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This is not the welcome I get when I walk into the UN Security Council. I should come here more often. It is, it’s wonderful, truly wonderful, very moving for me to be back. I came to Yale from Atlanta, Georgia. I went to a public high school in Atlanta, Georgia; and being here – it is no overstatement to say that being here completely changed my life. An amazing experience. Many of my teachers are here, whom I still think about even as I do my day job. I went from wanting to be a sportscaster, which would have been a very worthy career, and still I pine for it at times, to wanting to do something, anything, in American foreign policy because of the teaching and the inspiration I got from the Yale faculty and from my fellow classmates. I will say that I never, ever, ever, ever imagined I would come back to Yale to speak as the UN Ambassador, so it’s thrilling for me. Thank you.
We are living in a time, it is very fair to say, of daunting and perpetual crises. The deadly spread of Ebola in West Africa; a string of shocking executions by ISIL; more tanks and heavy armaments rolling across Ukraine’s border to Russian-backed separatists; barrel bombs and chlorine being dropped by the Assad regime on Syrian civilians; child soldiers being abducted and forced to fight in a brutal civil war in the world’s newest country, South Sudan; the list goes on and on.
There are so many crises that when we turn our attention to working to bring one of these under control – or trying to reduce the suffering that a particular crisis is causing – two more pop up.
At a different time in our history, we may have felt tempted to ignore some of these threats. We may have thought that we wouldn’t pay a price. In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote that: “America, remote from all the wrangling of the world, may live at ease. Bounded by the ocean and backed by the wilderness, what hath she to fear, but her God?” But in today’s interconnected world, we don’t have the luxury of remoteness from the world’s wrangling. It can impact us more swiftly and more deeply than ever before.
Now this is not news to any of you. You see it. You feel it. You understand that America cannot afford to ignore these threats. And at the same time, you understand that today’s threats are so immense and so complex that even if the United States wanted to tackle any one of them alone, we would not be able to do so. We need to rally the international community to our side.
The point I want to make speaking today is that, in addition to leading the international community in responding to these threats in real time, we need to help shape a world where such threats are less likely to arise in the first place.
This sounds so obvious, I know. And yet generations of policymakers across the political spectrum have struggled to dedicate the bandwidth, financial resources, and diplomatic and political capital to make these long-term investments. As someone who came into government fully convinced of the critical importance of seeing beyond the crisis of the moment – I can tell you that it is surprisingly challenging in practice to do so, given all else.
But my message to you today is that we cannot treat the short and long term as an either-or proposition. We have to try to put out a lot of fires in the here and now. But we can’t let the immediacy of today’s crises distract us from playing a smart long game that will create more stability and more security in the long run. Let me offer a few examples: curbing the spread of Ebola, protecting rights of women and girls, and countering violent extremism.
On September 18th, the United States chaired the first-ever emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on a public health crisis – Ebola. By that time, more than 2,500 people had died of the virus, and some 5,500 had been reported infected in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
A Liberian healthcare worker named Jackson Naimah – who was working at a Médecins Sans Frontieres Ebola clinic in the capital of Monrovia – spoke to the Council via video link. He described people dying outside the gates of the clinic where he worked because there were just no more beds to take them in. He said, “I feel that the future of my country is hanging in the balance…If the international community does not stand up, we will be wiped out.”
Now, the United States has done more than any other country to help West Africa respond to the Ebola crisis. The CDC deployed teams to the region way back in March, shortly after the outbreak began; in July, President Obama declared controlling the epidemic a national security priority; and most importantly, days before that September Security Council meeting, the president had announced the largest global health intervention in U.S. history, resulting so far in the deployment of more than 3,000 U.S. civilian and military personnel from the Department of Defense, USAID, the CDC, and other agencies. We’re supporting the construction of 15 Ebola Treatment Units – so-called ETUs. And brave and brilliant men and women in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps provide Ebola treatment at a 25-bed hospital built by the U.S. military and dedicated to treating healthcare workers and Ebola responders who contract the virus. This ensures that medical volunteers and UN personnel from around the world will receive top-notch care if they are infected while working on the front lines of this epidemic. The United States is training hundreds of Liberian healthcare workers at a newly built center in Monrovia, and countless more through mobile training teams traveling to remote areas.
