Thank you very much, Josh, for that kind introduction, and good evening to everyone.
I’m honored to be here on this amazing night at this institution that is so much more than a museum. In working to prevent genocide, the Simon-Skjodt Center realizes Elie Weisel’s vision of the Holocaust Memorial Museum as a living memorial, a place where we don’t just remember – we learn. I am also honored to be in the company of both Holocaust survivors and members of the South Sudanese refugee and immigrant community tonight. And I thank you all for being here. Your stories are painful. But hearing them helps us stay vigilant. And that vigilance helps ensure that these generations of survivor’s stories will, God willing, be the last.
In June of this year, I traveled to Israel for the first time. It was an incredible trip for so many reasons. One of the highlights was visiting Israel’s Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. It was truly a moving experience. As some of you might know, foreign officials are given the honor of laying a wreath when they visit Yad Vashem. Part of the ceremony is to choose a short phrase to inscribe on the wreath. Many people choose the phrase “Never again,” which is entirely appropriate. I chose to use a quote by Elie Wiesel from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. “We must always take sides,” he said. And that’s what I had inscribed on the wreath I laid. We must always take sides. Wiesel was talking about the need to stand up and to speak out against suffering and evil. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim,” he said. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Later, I wrote in the Yad Vashem guest book about why I chose that particular quote. Weisel’s words apply to us all, but they carry a special weight for the men and women who lead us. I wrote, “There is a lesson here. Leadership is not about power. Leadership is the acknowledgement and value of human dignity.” These are words I’ve tried to live by at the United Nations.
It’s not always easy. So many words are used by so many at the UN to avoid taking sides. But for me, leadership is taking a stand. It means never forgetting that there is good and evil in the world. It means being crystal clear that you stand on the side of good. What this means in practice is more complex. Taking a side doesn’t mean America can solve every problem in the world. Plainly, we can’t. It also doesn’t mean we must go to war to stop every dictator and address every injustice. We can’t do that either. But it does mean we must act where we can and when we can on behalf of freedom and human rights.
Sometimes that does mean using our military. We did that very appropriately and very effectively in April after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Sometimes it means using economic sanctions. We have done that recently against the growing dictatorship in Venezuela. Sometimes it means invigorating our diplomatic coalitions. We have done that in unprecedented ways at the United Nations this year against the brutal and dangerous regime in North Korea. And sometimes it means using the power of our voice and speaking out, as we are doing against the barbaric attacks on ethnic and religious minorities in Burma.
Our actions will take different forms, depending on the circumstances. But we must act. We must never be silent when it comes to the fundamental human rights. We must never waver when it comes to atrocities and genocide. We must always take sides.
We’d like to think we live in more civilized times than the ones Elie Wiesel spent his life remembering. We’d like to think we have learned from his life’s work. That’s what came to my mind when I traveled to central and eastern Africa just three weeks ago. President Trump asked me to visit the region out of a growing sense of alarm. This is a region that suffers far more from the acts of man than from the acts of God. South Sudan, in particular, is a tragic case of shattered dreams and unrealized potential. It is the youngest country in the world, but the promise of its hard-fought independence is slipping away.
The government is engaged in a brutal, protracted military campaign against a fragmented opposition. The divisions are tribal. Both sides are responsible for atrocities against civilians. But the government is primarily responsible for ethnically-based killings and for deliberately blocking the delivery of humanitarian assistance to suffering people. The realities of the South Sudan crisis are difficult to truly comprehend.
The violence has left two million South Sudanese displaced and two million more as refugees. Countless are dead. Millions are facing near famine conditions. Thousands of children, some as young as seven years old, have been abducted and recruited by armed groups as child soldiers. I knew these facts before I left, and I was alarmed by them. But I’ll be honest with you. I was not prepared for the level of suffering that I saw. Nothing prepares you for it.
I had been to refugee camps before, for Syrian refugees in both Jordan and Turkey. But the South Sudanese refugees live in conditions that make the camps in Jordan and Turkey look like luxury resorts. Entire families are living with nothing but a tarp over their heads. Women are giving birth on dirt floors – floors that have now turned to mud by the fact that it’s the rainy season.
There is nothing that prepares you for the sobs of the South Sudanese women, nearly all of whom had been raped, sometimes repeatedly. I have never before experienced anything quite like the dazed look in the eyes of the children with no homes, no schools, and no hope for the future.
The effect of the atrocities experienced by the people of South Sudan is in the air of the camps; it surrounds you. This is especially true of the women and the children. They have suffered disproportionately in this conflict. Not only can you see it, you can feel it.
Whenever I travel to difficult settings, I seek out the women to talk to, and often have events organized so I can listen to local women without any men in the room. I find the women are very honest about their situations, and I always learn a lot from them.
At a refugee camp in Ethiopia, I met with a group of South Sudanese women who were almost completely broken by what they’d experienced. Their stories of sexual violence are beyond imaginable. One woman told me about being gang raped. She told me about how the soldiers ripped her baby out of her arms and threw him in a fire. And then they forced her to eat the flesh of her own child. And as she spoke, something even more heartbreaking happened – all of the 100-plus women in that stifling building began to relive their own horror. Their pain and anguish was catching.
Soon all the women in the room were either crying or exchanging knowing glances that showed that they too had experienced the same sort of barbaric mistreatment. A meeting that started out with me in a chair listening, ended up with me on the ground, hugging a sobbing woman who had experienced the kind of pain that no human being should ever experience. Seasoned aid workers told us that, over many years working in conflict zones, they had never seen anything like the atrocities they had witnessed in South Sudan.
