MS SMITH: Good morning.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
MS SMITH: Thank you. (Laughter.) Secretary Blinken; Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Richard Verma; OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Kairat Abdrakhmanov; UNESCO Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences Gabriela Ramos; Ambassador Ruth A. Davis, the first black woman career ambassador in the State Department on whose mighty shoulders I proudly stand – (applause) – it means so much to have you here today.
Assistant secretaries, my fellow special representatives, special envoys, and special advisors, ambassadors, members of the Diplomatic Corps, colleagues, and friends – welcome, and thank you all for joining us today for this historic and important occasion.
I am Desirée Cormier Smith, the U.S. State Department’s first-ever special representative for racial equity and justice. (Applause.)
I am overjoyed to be here with you today for the Secretary’s inaugural Award for Global Anti-Racism Champions. I want to acknowledge that we are gathered here on the ancestral lands of the Anacostan and Piscataway peoples. We honor their contributions and resiliency every day, but especially today, the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – a day created to raise awareness of the rich diversity and generations of knowledge of Indigenous peoples, as well as the need to protect their rights.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that today is also the anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager whose death in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national outcry. His killing, two years after that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was a pivotal moment in our country, prompting the need to affirm that black lives matter – a slogan that has gained global resonance not only for people of African descent, but also for other marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities around the world.
As activist Valerie Shaw put it, quote, “You can be a Uyghur in China or an aboriginal in Australia or a Christian in Iran, and you say ‘black lives matter,’ and you’re talking about your own.”
When Secretary Blinken created the position of special representative for racial equity and justice last year, he said, quote, “Inequity is a national security challenge with global consequences. The systematic exclusion of individuals from marginalized and vulnerable groups from full participation in economic, social, and civic life impedes equity globally, while fueling corruption, economic migration, distrust, and authoritarianism,” end quote.
This office was born out of the need for global solutions to the global problem of racism that has plagued our world for centuries, in line with the direction from President Biden that the entire U.S. Government must be working to advance racial equity and to support underserved communities.
My mandate is twofold: first, to ensure U.S. foreign policy, programs, and processes promote and advance the human rights of members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities; and to build global partnerships to combat structural racism, discrimination, and xenophobia globally.
To be clear, my position was not created because we have already solved these problems in the United States, but because we recognize that we are not the only country grappling with these challenges. These are global scourges that know no borders and require coordinated and sustained global solutions.
In the year and two months since my appointment, I have traveled to almost every region of the world – not to lecture or admonish foreign governments about the realities of systemic racism in their own countries, but rather to engage with and listen to members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities, to hear directly from them about their challenges, the barriers they face to equality, and how U.S. foreign policy and programs can better support their efforts towards equality, dignity, and recognition.
This is critical to the success of this work for two reasons. First, it is an acknowledgement that these communities know better than any diplomat the challenges they face and what they need to overcome them. They have agency and they have a voice. They simply have been excluded from the rooms where the decisions are being made that impact them. My goal is to end that.
Second, listening to and centering the voices of members of marginalized racial, ethnic, and Indigenous communities will ensure that we do not apply an American lens to this global problem. We cannot and we do not apply a one-size-fits-all approach to this complex and complicated work, because that will fail.
While we know that racism is a global challenge, we must also understand and appreciate the unique ways it manifests in every country due to historical and cultural contexts. This is why it’s so important that we listen to communities of African descent, Indigenous communities, Roma communities, Dalit communities, and other communities who are marginalized, stigmatized, and discriminated against simply because of their race or ethnicity. That is the only way this work will be impactful and sustainable.
While racism, racial and ethnic discrimination, and xenophobia are not new phenomena, this is frontier work for the State Department and our diplomats. It is not easy, nor will it be quick. However, I am optimistic. Why? Well, first, you cannot be a pessimist in this line of work. As black feminist writer Bell Hooks said, quote, “Hope is essential to any political struggle for radical change when the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair,” end quote. And second, I’m optimistic because of the unwavering commitment, hope, and resilience of these communities even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their basic dignity and rights, and often at great personal risk. If they can continue to fight, then surely we can.