But even with all this, we know that the United States alone cannot curb the epidemic’s deadly spread. That is why we mobilized 133 other countries – the most in the history of the United Nations – to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring Ebola a threat to international peace and security. It is why President Obama personally launched a full court press to mobilize commitments from other countries, keeping heads of state around the world on speed dial to convince them to do more. And it is why we are now holding other countries to the commitments that they have made, and pressing those who have committed too little, or who’ve committed nothing at all, to do their part – because we will not defeat Ebola with a “some-hands-on-deck” effort.
Having visited the most affected countries at the end of October, I can tell you that we are beginning to see the impact of our collective response. In Bong County, Liberia, I visited a U.S. Navy-run Ebola testing lab, which had cut the time local Liberians waited for test results from five days to between three and five hours. On November 4th, only 33 out of 53 Ebola-affected districts across the region had the ability to transport samples to a lab within 24 hours of collecting them, according to the WHO. By November 17th, just 13 days later, all 53 districts had that capability. And lab testing time matters because the sooner you get your results, the sooner you can leave facilities where you might be waiting with people who are actually infected and in many of these labs about 70 percent of the results are coming back negative, so actually a large number of people who are being tested are not those who in fact have Ebola – they may have malaria, they may have some other ailment; it allows them to leave and it frees up bed space for those who need to be isolated with Ebola.
The results affirm what we have said all along about Ebola, which is that we know how to win this fight. We can bend Ebola’s deadly curve. But bending that curve is very different from ending it. It would be a huge mistake to think that just because we are seeing signs of progress in some areas, that we are close to stopping this outbreak. We are not.
In Sierra Leone, the disease is spreading faster than at any time since the outbreak began, with more than 900 new infections reported in the two-week period that ended November 23rd. Some 16,000 people have been reported infected in West Africa, and more than 5,500 people have died. The actual figures are likely, in fact, to be much higher. Local contact tracing teams outside of capitals – which are critical to breaking chains of transmission – continue to lack basic resources, like gas for their motorcycles or even credit for their SIM cards for their cellphones.
And the human toll is staggering. Think for a second about the heartbreak associated with any one of the 4,000 boys and girls who have lost a mother or father to the virus. Four thousand orphans. Or the incalculable loss of warmth in countries where people used to hug when they met – but now are told not to wipe the tears from the eyes of a sick child, in case the child might be infected. Or the pain experienced by the people who have beaten the virus, only to find themselves stigmatized, or even run out of town, by their friends and their communities when they attempt to go home.
Yet in spite of all the suffering the outbreak has caused – and it is immense; and in spite of the virus’s surge in parts of the affected countries; we have to find a way to look beyond the outbreak and ask what factors made these countries so vulnerable. We have to take steps now so that, in the long term, we avoid finding ourselves in this situation again.
One reason Ebola spread so fast was because West Africa had never experienced an Ebola outbreak before. And even before the virus surfaced, public health systems in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were stretched beyond capacity just to meet the day-to-day needs of their citizens.
Prior to the outbreak, Liberia had approximately 50 doctors for the entire country of 4.3 million people. That’s around one doctor for every 100,000 people. Sierra Leone had two doctors for every 100,000 people. The United States, by contrast, has 245 doctors for every 100,000 people. The United Kingdom has 279. Germany: 380. Yale-New Haven Hospital – which is just one of nearly 50 hospitals in Connecticut alone – has more than 600 resident physicians. Liberia, 50, before Ebola. The Yale-New Haven number is twelve times the number of doctors in all of pre-Ebola Liberia.
The Yale School of Medicine graduates over ten times the number of doctors in a single class than worked in Liberia before Ebola began taking some of the country’s best nurses and doctors. Ebola has killed approximately 330 health care workers in West Africa, many of whom were not working to treat Ebola when they were infected, but rather were providing routine medical assistance, such as delivering babies.
The affected countries also lacked – and, in many instances, continue to lack – protective suits and even plastic gloves to keep healthcare workers safe. They lack lab capacity, emergency operations centers, and disease surveillance systems. Communities were not aware – and some are still not aware – of what Ebola is, or how it is spread. All of these deficiencies meant that when the Ebola outbreak hit these countries, it hit harder and spread faster.
