The Liberty Medal

2016 Liberty Medal Recipient: U.S. Representative and Civil Rights Activist John Lewis

Médecins Sans Frontières & Oscar Arias Sanchez

"In the score of years they have functioned, Médecins Sans Frontières and its missions have ranged across over sites, from Peru in South America, to Cambodia in Southeast Asia. Their premise that human freedom and the human spirit are inseparable from the well being of the human body echoes the beliefs of the 200-year-old Bill of Rights by including in its charter a Bill of Duties and Responsibilities. We salute them for their outstanding contributions to human well-being." 
Liberty Medal International Selection Commission

"Oscar Arias Sanchez is the most persuasive advocate in all of Latin America for peace, for democracy and for development...He is an heir to Simon Bolivar and Bolivar’s predecessors, and a vital contributor to that heritage of liberty. He has a secure place in that pantheon of heroes and visionaries who gave, and give, of their minds, their spirits and sometimes their very lives in the pursuit of liberty." 
Liberty Medal International Selection Commission

Dr. Rony Brauman 
President of Medecins sans Frontieres 
July 4, 1991 
Independence Hall 
Philadelphia, PA


First of all, let me tell you on behalf of all MSF members how happy and honored I am to be here to receive this award. And having worked and traveled extensively in Central America since 1980 - incidentally I’ll be in El Salvador next Saturday - I feel still more honored to share this prize with President Arias.

I think President Arias has been among the first ones to declare, and to prove, that democracy and human rights in the developing countries were not luxury items, or a kind of window-dressing coming once the shop is well supplied. He showed that democracy was not a wishable consequences of development, but the basis of real development.

In another, context, from a purely humanitarian point of view, we have come to the same conclusion.

I was recently in Sri-Lanka and Mozambique, where MSF has been operating for more than 5 years, and went then to Turkey and Iraq. To refer only to those causal examples, we all know what are the first causes of the sufferings in these countries: lack of fundamental liberties, forced relocation, oppression of minorities, which ruin the possibilities of the self-reliance of all these populations.

We, as doctors, are unable to say what is the good political system. It is not our duty. But having worked in most of the countries stricken by natural or man-made disasters over the past 20 years, we definitely know where evil is, where fundamental liberties are banned, where basic human rights are denied.

I would like to point out that this applies in a very practical way to the prevention and treatment of natural and man-made disasters. Since time lacks for a detailed demonstration, I’ll just say:

Firstly, that there is a very strong relation between famine and oppression in one hand, between the human consequences of a disaster and the socio-economic level of the country in the other hand. Let us consider the causes of the famines in Ethiopia and Sudan, and compare the differences between the casualties caused by earthquakes in Mexico on one side and California or Japan on the other.

Secondly, that freedom is a necessary condition for development, if not a sufficient condition. The respect of basic human rights does not trigger the process of development but the total denial of human rights means total absence of development.

The messages we launch every time an opportunity appears rely on these grounds, and this is the reason why I feel so proud that a jury composed by such prominent personalities recognized us as an organization working to increase liberty in the world.

Now, I think it is time for me to give some background information on MSF.

The organization, which is now the world’s largest independent medical relief group, was founded in 1971 in Paris.

We work primarily in the field of emergency and crisis situations, regardless of race, religious or political affiliation. We operate in natural disasters, armed conflicts, refugee camps and to a lesser extent in the field of technical assistance, which means practical training of medical personnel in the developing countries.

Sixty percent of our budget comes from private individual donations, 700,000 people contribute to our action in France, and 1.4 million in the whole of Europe. We also receive financial contributions from international institutions such as the EEC and some UN agencies, the main one being the UNHCR.

We are sometimes called the “French Doctors”, which is rather unfair for our sister organizations in Europe, created during the past ten years, who account for 1,000, out of the 2000 volunteers who have left for 62 countries since last year.

We all share a common bill of rights and duties and we all base our activities on the philosophical assumption the sufferings of human beings, wherever they appear, can be considered neither as a foreign (alien?) preoccupation, nor as a state property.

