Remarks at the International Rescue Committee Freedom Award Dinner

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York
New York City
November 6, 2013


Thank you so much. It’s a tremendous honor to be here, and a great shame that the lights are down out there – I can’t see old friends and former fellow board members, since one of my proudest achievements is that I was on the IRC board. I was a bad board member, as people no longer will recall, but it was official…I hope no one will recall. Anyways, it’s really amazing to be up here and to be with all of you.

President Miliband—there you are—welcome to your new gig. Others have surely assured you that the trips to the war zones that you’re taking as IRC President are like the Caribbean compared to British politics, so things will go very smoothly for you.

Secretary Albright—who’s there, I believe; I try most mornings as I walk into the U.S. Mission to the UN to look up from my BlackBerry—Blackberries—and look at the huge silver letters where you have emblazoned all the names of the former ambassadors to the United Nations, and it’s the most tremendous lineage, as all of you know. And this lady’s example is my inspiration, really. She’s [inaudible]. What you don’t know is she also gives me both kind of “big sister” advice, but also I get these late night phone calls more and more with ideas, for how we just “if we just do this…” and on negotiating tactics and on the substance of policy, there’s no one better.

I’ve known IRC a long time and I’ve admired its work a long time. But on my first day in my job as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I got to know a different slice of IRC, which was I went and I visited an IRC Refugee Youth Academy; basically, where refugees come to this country get teaching and community building and they get to know America. And I thought it was going to be a nice, leisurely trip downtown, take me away from the stresses of my first day in the office. And instead—because these kids are just completely wise to the world—it was an utter grilling. And my favorite—a highlight of it for me—was a twelve-year-old refugee, who asked me—and there was actually a little bit of media there too, which made this question especially appreciated—which was simply, “Ambassador, what do you think of communism?” So, by the time the IRC youth refugees had finished with me, I was hightailing it uptown to find Ambassador Churkin to, you know, negotiate with—and again, smoother confines.

George Rupp, I didn’t see you earlier but I know must be here, and so many others of you who have made the IRC a synonym with excellence—I thank you. I wish the need for IRC’s work and leadership was shrinking, but of course, it is needed now more than ever.

Ever since that moment, eighty years ago, when Albert Einstein asked Americans to help people at risk in Hitler’s Germany, the IRC has been a lifeline to victims of despots, aggressors, drought, famine, war. And as has been said, I think, I’m sure, many times tonight, the IRC does much more than aid survivors. And you can see it in the life and the shine of the remarkable Iraqi woman who was up here tonight. IRC helps people reclaim their dignity. And, in so doing, it takes advantage of the full scope of human potential and it adds such richness—every day around the world, and here in this country, as it resettles refugees—such richness to life.

For decades, IRC has been at this, whether helping French Resistance fighters elude the Gestapo; poking holes in the Iron Curtain; rescuing countless families in flight from civil war; or alleviating the agony caused by Haiti’s earthquake; the IRC has always been present, always efficient, always determined to do what is necessary in time, every time.

Now, before I turn to our guest of honor, let me say a word, if I could—because to not do so would just seem wrong—about a place in the world today where we are all doing an awful lot—certainly, my government, the IRC, many of you in this room—but we all know that we‘re not achieving enough, and that is Syria.

The needs in Syria exceed anything—anything—that we have seen in our lifetimes, certainly in my lifetime. There are now seven times as many Syrian refugees today, this day—today—as there were on this day last year. Seven times as many. The UN has issued two appeals, worth—brace yourself—$4.4 billion, the largest appeal by so far, by so much. More than 9 million people, they’re now saying, will have to be reached by and with humanitarian assistance in 2014. Two million people have not been reached in nearly a year. Two million people: we don’t even know how they’re doing, what’s happening. They’re just in besieged areas, in contested areas. Two million people, not reached.

The medical profession—many of you have been advocating on this and reading about this lately—but it just has been ravaged. Targeted willfully by the regime and increasingly by violent extremist groups as well. Being a doctor, now, today, in Syria means that the life you save today may cost you your own life tomorrow. It’s that bad. And you’ve seen, I’m sure, the iconic statistic, which is that – just using one town as an example—that of the 5,000 doctors that worked in Aleppo before the conflict started, 36 remain. Thirty-six out of 5,000. I mean, all the facts are like this, they just are eye-popping, even for people like you who have heard people like me speak at podiums like this on so many conflicts over the years. This is in another league.

The Syrian regime is denying aid workers access to towns that they are besieging, even as it is now allowing access to chemical weapons inspectors. So, providing visas to chemical weapons inspectors, denying visas to humanitarian workers. The fact of the chemical weapons implementation only underscores how much this is an issue of will for the regime, and lack of will. In the wake of the chemical weapons attack, we’ve seen also what the world can achieve when it stands together, where that will can be generated, how that will can be generated. And our challenge now, our collective challenge—in addition to money, which is a profound one—but is to turn up the political heat, to turn up the political temperature on anybody who would deny assistance to a person in need. And this means creating shame where this is none; reinventing norms that we thought were sacred but that have been shattered. And it means that every country, and government, and every individual in the world who has influence on any actor or any party has to use it. Humanitarians like IRC and its partners just have to be allowed to do their work. It’s long past due.