Leaders and communities in the region understand the importance of plugging these gaps. They understand the dangerous short-sightedness of thinking our job is done when we end the current outbreak. They know what epidemiologists’ research proves: another outbreak – whether of Ebola or of another deadly disease like SARS or MERS – is inevitable. But whether these outbreaks become full-blown epidemics is up to us.
When I met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in Liberia, on my trip to the region and asked her what keeps her up at night, she said it was the country’s restless youth. Three-quarters of Liberia’s population is under the age of 35. She said she worried about kids who have been out of school for months, about young men and women who have lost their jobs since Liberia’s economy started its ongoing decline. One out of every two Liberians who was employed at the beginning of the outbreak is now out of work. Seven in ten people surveyed said they do not have enough money to buy food.
President Conde of Guinea and President Koroma of Sierra Leone voiced similar concerns. So did so many of the community and civil society leaders I met with in all three countries. They were worried that making it to Ebola-free will quickly translate into these countries being assistance-free, as we in the international community quickly pack up and leave behind countries with far greater insecurity and far weaker economies; with thousands of orphaned children and public institutions in shambles.
Recognizing these acute risks, we are now looking beyond ending this Ebola epidemic’s curve to preventing the next infectious disease epidemic.
Back in February, before the first cases of Ebola in Guinea came to light, the United States launched the Global Health Security Agenda, the GHSA. The agenda is aimed at preparing countries to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to outbreaks before they become epidemics. During a meeting with President Obama in September, 43 countries joined us in announcing over 100 specific commitments to strengthen global health security, together with the WHO and other international institutions. The GHSA is predicated on the understanding that – in a world where an outbreak that begins in the forests of Guinea can quickly spread across borders, continents, and even oceans – a weakness in any part of our interconnected global health security system is a threat to us all.
We and our partners have set out 11 areas of focus to strengthen national, regional, and global capacity. These include boosting immunization rates to stop the resurgence of preventable diseases; ensuring countries have nationwide lab systems capable of conducting rapid, accurate tests to detect outbreaks early; and developing and implementing the real-time disease surveillance systems and the workforce required to track outbreaks, like the contact tracing teams that are so critical to tracking down those who might have had physical contact with someone infected with Ebola. Each area of focus within the GHSA has a five-year implementation plan, which sets out concrete benchmarks along the way and a way to measure them.
To meet crises head-on where they are, we are also developing new regional partners, such as the African Union’s own Centers for Disease Control, which the AU and the United States agreed to jointly create during this year’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit; and our own CDC is helping to advise and build.
We are also investing in the young policy-makers, innovators, and civil society leaders who will lead their countries in responding not only to this kind of crisis, but other crises. Whether inside or outside government, these individuals will do the yeoman’s work of shoring up institutions and making societies more resilient and less vulnerable to global threats like epidemics. That is why President Obama launched the Young African Leaders Initiative, which brought its first class of 500 Mandela Washington fellows to the United States to study this past summer. Twenty of our nation’s top universities, including Yale, I’m proud to say, hosted Mandela Washington fellows for six weeks of leadership training, skill-building, and networking with their peers. Some of you in the audience may have had the chance to hear from these fellows about their remarkable work, often done in the most daunting circumstances.
One of the Mandela Washington fellows in this year’s class was Sarah McGill, a 28 year-old Liberian.
When Sarah returned home this fall, she noticed a problem. Because of the exponential spread of Ebola, when Sarah went shopping in Monrovia, all the stores had signs outside telling people to wash their hands in chlorinated water before entering. Most shops had a five-liter bucket outside, and at the busier businesses, the wait could take up to ten minutes. During that time, people crowded into long lines, where they were at greater risk of infection; others gave up and left, costing the stores business. So Sarah designed a simple 440-liter tank, with six individual stations, which permit multiple people to wash their hands at once. And because the tank is much larger, it only needs to be refilled once a day, as opposed to every few hours with smaller buckets. Sixteen communities are now using this simple tank, that Sarah designed, and more plan to build them, particularly outside of schools, enabling, potentially, schools to open back up and the necessary precautions to be put in place. Investing in a problem-solver like Sarah – and all of the young problem-solvers in this audience tonight – has to be part of our long game.