And that is why we created this award – to acknowledge, honor, and support the tireless advocates who fight against the structural racism, the pervasive discrimination, the rampant xenophobia that impedes the members of their communities from enjoying their basic human rights. We thought it was important to recognize the leaders who may not be known internationally or even nationally within their own countries, but they are known to their communities. They are known as the ones who refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. They are known as the ones who refuse – who have the courage to stand up and fight to promote the rights and dignity of their communities when they are systematically denied and violated. They are known as the ones who give these communities voice and hope. That is the spirit in which this award was created.
So we asked our embassies and consulates around the world: Who are the local anti-racism champions in your countries? Who are the leaders who refuse to accept that they are somehow less than deserving of equal dignity and human rights simply because of their race or ethnicity? And wow, did we get an overwhelming response.
We received dozens of nominations from almost every region of the world, highlighting incredible civil society leaders who have demonstrated remarkable courage in pushing back against the marginalization, the stigmatization, and the systematic violation of the human rights of their communities on the basis of their race or ethnicity. But these six leaders – Victorina, Saadia, Sarswati, Rani Yan Yan, Oswaldo, Kari – stood out. Your advocacy on behalf of Indigenous peoples, people of African descent, Roma people, and members of the Dalit caste, and your demonstrated success in attaining justice for your communities in the pursuit of dignity and human rights are true models of courage. You honor us with your presence here today. You inspire us with your perseverance and your dedication, and you push us all to do more to build upon your anti-racism work.
The work you do to promote equality, defend human rights, and break down racial barriers and stigmas make your countries more peaceful, more prosperous, and more democratic, and that is good for all of us. Because as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, quote, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are indebted to you for your courage, and we look forward to working with you to achieve these goals of equality, recognition, and dignity.
Now, it is my distinct honor to welcome Secretary Antony Blinken to the podium. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Thank you. I think you now know why we asked Desirée to take on this mission. (Laughter.) We’ve unleashed her on the world, and it’s having a powerful impact.
Good morning to everyone. Desirée, first, thank you. Thank you for the passion, thank you for the commitment, thank you for the tenacious energy that you are bringing to this mission – our first-ever special representative for racial justice and equity.
I also, as Desirée did, want to especially recognize – and I don’t use this word lightly – the legendary Ruth Davis. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you for honoring us with your presence today.
To all of our friends throughout the State Department, across the United States Government, our civil society and private sector partners, colleagues from the OSCE and UNESCO, thank you for being part of this inaugural presentation of the Secretary’s Global Anti-Racism Champions Award.
It’s quite simply humbling and inspiring to share this stage with these remarkable individuals. They’ve traveled from across the globe to be with us. I want to first warmly welcome you, and then I’ll have a few things to say about you in just a minute. (Laughter.)
Seventy-five years ago, nations around the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirming that every human being is born free and equal in dignity and in rights. That meant, and it still means, people of all races and all ethnicities.
Yet we all know that for far too many individuals, there continue to be challenges when their fundamental rights are violated or denied because of their race or ethnicity. Some are beaten and harassed, shut out of jobs, denied education. Some bear the brunt of crises like climate change and epidemics yet are often excluded from decisions about the very issues that affect them the most and deprived of the support that they need to shoulder the impact.
As you heard from Desirée, President Biden has made advancing racial equity and justice for underserved communities – for LGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities, religious minorities – a core priority of this administration. It’s why he signed a landmark executive order – on his very first day in office – directing the entire federal government to put its full weight and resources behind this imperative, both here at home and around the world.
Here at the State Department, we’re carrying out an ambitious plan, driven by Desirée, to embed racial equity into our programs and policies, among other efforts to promote equity. That includes everything from engaging a wider range of stakeholders to ensuring that our foreign assistance programs empower marginalized groups.
Our focus reflects what I think is a long overdue recognition that a more equitable foreign policy is also a more effective foreign policy.
If entire communities are denied opportunity, that holds back an entire nation’s economic potential. When certain groups can’t access vaccines and treatment, that hinders our ability to prevent, to detect, to respond to global pandemics. When individuals don’t see themselves reflected in the governments that are purported to represent them, that undermines faith in the system and in our democracies.
In other words, racism, discrimination – these are not only morally wrong; they make our world less safe, less stable, less prosperous. And that goes directly to the interests of the United States.
Our shared goal of advancing racial equity and combating racism, racial and ethnic discrimination, xenophobia – only possible because of the extraordinary courage and commitment of our civil society partners on the front lines. And today, as you heard from Desirée, we wanted to make this an occasion to recognize six of these exceptional leaders, representative in so many ways of so many people who are out there every single day with extraordinary courage, extraordinary commitment, extraordinary conviction, but also, as Desirée said, truly exceptional in their own rights.
