Acceptance Speech

Link to video of ceremony

Ms. Kennedy and members of the Kennedy family, Mr. Hunt, Members of the Awards Committee, my fellow awardees, and distinguished guests, it is an honor, and very humbling, to be here with you today.

I hardly deserve to be on the same list of Profile in Courage award recipients with great names in modern diplomatic history like Kofi Annan or to be compared to Wael Ghonim and the people of Egypt whom you recognized last year. Thank you very much.

I would first like to mention that Ms. Jay Breen, my aunt and wonderful friend for almost five decades, is here with me today. Jay, my mother Marian, my father Jack and my two brothers, Bill and Brian, have all been supportive and understanding while I have spent most of the past thirty years working in Africa and the Middle East. Most of all, I owe special thanks to my wife, Alison, who is a diplomat herself and could not be with us because she is now on a work assignment in Kenya.

I will admit to being quite surprised when I learned about receiving this award. I had a phone message saying that Caroline Kennedy had called and there was a phone number with a Massachusetts area code. I thought to myself, “Uh oh – I bet she’s going to ask me how to get a visa to Syria. And I’m going to have to convince her that visiting Syria now would be a really bad idea.”

These are indeed difficult days in Syria. I remember the picture of the Chinese student facing down an army tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Now, 23 years later, we are seeing that kind of courage, that kind of commitment in cities and towns across Syria on a daily basis. In this, the second year of the Arab Spring, Syrians are demanding freedom and demanding dignity more than ever.

I want to emphasize that word ‘dignity’ because it is the essence of the aspirations of young Syrians today -- dignity. They no longer accept that security officers can kill and torture with impunity. They no longer accept that officials get bribes for even routine administrative actions or that the sons and cousins of the top leaders are always above the law. Instead, I found that in 2011 and 2012, Syrians demand respect, and they demand the boot of a vicious security state be removed from their necks.

When I visited the protesters in Hama last July, without a suit and tie, the people there at first refused to believe that I was the American ambassador. They kept saying, “No, really? You?” I think they expected someone younger and with more hair – sort of like Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. Once convinced that I was the American ambassador, dozens of people appeared, almost out of nowhere. They were grateful that a foreigner had come to hear their stories of abuse and their complaints of ill treatment. The people I met there, and elsewhere in Syria, wanted to be heard and they were happy that I could bear witness.

The Syrian government was furious that I had visited and accused me of smuggling weapons to the protesters. In fact, at that time, the Hama protests were peaceful and the reason we chose to visit Hama was that the tens of thousands of street protesters had stayed peaceful despite the constant threat of the Syrian army invading their city to try to crush the protest movement.

About a week after my visit, a video appeared on YouTube. It showed an old, white, washing machine, the kind my grandmother had, with a round cylinder agitator that slowly churned around making a “Ker-chunk, ker-chunk” sound. Plopped on top of the old washing machine was a satellite TV dish that turned with the agitator, “Ker-chunk, ker-chunk.”

On the washing machine was a hand-written sign that said, in Arabic, “Gift of the American Ambassador to Hama.”

A voice came on the video, in Arabic, and asked, “Ahmed, what is this?”

And Ahmed replied, “This is the secret gift from the American ambassador to the people of Hama.”

The first voice asked, “But, what is it?”

And Ahmed replied, “It is the latest American technology. Ker-chunk, ker-chunk. It cost one quarter of the American budget. It can locate and destroy jet aircraft. Ker-chunk. It can locate and destroy enemy tanks. Ker-chunk. And at the end of the battle, it can wash your clothes.”
I didn’t take advanced weapons to Hama. I went to demonstrate our strong support for the respect of all Syrians’ freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. These are enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document the Syrian government signed in 1948.

Last May, President Obama emphasized to all those in government who were working on the transitions in North Africa and the Middle East to help people there achieve freedom, dignity, and respect for their human rights. At the National Democratic Institute last November, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed our commitment to support the efforts of people in Syria, and the other nations in the region, to secure respect for their fundamental human rights.

And thus, I deeply appreciate the recognition by the committee today, but in fact I was following the lead of the President and the Secretary, as do my fellow Foreign Service diplomats. A good many of my colleagues would have done the same things that I did in Syria had they been sitting at the desk of the American ambassador in Damascus. Foreign Service officers and specialists work every day around the world to promote the respect of freedom of speech, of freedom of assembly, of freedom of association. We are joined at the State Department by a professional cadre of political appointees, Civil Servants, locally employed staff, and contractors -- all dedicated to securing America's interests, including advancing a set of universal rights. I was especially lucky to work with a great team – a very dedicated, hardworking, and brave team – at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. All of us on that team were working to support the Syrian people's right to get that boot off their necks.

In part, I understand the meaning of the Profile in Courage Award is that each person can make a difference, that those who receive it have in some manner restored belief in politics as a noble profession and a calling to public service. I look back at the body of work President Kennedy left behind, and that is enshrined around us today. And then I think of all the courageous Syrians who just want a chance... a chance to participate in an open, free political system. President Kennedy paid the ultimate price for his service to this nation. Many Syrians have also paid the ultimate price of service to their fellow countrymen. It is my fervent wish that the violence in Syria will end as soon as possible, that the Asad regime will depart, and that a new Syrian nation will emerge and take its place in the international community. For our part, we will re-double our efforts, working with a wide and diverse international coalition, to help the Syrians reach that goal.

On behalf of my team at the American Embassy in Damascus, and on behalf of those of us in the Foreign Service, and all those who choose public service as such a noble endeavor, thank you very much for this great honor.

Remarks delivered by Robert Ford on accepting the 2012 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 7, 2012. (As Prepared for Delivery)