Now, I have been on campus for about two and a half hours and I’ve already gotten an administration’s worth of policy recommendations today from Yale students and faculty. But let me offer one to you and to take advantage of the leadership who’s present here today. I would urge you not only to host future classes of Mandela Washington fellows, but also to deepen your engagement with the initiative by sending Yale students, faculty members, and researchers out into the field, to partner with the fellows who have studied here. Dartmouth, which also hosted fellows in 2014, has started a program like this, and its first batch of students are on their way to Tanzania, Ghana, Angola, and Zimbabwe to work with fellows this winter.
Of course, Ebola is not the only crisis where it is in America’s interest, and the world’s, to play the long game even as we respond to immediate threats. Another is advancing the rights of women and girls. We’ve got to address the immediate crisis of widespread gender-based violence, particularly in wartime, while at the same time making the crucial long-term investments in the empowerment of women and girls.
Violence against women during conflicts is anything but a new problem. One of the earliest accounts of the mass abduction of women and girls can be found in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, where the seizure of Sabine women played a central part in the creation of Rome. Plutarch wrote: “Armed with swords, then, many of [Romulus’s] followers kept their eyes intently upon him, and when the signal was given, drew their swords, rushed in with shouts, and ravished away the daughters of the Sabines… Some say that only thirty maidens were seized, and that from these the Curiae were named; but Valerius Antias puts the number at 527, and Juba at 683, all maidens.”
We know that violence against women and girls in conflicts persists with disturbing frequency, yet the statistics – and the horrifying individual acts – continue to shock. Consider the Democratic Republic of Congo, where sexual violence has long been used as a tactic of war in the decades-long conflict. In one of the most devastating incidents, at least 387 people – including 300 women and 55 girls – were raped by armed groups in 13 villages in Eastern Congo between July 30th and August 2nd, 2010. Just a three-day period.
While conflicts exacerbate such violence, it is a daily fact of life for women and girls around the world. One in three women is the victim of physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. The UN estimates that 150 million girls worldwide experience sexual violence each year. In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds, according to UN Women. And in many places, the problem is getting worse, not better. In Honduras, the number of violent deaths of women increased by 263 percent from 2005 to 2013; yet, in 95 percent of sexual violence crimes and killings of women in Honduras, the perpetrators are never punished.
There are immediate steps we can take to stop violence against women and girls, both during conflicts and in peacetime.
We can improve accountability for violence against women and girls, through strengthening documentation of abuses and the capacity of justice officials to prosecute perpetrators. Physicians for Human Rights created a mobile app, MediCapt, which it piloted this year in the Congo, and which converts standardized medical intake forms into a way to gather forensic documentation for prosecutions. When a medical professional fills out the form using the app, it is immediately turned into a digital record, which can be used by prosecutors to trace patterns and build cases against perpetrators. The app can be used with a digital camera, allowing medical professionals to supplement their written reports with photographs of key evidence, such as physical bruising.
For this evidence to be useful, countries need prosecutors who are capable of building cases upon such evidence, and judges with the independence to punish powerful perpetrators. Yet these are basic institutions that many countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, still lack. And this is why, in June, Secretary Kerry announced a new Accountability Initiative to support specialized justice sector mechanisms, such as mobile courts, to improve access to justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in conflicts, and to help build the judicial capacity of partner governments.
As you all know, the struggle for accountability must not only be waged in conflict zones like the Congo – but also here in the United States, including at our colleges and universities. An estimated one in five women has been sexually assaulted during her college years. Of those assaults, only 12 percent are reported. And of those reported assaults, only a fraction of the offenders are punished. That is why President Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In April, the Task Force released a report with recommended steps that schools can take to hold offenders accountable and support survivors. This struggle needs to be waged not only by women – but also by men. That’s one of the messages behind the president’s and vice-president’s “It’s On Us” campaign, launched recently to stop sexual assault on college campuses.
As a proud Yale graduate, I’m often amazed by the leadership and the service of Yale students and graduates. But rarely am I as impressed as I have been with how students here have taken up this challenge, moving far beyond making a pledge, to bringing together leaders from across campus – from Yale’s College Council, to Communication and Consent Educators, from the Yale Women’s Center to sports teams and a cappella groups – to build a campaign that makes everyone on this campus ask: How can we change our behavior and our community to live up to this pledge? How can we work with the administration to bring about stronger enforcement and accountability? How do we make this part of “Our Yale”? That’s exactly what “It’s On Us” is all about.
