SPEECH BY DAVID MILIBAND
PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE
CHICAGO COUNCIL ON GLOBAL AFFAIRS
2019 GLOBAL LEADERSHIP AWARDS DINNER
5 NOVEMBER 2019
It’s great to be in Chicago, to feel the heartbeat of the heart of America, and to know that the commitment to internationalism and global engagement, to diverse and multicultural communities, is alive and well. I want to acknowledge my fellow honorees tonight, and call out some of the sons and daughters of Chicago who are such a valued part of the IRC family: Leah Zell is our new Board member, Sally Susman who is well-known to many of you as Lou and Marjorie’s daughter is our co-chair, and I also want to thank my friends and our valued supporters Tom and Margot Pritzker. I also want to call out the commitment to public service and intellectual rigor that has marked out the career of your Director Ivo Daalder.
Chicago is a refugee city and an immigrant city. Since IRC was founded by one of the world’s most famous refugees, Albert Einstein, we take inspiration from your embrace.
This is a meaningful award for me and the International Rescue Committee because the Chicago Council sums up so many of the most positive values of the US: that where you come from doesn’t matter, that who you pray to is a private matter, that your color should be no barrier to advancement, that the rest of the world holds wonder and interest, not fear and loathing.
My dad got his first teaching job at Roosevelt University in 1951, and I first came to Chicago in 1999 with Tony Blair when he delivered his lecture on the “Doctrine of the International Community” at the height of the Kosovo crisis. He said at the time that there was no better place to make the argument for America’s global responsibility than in Chicago, and I am happy to reiterate that message tonight.
The truth is that global affairs should be an inspiration. Today they seem more like a nightmare. 69 million forcibly displaced. 142 million children living in high intensity battle zones. Record numbers of civilians and aid workers killed in conflicts. And diplomacy in retreat.
Welcome to the Age of Impunity. Bombing hospitals? More prevalent than ever. Targeting civilians? They are now the majority of battlefield deaths.
The Age of Impunity is designed to connote that the norms and laws of war, boldly but belatedly enunciated after the Second World War, are increasingly being breached, not just by non-state actors but by states, and that the accountability for their actions that commanders and soldiers should feel is being undermined by an appalling philosophy that anything goes and the law is for suckers.
We see that every day around the world. And of course there is a domestic counterpart: Freedom House has document that just as impunity has risen in the international sphere, more or less since 2006, so over the course of those 13 years has democratic recession started to bite on the home front. 113 countries have seen reductions in political freedom over the last 13 years. And for the first time since the end of the 19th century, the aggregate GDP of autocratic states outweighs that of democratic ones.
Of course there are exceptions – but not in the places that you might expect.
The Nobel Peace Prize this year did not go to someone from a rich country turning swords into ploughshares, an American or a European or an Asian. It went to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, for his courageous and bold moves to end the frozen conflict with Eritrea.
We need more Abiy Ahmeds in the world today. And IRC is mopping up the mess because he is the exception not the rule.
Where we need diplomacy, in the DRC, there is retreat. Where we need solidarity, with the Northern Triangle, there is beggar thy neighbor. Where we need truth spoken in the corridors of power, over hospital bombings in Syria, we find timidity. Where we need unity, over Yemen, there is division. Where we need humanity, in Myanmar, there is hate.
Yet while the statistics are depressing, the people offer hope. I am so proud that IRC teams helped 27 million people last year. That we launched 16,000 refugee businesses. That thanks to the MacArthur Foundation from here in Chicago which awarded its first $100 million prize to the combined bid of IRC and Sesame Workshop, we are delivering the largest early childhood development program ever in a humanitarian setting.
When the people we help are courageous and hopeful, if not for themselves then for their children, what right have we to be downcast?
We can staunch the dying, but we need politics to stop the killing. That is why the work you do is so important.
It has been said that a foreign policy born in the hearts of the few and carried in the hearts of none is doomed to fail. So let’s build a foreign policy carried in the hearts of many – not because it says human rights are irrelevant but because it knows that without human rights there is no stability, not because it says refugees are someone else’s business but because it says that they are our business, not because it neglects its own problems but because it knows that in an interdependent world we cannot address our own problems unless we address others’ as well.
The US is central to that cause. It is not that a unipolar world is ever coming back. Rather it is that when the world’s most powerful democracy says that injustice anywhere is a threat to stability everywhere, it sends a powerful message. It says to those tempted by impunity: watch it. And of course when the world’s most powerful democracy says the opposite, it is an invitation.
The fact is that the mission of ‘rescue’ is not just about the refugees and displaced people we serve every day. It’s about us – what we stand for, how we see our place in the world. It is a test of our character, not just our policies. When we stand up for the values of welcome and refuge, we don’t just rescue people whose lives have been shattered by conflict and disaster, we rescue ourselves from apathy and moral relativism.
So thank you for this award. Thank you for representing the best of America and not just the best of Chicago. Thank you for standing with the IRC and the people we serve, in their interests and in ours. And thank you for being part of a global effort to make sure that this time of interdependence is a time of responsibility too.