Indigenous lawyer Kari Guajajara is a force of nature on behalf of nature. Kari and her community in the Brazilian Amazon face constant threats from illegal loggers, miners, poachers. But Kari continues to advocate for conserving this vital ecosystem, which is so important to preserving cultures like hers and to addressing climate change that affects every single one of us.
For a quarter century, Oswaldo Bilbao Lobatón and his Center for Ethnic Development have promoted the rights and the visibility of Afro-Peruvians. Oswaldo’s work has significantly increased how many Afro-Peruvians identify themselves in Peru’s census. Now, this may sound like a matter of detail. It is fundamental. Critical data comes from this that policymakers use to design more inclusive programs. If you’re not counted, you don’t exist. And so he has made an extraordinary difference in making sure that people are identified and actually counted. Perhaps most importantly, Oswaldo has spent a lifetime mentoring young Afro-Peruvian leaders, basically the next generation of Oswaldos.
Victorina Luna – Luca, excuse me – is a tireless advocate for Moldova’s Roma people, who have faced generations of abuse, of stigma, of harassment. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Victorina quickly organized the delivery of food and other supplies to more than 3,000 Ukrainian Roma refugees. And the Roma-language news station that she founded – Radio Patrin Moldova – is a key source of education, of entertainment, of empowerment for Roma across Moldova and throughout the diaspora. You can imagine the powerful lifeline of information and also forging a sense of community that this radio service provides.
When Saadia Mosbah became the only black Tunisian flight attendant working for Tunisair, the CEO refused to feature her in the company’s flight safety videos. Experiences like this inspired her to found Mnemty – meaning “My Dream” – to advance the rights of black Tunisians. Because of Saadia’s dream, because of the activism of countless Tunisians, in 2018 Tunisia became the first Arab country to actually criminalize racial discrimination. (Applause.)
As the head of Nepal’s Dalit Society Development Forum, Sarswati Nepali has spent more than 20 years standing up for the rights of Dalits. She’s campaigned to allow Dalits to worship at popular Hindu temples – and she won. She’s worked to abolish bonded labor in western Nepal, which has trapped Dalit families for generations, and she succeeded. She’s fought for Dalits overlooked by the legal system and achieved victories there, too.
Finally, Rani Yan Yan is a tribal leader and women’s rights activist in Bangladesh, where the government bans the term “Indigenous” and communities like hers face mass displacement, land grabs, violence. In 2018, while translating for two Indigenous teenagers who had been sexually assaulted by security forces, police violently attacked her. If they hoped to discourage her advocacy, they failed. Just two months after the attack, Rani Yan Yan participated in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, showing her own personal indomitable courage.
She said, and I quote, “Since I have the means and the capacity to amplify the voices being left unheard, I think I need to act on it. I am simply fulfilling my responsibilities as a citizen.” What an incredibly powerful message to all of us. (Applause.)
So to each and every one of you here with us today, we’re lucky to have you. The world is lucky to have you as such incredibly committed citizens, dedicating your lives to advancing the rights and the lives of others. And what I want to tell you today is that as you continue the work you’re doing, this transformative work, the United States will stand very proudly by your side. Congratulations to each of you. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS SMITH: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. We will now spotlight each of the awardees and present them with their awards. It will be hard, but I ask you to please save your applause until the end. (Laughter.)
The first awardee is Oswaldo Lobatón, for demonstrating exceptional courage, strength, and leadership and commitment to advancing the human rights of Afro-Peruvians and combating systemic – I’m not even finished. (Laughter.) And combating systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia nationally and internationally while promoting economic development, education, and recognition for Afro-Peruvians and the meaningful inclusion of Afro-Peruvian communities in national policies. (Applause.)
Next, we have Kari Guajajara, for demonstrating exceptional courage, strength, leadership, and commitment to advancing the human rights of Indigenous peoples in Brazil and combating systemic racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and gender-based violence while serving as a legal advocate for Indigenous organizations. (Applause.)
Next is Victorina Luca, for demonstrating exceptional courage, strength, leadership, and commitment to advancing the human rights of the Roma in Moldova and combating – (applause) – and combating systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia while advocating for the inclusion of marginalized people in multilateral fora globally, including at the Council of Europe, World Bank, and the United Nations. (Applause.)