And the unspeakable violence that is occurring is not random. It is calculated and it is directed at innocent civilians. It is designed to convince women of their powerlessness. And it is designed to separate young boys from their parents and turn them into cold, remorseless killers. There are many former child soldiers who are traumatized by what they have seen and what they have been forced to do. In one particularly horrific case, there were two young South Sudanese boys – brothers. They were forced to watch their mother be tied to a tree and gang raped. Afterward, the soldiers forced one brother to shoot his mother on her left side and the other brother to shoot her on the right side. They were permitted to stop only when she died – died of the gunshot wounds her own sons had been forced to inflict on her.
You cannot witness something like this and not be deeply affected. No human being should have to live the way these people live. No mother should have the memories these mothers have. No child should feel the pain those two brothers felt.
But even in the midst of all the pain and all the suffering, there was dignity. South Sudanese refugees just want to be able to go home and live normal lives. They want desperately to be productive and self-sufficient. The women make small crafts to sell. Some families sell food items out of their huts. The mothers I met were worried more about their children than about themselves. Above all, they were desperate for their children to be educated. Less than half of school-aged children in South Sudan are in classrooms. And in the camps, education is virtually non-existent.
The children wander around, some naked, some only partially clothed. Most of them don’t know how old they are. They are malnourished. They are bored. And they are surrounded by the consequences of hate. In every camp we visited, we asked the children if there was one wish they could have come true, what would it be? In each and every case, they said they wanted to go to school. Americans can always be counted on to try and make this wish come true – to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves. But the crisis in South Sudan is not only a humanitarian one. We should help the people of South Sudan out of concern for not just their safety but our own safety as well.
Why do I say this? Because this conflict is planting the seeds of future hate in the next generation. The reality is that all of the children we engaged with will be 18 one day. They will be adults. And they’ll be uneducated, untrained, and resentful of the conditions they’ve been living in. They will be prime targets for recruitment by armed groups. If we don’t do something about the way these kids are being raised in South Sudan, we might be dealing with them as adults on the battlefield. We must take sides.
When I visited the refugee camp, I made sure to take pictures of the conditions I saw there in anticipation of my meeting the next day with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. My photos tried to do what the remarkable photos displayed here tonight succeed in doing – capturing the pain, fear, and pride of the people in the camps. As we drove through the guarded gates and layers of security to reach President Kiir’s office – past all the men with guns – I decided that what I had planned to say was too tame for a leader so bloodstained and isolated from his people. I was still angry from the conditions I had witnessed in the camps.
President Kiir is an ex-rebel leader. He fought for many years against the tyranny of the government of Sudan. He understands suffering. He has had major hardship within his own family. For those reasons, the U.S. government at one time had high hopes for Kiir as a leader. While I could have some sympathy for his past, there is only revulsion and disgust with what he has allowed to happen – and with what he has himself done – to the people of his country. Our meeting ended up being an intense and emotional exchange. I showed him the pictures I had taken in the camps and told him he couldn’t deny what they represented. His government and his soldiers have caused the suffering of millions of South Sudanese people. To his credit, he didn’t try and deny it.
But acknowledgement of evil is not enough. We have to take a side.
So I made his choices as plain to him as I possibly could. I reminded him that the United States was instrumental in the creation of South Sudan. I reminded him that we have invested well over $11 billion in his country and in him – and that we are not getting the return on investment that we had expected. We thought we were investing in a free and fair society, where children and families would be safe. But South Sudan has become the opposite of that, and Kiir and his government are largely responsible. The United States is both generous and patient, but we are not without our limits. Entire generations are being lost in South Sudan. Families are being destroyed. We cannot and will not look away.
What makes the situation so frustrating is that it is not hopeless. There is a way to end the violence in South Sudan. There is a way to resuscitate the 2015 peace agreement. The leaders of that country need to take responsibility and seize this opportunity.
The United States will continue to do all we can to support the South Sudanese people, particularly those in the greatest need. I laid out a series of things we expect from President Kiir in the near future and a series of things he will face if he does not deliver. Time will tell if he makes good on his commitments. And time is short for him to do that.
But already, there has been a promising sign. Yesterday, the United States got word that President Kiir has issued an order requiring free and unhindered access for humanitarian groups in South Sudan. Now, Kiir has broken his promises before. So, again, time will tell. And again, we will judge him and his government by their actions, not their words. But this is a welcome sign of potential relief for the people of South Sudan. We will be watching to see if their government lives up to its word.
In the meantime, the world needs to hear more about the horror the people of South Sudan continue to experience. And that brings me back to Elie Wiesel. Much of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech is an imagined conversation between him and a young boy who was killed in the Holocaust. In his speech, Wiesel pictures the young boy turning to him when he is an old man and saying, “Tell me, what have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?” In fact, Wiesel spent his life being a voice. Keeping a memory alive. He kept his promise to that young boy. All of us who are dedicated to protecting and respecting human dignity have much work left to do if we’re going to keep our promise. I think of the children I met in those camps, and I think about what we’re doing for their future. I think about how we’re living our lives to advance our common humanity.
The Simon-Skjodt Center and the men and women who support it are beacons that will guide us in this work. You remind us of the good and evil in the world and give us the wisdom to know the difference. You recognize the sin of indifference. You refuse to be silent. You have taken a side. And for that, the world owes you a great debt.
Thank you very much, and God bless.