bangladesh again.