At the same time, far from U.S. campuses, we have to make UN peacekeepers better at protecting women and girls from sexual violence. One way to do that is by improving early warning systems for sexual violence and other atrocities, and proactively pursuing repeat offenders. Peacekeepers in the Congo have set up alert networks that allow communities to report threats and attacks in real time directly to UN peacekeeping bases, so they can intervene. And the UN created a special unit in its Congo mission, the Force Intervention Brigade, which has made real headway disarming and defeating the armed groups responsible for some of the worst atrocities, including mass rape. Yet the sad fact is that even when peacekeepers are warned, they often fail to act. A March report by the UN’s internal oversight office found that in 507 attacks against civilians from 2000 to 2013, peacekeepers virtually never used force to protect civilians under attack. This is totally unacceptable.
To address the problem, the United States is working to ensure peacekeepers have both the capacity and the will to protect civilians under attack.
In August, President Obama announced the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, or A-PREP, which will invest $110 million each year for the next three to five years to build the capabilities of six countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda – which have embraced a more robust approach to peacekeeping. And we are building a global consensus among all peacekeeping countries – including the most skeptical ones – about the critical importance of actually implementing civilian protection mandates, including by protecting women and girls.
That is what the short game looks like in stopping sexual violence against women and girls. But of course, if we want to move beyond protecting women and girls from abuses to empowering them to realize their full potential, we need to do much more.
It will come as no surprise to you that education is the lynchpin of our long game in women’s and girls’ empowerment. We know that education is a smart investment not only in girls’ future, but also in the future of their nations, as countries that do a better job of educating girls are – on average – more prosperous, healthier, more democratic, and more peaceful. That is not a coincidence.
Yet while it is all well and good to say, “we need to ensure girls’ right to an education,” and “educating girls is one of the smartest investments societies can make,” getting girls into the classroom and keeping them there through secondary school takes much more than making school compulsory or building classrooms. Just look at the numbers: 62 million girls worldwide are not in school, more than 30 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa where there is so much promise.
To tackle this problem, we need to change the mental models, attitudes, and behaviors that lie beneath this persistent imbalance.
For instance, in Tanzania, four out of every ten girls are married before their 18th birthday. That’s because, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, many communities across the country see marriage as a way to protect girls from pre-marital sex and pregnancy, both of which are seen as undermining a family’s honor. In addition, as we know, brides’ families receive dowries from grooms’ families, giving them a strong incentive to marry their daughters early. As a result, girls are married off young, forcing many to leave school; and even those who stay in school after marriage are often pressured by school administrators and family members to drop out when they become pregnant. Girls who marry early are more vulnerable to a range of other abuses, including domestic violence and marital rape.
It is impossible to ensure more girls in Tanzania find their seats in the classroom, and hold onto them, without these societies tackling the underlying beliefs and practices that are driving girls from school. That means changing attitudes in communities about child marriage and dowries, and convincing educators to find ways to allow pregnant girls to continue their studies.
Behind every one of the obstacles to girls’ education is a fear or prejudice that we must address. It is fear of empowered women that drives extremist groups to abduct girls from their classrooms, as they did with the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria; and fear that drove them to try to kill this year’s remarkable Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, for daring to champion girls’ right to an education in Pakistan. And it is deep-seated prejudice that causes families to see educating their daughters as less important than educating their sons. The only way to overcome these obstacles to empowerment is to challenge the dangerous idea that a girl’s education is a privilege, or even a threat, rather than what we know it to be, which is a right.
In some instances, changes in the belief systems underlying these practices can be fostered by public policies. In West Bengal, for example, a political affirmative action program put women leaders in village government for the first time.
Within seven years, men’s individual bias against the capacity of women leaders almost fully disappeared. Seeing women leaders in positions of authority also gave parents higher aspirations for their daughters and raised girls’ expectations for themselves.
And we know full well that the developed world needs public policy oriented around girls’ and women’s empowerment as well. Last week, Germany passed legislation requiring the country’s leading companies to have at least 30 percent of the membership on their executive boards be held by women – up from the current level of approximately seven percent. This in a country led by a female chancellor, with a parliament that is approximately 40 percent female, which is more than double the proportion in the U.S. Congress.