So, it’s about as urgent as anything there is, and knowing George Soros—when he gets the chance to come up here he’s less likely to talk about himself and his achievements but I suspect you’ll hear a little more about Syria, knowing George. Now, we’ve all watched the IRC do its thing in difficult circumstances, and in seemingly insoluble situations. In the 1990s, I had the privilege of being a rookie journalist there, having worked for the great Mort Abromowitz, and being inspired by him and his leadership on Bosnia; went off to Bosnia and watched the IRC try to save lives on the ground; again, in excruciating circumstances. I learned then the organization has a secret weapon, a secret affiliate. And it was a Hungarian refugee by the name of George Soros.

My first introduction to George was indirect. I met Fred Cuny and heard him describe how he and his patron George Soros were going to single-handedly break the siege of Sarajevo. Humble guys, I thought, modest in ambition. Little did I know.

Over the years, the world has come to know a huge amount about the extraordinary ambition of this extraordinary individual. And I can’t resist here, just in having the podium, if you’ll indulge me, in offering just a little color commentary in advance of the formal introduction that will come.

When George Soros sees a challenge that must be met, he, as you all know, doesn’t scratch his head and look for others to take the lead; he imagines a different world, analyzes, plans, creates, and then picks up the tab. In so doing, he has blazed a trail for others to follow. And it is worth remembering what philanthropy, such as it is, was like before George descended onto the scene.

As we all know today, human requirements are great and the constraints on the public sector--on governments--are many. There’s a widening breach between basic needs and available resources, as the Syria extraordinary needs underscore.

The gap is still too large, but what’s amazing is that in keeping with George Soros’ example, international charitable giving by Americans has almost doubled in real terms over the past dozen years. And I know many of you are responsible for those statistics as well. Private donations now equal more than two-thirds of the amount that the U.S. government gives in foreign aid. And that is a more dramatic story than one of financial resources alone; because development and assistance are no longer just about funds, and about money. The new philanthropists—the Soros-modeled philanthropists—donate money, but they do so while they’re still in the prime of their lives. And alongside money, they contribute knowledge, entrepreneurial savvy, technological knowledge. All the skills that they’ve brought to bear in the private sector, they’re able to apply to a world that really needs it. And through his example, George has given definition to what it means to be a modern philanthropist, to be a doer, paving the way for Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffet, Pam and Pierre Omidyar, and others. George was first.

George Soros began his career of creative giving four decades ago when he began helping black students gain admittance to the University of Cape Town in apartheid South Africa. There are all these little, again, pockets of action that he has fueled and associated with, we don’t even know about, those of us who have known him more recently. I remember in the Balkans, again, back in there in the early to mid-90s, hearing that George was going to be providing a four year college education to any Serbian student who could get into an accredited overseas program. Just like that, thinking ahead: what will Serbia need 10 years from now, 15 years from now. It was a scale of ambition that I couldn’t even comprehend.

After the Cold War ended, beginning in Central Europe, his Open Society Institute, of course, assisted countries in making the difficult transition from authoritarian to democratic rule; today the Foundations are active on every continent, striving to promote vibrant and tolerant democracies with strong civic institutions and justice and health systems that work. It is rare that a week goes by, in my new incarnation—and I mean this—where I don’t meet an ambassador to the United Nations, a head of state or minister, a journalist or civil society advocate who didn’t either graduate from the Central European University, receive an Open Society grant, or once run an Open Society office. That’s how much George has populated the planet with his dedication to human rights and human dignity. I myself would not have been able to spend years working on a long book on genocide if not for George Soros and the Open Society Foundation’s generous support.

In Asia, Mr. Soros assisted Nobel prizewinner, Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank has shown that prosperity can be built one micro-enterprise at a time. And more recently, he has pushed issues of governance to the fore, with Revenue Watch Institute, which he nurtured inside OSI. He’s now at the center of a global movement working to fight corruption and ensure that citizens realize the development benefits of their oil, gas, and mining revenues. And I see this continuing influence in the recent report of the Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 agenda for development, which now puts transparency and accountability at the core of efforts to eradicate global poverty. It’s George…just little people who are out there in the world, changing the world every day.

Throughout the past decades, George Soros has spread a gospel: open society, open society, open society. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of listening from the gallery of the United Nations General Assembly when President Barack Obama addressed the heads of state of the world and built an entire affirmative agenda around Karl Popper’s vision, which is George’s vision and which George popularized and resourced: open economy, open government, open society.

George Soros has challenged others to create their own legacies and inspired all of us to consider whether we have, if not comparable means, then at least the same energy, caring and commitment to follow his lead, or to try. And George has three essential qualities. First, as he will tell you, he’s smarter than us; second, he doesn’t do charity, he does transformative change; and third, his impact will be felt hundreds of years from now. Hundreds, and maybe hundreds and hundreds of years from now.

The IRC and George Soros are a perfect match. Both of them believe that freedom must be validated by responsibility. Both prize bold action over soothing aspirations.

Most of us don’t have and won’t have George’s gifts or resources. Thus, it is tempting to see him as another species. But the lesson of George—and all he has done in his life and all he will yet to—is universal. And though he doesn’t like sentiment, it is also a very touching lesson, which is that no matter how disadvantaged a person’s circumstances might be or how desperate his or her plight has become, every one of us has something to give—something—and every person out there is worth the effort to save.

And now I am pleased—very pleased—to turn the microphone over to the co-founder of the Friends of Democracy, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a spirited public citizen, and a friend to so many of us—please welcome the great Jonathan Soros.