I am grateful to the Kennedy family for this prestigious recognition and thankful to the staff of the RFK Memorial for all their hard work in getting the ceremony together. I also want to thank the staff of Partners in Health, and the Haiti Solidarity group for helping to organize this week’s events.
There are many reasons for me to feel privileged today. In the 21st century, the task of "representation" cannot be taken lightly. Who among us can claim to speak for the poor or for those who have their rights abused? As honored as I am to receive this distinguished prize, I do not claim to speak for all those fighting for human rights. What I can say with confidence, however, is that I represent a group of people, many of them Haitians and many of them not, who are fighting for the rights of the poor merely to survive. This is our human rights struggle, a struggle we believe to be neglected by many, even some within the human rights community.
Do the sick deserve the right to health care? Do the naked deserve the right to clothing? Do the homeless deserve the right to shelter? Do the illiterate deserve the right to education?
The group I represent is Haitian, American, Russian, Mexican, and Peruvian. It is the family that constitutes Partners In Health, the group I have served and helped to build for all of my adult life. We all believe the answer to each of these questions is a resounding YES.
Martin Luther King is credited with saying that "of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane."
The struggle for health and human rights is only part of our struggle, because we believe that the poor must be respected when they say, as they so often do, "we want to see health, education, and welfare (including water) as our birthrights." These basic social and economic rights must be part of being human.
As a Haitian woman who has seen firsthand what it means to be poor and sick, I know that we can all do better. We can move from the way things are, where the bottom billion is merely struggling not to suffer, to be as we say in Haiti, kapab pa soufri, to a place in which tout moun se moun. Everyone is a person. We are all human.
For Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to choose me, a humble foot soldier in the struggle for health and human rights, as the recipient of this prestigious award means more than I can say. For I am a Haitian, and the Haitian people have always stood for equality. From 1791, when we fought against slavery to become the world’s first independent republic born of a slave revolt, until 1986, when we began to cast down a brutal family dictatorship, we Haitians have always struggled against long odds. In 1990, when we again declared as a people our belief in social and economic rights as a human rights platform, some understood our message but many did not. Two hundred years of struggle, much of it in isolation even from those who profess a belief in human rights. It has often felt lonely.
Last but not the least, I want to mention the refugees’ situation. It was with great sadness that I read last week about the plight of the over 200 Haitian refugees. Haitians who come to the United States should be treated fairly and equally. That they are singled out for such treatment is inhumane. It’s almost as inhumane as the aid embargo against my country. Over the centuries there have been refugees from Haiti for many years, those fleeing slavery, war, dictatorships. In recent years, as Senator Kennedy noted, the U.S. administration has blocked even development and humanitarian assistance to my people.
The sanctions have been imposed upon Haiti primarily because the United States and the Organization of the American States deemed the May 2000 parliamentary elections to be inadequate. Many countries who do not even try to emerge as a democracy, as we struggle to do, are not punished by such embargoes. We now have refugees as a result of the sanctions.
Allow me to express our gratitude to the Kennedy family, which has always sided with the Haitian people in our struggle for democracy. We need friends in this city in order to take on the root causes of much of our recent suffering.
My country has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the Western Hemisphere. Not only do these sanctions deny Haitians their fundamental human right to health, but it also denies many their right to life.
The International Development Bank (IDB) has withheld loans to Haiti totaling $146 million for health care, clean water, basic education and rural road rehabilitation. By continuing its policy to not release these funds the IDB is violating, not only its own Charter, but also the human rights of the Haitian people.
Robert F. Kennedy once said: "the obligation of free men is to use their opportunities to improve the welfare of their fellow human beings." If RFK was alive, he would help the Haitian people to improve their lives.