When we invest in empowering women and girls, the results come full circle. Women and girls who are better educated can demand more accountable justice systems, which are more effective at prosecuting cases of sexual violence. They will also be better informed about their rights, and thus be better equipped to defend them, and to demand redress when they are violated. It makes for a virtuous positive feedback loop: by investing in empowering women and girls, we help create societies where the sexual violence against them is less likely to occur. By playing the long game, we reduce the need to play a short game.
Now I’ve spoken to you about the importance of looking beyond stopping the current Ebola outbreak to how we can prevent similar outbreaks in the future; and I’ve spoken about how, in addition to taking immediate steps to end sexual violence, we also need to invest more fully in women’s and girls’ empowerment. In both instances, the threat in front of us is so urgent, and the suffering it causes is so devastating, that it can be easy to lose sight of long-term investments. This problem of being consumed by responding to the here and now of a crisis is especially acute with regard to the final threat that I want to discuss: violent extremism.
The violence and suffering caused by violent extremist groups calls out for our immediate response, making it particularly challenging to maintain a focus on the long term. In a time when we wonder if we have lost our capacity to feel horror, the barbarism of these groups continues to sicken us. In its vicious campaign against the Yazidi people, ISIL continues to abduct women and girls, hold them captive and rape them systematically, before auctioning them off like cattle at markets. Last week in northern Nigeria, in a series of attacks bearing the hallmarks of Boko Haram, 45 people were killed by two suicide bombers in a crowded marketplace, and at least 120 people were killed by bombs and gunmen in an attack on a major mosque.
It goes without saying that, because terrorist groups like ISIL pose a threat to Americans and to international peace and security, we must rally other nations to confront them. This is why, in May, the President launched the Counterterrorism Partnership Fund at West Point, to build the capacity of our partners on the front lines in this shared effort, and why the United States has rallied over 60 partners to a global coalition to degrade and defeat ISIL. Many of these partners are already contributing in concrete ways, whether through military support or through addressing the humanitarian catastrophes that ISIL’s terror has helped create.
Another critical part of responding to this threat is stopping the flow of foreign fighters who increasingly fill the ranks of these extremist groups. Suicide bombers not only from Fallujah, but also from Florida; fighters not only from Peshawar, but from Paris. It is estimated that more than 16,000 foreign fighters from more than 90 countries have traveled to Syria since the conflict began. 16,000 people. And this includes many people who hold American and EU passports. President Obama has taken the lead in addressing the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters. In September, he chaired a UN Security Council Summit at the UN on this problem in which members states committed to taking decisive steps, including stopping the flow of funding and enacting national laws to make it more difficult for these fighters to join such conflicts.
But if we do not play the long game in addressing the hatred fueling these groups, and the reasons individuals are drawn to their ideology, the waves of extremists will keep coming.
Here, Syria offers an important lesson. Because when we look at the Syrian conflict, we are reminded that ISIL’s barbarism has been fueled by the barbarism of the Assad regime – a regime whose ongoing atrocities continue to be ISIL’s most fertile recruiting tool. A regime that, during Ramadan, calibrated its bombing runs to coincide with the times and places where Muslims were meeting to break the fast; a regime that dropped chemical weapons and barrel bombs on unarmed civilians; a regime that is responsible for torturing thousands of detainees, and documenting their torment in harrowing photographs, whose victims were given serial numbers and their torture, starvation and killings meticulously documented.
So those who argue that we must work with the Assad regime to vanquish the threat of ISIL are wrongheaded about this being productive for American interests. Not only would partnering with Assad go against what America stands for and believes in, it would be a huge boon for extremism in the region and the world. In Syria, the enemy of our enemy is not and will never be our friend.
The lesson to be drawn from the Syrian conflict is one that can be applied far beyond its borders: extremism thrives in places where people have no hope; where brutality is systematized; where impunity is endemic. Extremism grows in dark places where there is no hope or light to let other ambitions grow.
Tackling violent extremism also requires lifting up the voices of Muslims and people of all faiths who denounce terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam. In September, 126 Muslim scholars sent a letter to the head of ISIL, saying:
It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors and diplomats, hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat – in any way – Christians or any “People of the Scripture.”