Next is Saadia Mosbah, for demonstrating exceptional courage, strength, leadership, and commitment to advancing the human rights of black Tunisians and combating systemic racism, discrimination, and xenophobia while advocating for robust legal and policy frameworks for the rights, dignity, and safety of black Tunisians. (Applause.)
Next is Sarswati Nepali, for demonstrating exceptional courage, strength, leadership, and commitment to advancing the human rights of members of marginalized castes and ethnic communities in Nepal and combating systemic racism, discrimination, xenophobia, and other intersectional abuses while playing a crucial role in Dalit social justice movements to promote equitable access land – access to land rights, education, and justice. (Applause.)
And last but certainly not least, Rani Yan Yan, for demonstrating exceptional courage, strength, leadership, and commitment to advancing the human rights of Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh and combating systemic racism, discrimination, xenophobia, land grabbing, violence, and the adverse effects of climate change while advocating for meaningful participation of Indigenous peoples in the planning, reform, and implementation of legislation and development programs. (Applause.)
Now it is my distinct honor and pleasure to invite Rani Yan Yan to the podium to offer brief remarks on behalf of the 2023 Global Anti-Racism Champions. (Applause.)
MS YAN YAN: (Cross-talk. No English translation available.) Greetings to you all in Indigenous languages of Marma and Chakma communities from Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh – my home, where I belong. I’m Rani Yan Yan. Let me begin by conveying my gratitude to the Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice Desireé Cormier Smith for giving me this opportunity to speak at this event today. Also allow me to congratulate two truly deserving fellow recipients who have shown exemplary courage and commitment in fighting against all odds in their efforts to ensure racial equity and justice in their respective countries.
Kari Guajajara, like me, an Indigenous leader, who has traveled here from the Brazilian Amazon where she provides legal support and services to protect the environment, provide demarcation of Indigenous lands, and protect peoples in voluntary isolation.
Oswaldo Bilbao Lobatón, an Afro-Peruvian activist, who has dedicated his life to fighting racism and discrimination.
Victorina Luca, a human rights defender raising awareness to radio broadcasts, celebrating the language and culture of Moldovan Roma.
Saadia Mosbah, a brave black Tunisian activist who has not backed down from the fight against racial discrimination and the value of diversity and cruelty.
And Sarswati Nepali, who gives voices to courageous social justice movements led by the Dalit community of Nepal to acquire land rights, gain access to education, and obtain equal justice from the courts.
It is my upmost pleasure to share this stage with you. Let’s give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
I’m both honored by this recognition and humbled to receive this award on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. On this day, we celebrate the diversity of peoples. We recognize continuous marginalization and racial discrimination against Indigenous peoples within their nation states. And we aim to promote and protect rights of Indigenous peoples.
Distinguished guests, militarization of our territory; state-sponsored settlement of hundreds and thousands of non-Indigenous peoples on our land; ongoing land-grabbing by politically backed individuals, entities, and security forces; arson and community communal attack, impunity for perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls; and criminalization of rights defenders are just a few examples that are eerily similar to what Indigenous and racially marginalized communities are facing elsewhere in the world.
In this context, my work as an Indigenous human rights defender has focused on raising awareness on systematic marginalization of Indigenous peoples, facilitating network and alliance building among communities and organizations, and mobilizing Indigenous communities to defend their right to land. I have seen and experienced firsthand how intersecting identities paves a way to further marginalize Indigenous women.
This is precisely why a significant portion of my work is dedicated to empowering Indigenous women – more specifically, rural Indigenous women – in becoming agents of change, worthy leaders, and protectors of our rights. We have been able to initiate appointments of women village chiefs in a male-only traditional system, thanks to the chief of Chakma Circle, Raja Devasish Roy, who I am the advisor to. And the number is ever increasing since the inception eight years ago, as are the contributions from these Indigenous women leaders.
Once I was a youth full of aspirations, new ideas, hopes and dreams of a better and just world. And now, 10 years later, I’m older but no different than the self I had. But very few youths in our Indigenous communities were and still are as fortunate as I have been. Lack of opportunities, crisis of leadership, and denial of accessing spaces to voice their opinions have created a despair among these youths, despite – despite – having full potential to contribute towards or even lead to this movement against racial discrimination. Creating enabling environments for these youths, bridging generation gap between the elders and the youth, and building solidarity and facilitating collaboration among youths from different ethnicities have been my priority since my early days as a rights defender.