It is obligatory to consider the Yazidis as “People of the Scripture.”
The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam.
Now, I did not hear about this letter when it came out and chances are neither did you. And neither did so many people, particularly in the Muslim world, to whom the letter is also directed.
I first heard about it a few weeks ago, when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein – also a Muslim – read it before the Security Council. He also told the Council of ISIL’s attacks: “The authors of these crimes are people whose actions are nothing but disgusting, and whose consciences have – demonstrably – been annihilated.” More messages like the clerics’ and like the High Commissioner’s need to be heard.
In addition to lifting up the voices of Muslims who denounce terrorism, we also have to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The facility should never have been opened in the first place, and continues to make us less safe and to undermine our standing in the world.
Years ago, the Supreme Court rejected the premise for opening GTMO, which was that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention. The vast majority of detainees once held at Guantanamo have been transferred, including 530 transferred under the previous Administration. As a U.S. diplomat, I can’t tell you how often other governments point to GTMO as a way of defending their repressive practices; or how much its sustained existence continues to weigh on our relationships with close partners and allies. And extremist groups continue to use Guantanamo as a propaganda tool to recruit those who seek to do us harm, and as a justification for their abhorrent violence.
President Obama has made clear his desire to close Guantanamo. But since 2009, Congress has imposed restrictions that have constrained our ability to do so, including placing limits on our ability to transfer detainees to foreign countries, and imposing a prohibition on transferring detainees to the United States – even those we have the capacity to effectively prosecute for their crimes.
Another argument should not be necessary, but please listen to this one: The United States is spending nearly half a billion dollars annually to operate the detention facility, which currently holds 142 detainees. That works out to roughly $3 million per detainee per year, or approximately 30 times what it costs to hold a prisoner in a federal supermax prison – the kind of facility from which no prisoner has ever escaped. That same half a billion dollars could be spent training nurses to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa; or investing in girls’ education in Nigeria or Afghanistan; or strengthening aviation security and information-sharing tools to track down foreign terrorist fighters; or any of the other long-term investments, domestic or international, that too often get short shrift.
Now, at times, it can feel as though the United States is shouldering an unfair burden in responding to global threats, and that the American people are the only ones being asked to make sacrifices to try to ensure a more secure and stable world. But we are not. We live in a world full of people willing to put everything on the line for the future of their families, their nations – and, by extension, for the world that we share.
That dedication is what drove so many of the young Liberians, Guineans, and Sierra Leoneans that I met on my recent trip – people risking their lives, as well as alienation from their communities, by volunteering to serve in the Ebola Treatment Centers and in the burial teams. As one young volunteer told me in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, “If we leave our brothers and sisters to die, who knows, it might be us next. It is a point of duty.”
It is what continues to drive schoolgirls in northern Nigeria to show up to class everyday – girls who are not willing to let the fear of seeing other girls kidnapped by extremists keep them from claiming their right to an education.
And it is what drove the fearless Libyan human rights defender Salwa Bughaighis to stand up for the rights of her people despite constant death threats, first under the Gaddafi regime, and later from extremists. On June 25th, 2014, Salwa urged her fellow Libyans not be intimidated by extremists who had threatened to attack anyone who voted in parliamentary elections, and even posted photos of herself casting her ballot on her Facebook page to show that she would not cowed by the death threats she had received or by fear. She was killed that night.
All of these people – the Jacksons and the Salwas and the Nigerian schoolgirls and so many others – are our partners in the long game.
And they have high expectations not just for themselves, but for us. They believe that the United States will live up to our highest principles by standing with them. They believe that we will prove worthy of wielding the tremendous responsibility that comes with our tremendous power. That we will not only play the long game because it is in our self-interest, which it is, but because we believe it is right to advance the dignity of people around the world, which it is.
It is, and must be, a constant struggle for all of us to live up to these expectations and to live up to these principles. In the United States and abroad, people recognize that this is a struggle that the American people have embraced and that we who have the privilege of representing them must embrace as well. It is the constant struggle that makes us who we are.
It is why our partners and the world expect so much of us. And that is not a burden that weighs us down. It is a wind that lifts us up.