Esteemed guests, the global scourge of racism and xenophobia cannot be eradicated instantly, neither can we hope for a just world in a given number of years. This endeavor is a continuous work in progress that my fellow awardees understand too well. To move forward, however, we need to ensure that rule of law prevails in our countries within open and democratic governments that are accountable to citizens. And within ever-shrinking civic spaces in many countries, activists are dealing with impact of curbed freedom of speech and freedom of press that reduces our ability to communicate and to amplify awareness on these pressing issues. So this Global Anti-Racism Champions Award is significant in that aspect, as it is amplifying each of our voices and will be integral in increasing our visibility of our unique but interconnected struggles to achieve racial equity and justice.
And on that note, before I end my speech, I would like to assert that no one – and absolutely no one – can become a champion without efforts of countless others and without their support, small or grand. To me, this award is not a testament of my achievement – it is a recognition of our collective effort, our achievements. Hence, I’m dedicating this award to all my fellow human right defenders – the elders and the youths alike – and rural Indigenous villagers from Bangladesh, the most genuine, the most resilient people I’ve been ever fortunate to work with, to interact with, who have supported me through and through.
Ladies and gentlemen, claiming rights as a person from racially discriminated communities is challenging, but claiming rights as a woman from those communities poses heightened challenges, which I, like other human – women human rights defenders around the world, are constantly trying to overcome. The path to justice is never meant to be easy, and efforts are made to silence our voices over and over again. Yet, I’m here, we are here standing our ground, and we are determined to strengthen and uplift the next generation of leaders and champions in solidarity with everyone around the world who are fighting against racial discrimination and structural injustices to build a better and a just world for all.
Thank you all. (Cross-talk. No English translation available.) (Applause.)
MS SMITH: Rani Yan Yan, thank you. It is really hard to follow that but let me just try to close this out. (Laughter.) I want to thank Rani, as well as our other awardees, for the work they’ve done and the work they continue to do to combat racism, discrimination, and xenophobia. I also want to thank them for making the long journey to Washington to allow us to honor them today. I hope the very long journeys were worth it, and I hope that today’s ceremony, as well as your meetings this week with U.S. Government officials and civil society organizations, are productive, enriching, and helpful in your continued anti-racism efforts.
I want to thank you again, Mr. Secretary, for your presence here today, and more importantly, for your vision and for your leadership, for creating this award, and for creating the position that I am now honored to occupy. (Laughter.) (Applause.) This will be a part of your legacy, and you have no idea just how much that means to so many of us in this room today and countless others around the world. Thank you. (Applause.)
I must also thank my small but mighty SRREJ team, my fellow joyful racial justice warriors. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Without you, none of this would be possible. And to our volunteers and the staff that made today happen, thank you.
And finally, I want to thank all of you who joined today, especially our partners from across the U.S. Government and our embassies around the world, our friends from Congress, academia, the private sector, and civil society. Your presence here today is a reminder that if we are to truly build an anti-racist world where the race or ethnicity that you happen to be born does not determine your life expectancy or outcomes, it will take all of us working from our respective perches to work together to collectively bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
I want to give a special and heartfelt thanks to one civil society in particular, the Foreign Policy for America Foundation, for their partnership in helping to secure key meetings with U.S. civil society organizations and local government officials this week for our awardees. In addition to fostering invaluable connections for our Global Anti-Racism Champions with Americans doing similar work, I am so, so pleased to announce that the foundation has informed me that they will also honor each of our awardees with a $5,000 grant to support – (applause) – (laughter) – yes, thank you – to support to support and empower them to continue their critical work. We know that these leaders do this work at great cost and often great risk to themselves and their families, so thank you, Foreign Policy for America Foundation, for acknowledging and honoring our champions in such an important and tangible way. (Applause.)
And as we close today’s first-ever award ceremony for Global Anti-Racism Champions with such wonderful news, I hope you all leave here inspired and with a deepened commitment to creating an anti-racist world. I encourage each and every one of you to find ways to support and build upon the work of our Global Anti-Racism Champions and to use their stories as a call to action. The work they do to promote dignity, safety, and human rights is not only good for their own communities, it is good for all of us. And why? Well, to invoke the great Fannie Lou Hamer, the truth is, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Thank you. (Applause.)