In clear, this means that we have moral duty to react to these sufferings in one way or another and that this reaction cannot/should not be stopped by national borders.

I have said, and others have said, that we are a non-political group. This is true, to a certain extent only, because we strongly believe that a minimum political program is required if one wants to respect the others’ dignity.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as Mr. Meyerson recalled it, summed it up in a remarkably concise way: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Being in the birthplace of the American democracy and in the town of the first American university, I think that all the symbolic conditions are gathered to adopt this program as both as a moral commitment and as my conclusion.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Chairman, let me tell you again, once again, how happy and grateful I am today.


Thank you very much.

Dr. Oscar Arias 
Former President of Costa Rica 
July 4, 1991 
Independence Hall 
Philadelphia, PA


Friends: 
Today, we celebrate America’s anniversary of independence from tyranny, oppression and injustice. And we take pleasure in commemorating the 200th birthday of the Bill of Rights.

What could be a more appropriate occasion for Americans to rededicate themselves to these same principles? Let us collectively assume responsibility for a new mission, a commitment to that day when we can celebrate the independence of all peoples from the constraint of unjust and oppressive rule. As Americans you must insist upon a fuller interpretation of this day. The true celebration will only come when America is joined by her neighbors in economic and political stability.

The “Liberty Medal” which I have the honor of receiving today from the distinguished members of “We the People 2000,” represents more than just the recognition of my individual efforts to promote peace and democracy in Central America. This gesture symbolizes the acknowledgement and support of the community of Philadelphia and the citizens of the United States for the appeals of the Latin American people. We call for new era of peace and democracy and we call for freedom not freedom of expression or the freedom of election but freedom from want, sickness and deprivation. These same principles united in different circumstances and different moments, George Washington, Simon Bolivar, Thomas Jefferson, San Martin, Benjamin Franklin, Jose Marti, Abraham Lincoln, and Benito Juarez. Now let them unite us in this challenge that awaits.

I have come to Philadelphia, the cradle of this great democracy to represent those Latin Americans who fought and continue to fight for the causes of peace and liberty. It is here that the forefathers of American democracy made a pact to resist tyranny, and it is here that I must remind you tyranny still exists. With the same courage and determination that those leaders summoned, you must again resolve to resist the spread of greed and intolerance. The Latin American people, for the first time in history, can boast of democracy in almost all of their countries. I ask you to help them preserve their hard won democracy and liberty, as if it were your own.

With pride, I have come to remind the citizens of the United States that Latin America contributed to the political transformation which the world has recently experienced. We watched with anticipation and joy as one after the other, and within very few years, the offensive dictatorships that darkened much of the political panorama of this century and stagnated the economic and social development of our continent, disappeared. Latin American people have suffered innumerable experiments of totalitarianism from military dictatorships to Marxist one-party governments. The deceptive hopes that some of these regimes awakened, and the alienation and repression unleashed by others, were always followed by erosive and bloody battles for the liberty of our people. From these battles rose the heroes of our history, but behind these epic tales lie hidden an unending succession of dictatorships, poverty, and injustices. Today, fortunately, the people of Latin America have succeeded in taking the future in their own hands and demanding at an enormous expense of blood and pain, the realization of democracy.

Latin American people have made a vocation of liberty and justice. From the start of our experience as independent nations, we made the principles of the American and French Revolutions the basis of our political aspirations. The leaders of our independence were inspired by the legacy of libertarianism that proclaimed the universal superiority of a government elected by the people. The only good government is one which originates in pluralism and tolerance. Our leaders, like the fathers of this nation, believed that the search for justice is compatible only with peace, liberty, and the rule of law.

Latin American people share your desire for justice, liberty and peace. We aspire to overcome ignorance, militarism, social injustice and intolerance. For too many decades these were scars upon the face of this region and obstacles to the development of democracy.

I can assure you, that south of the United States, a constellation of people has embraced the democratic system in order to construct their destiny. But the majority of these people have established their democratic institutions in the midst of poverty, ignorance and social inequities. There is still the danger that the enemies of liberty will leave their barracks. There is still the danger that poverty will give birth to destructive social movements. There is still the danger that demagogues will exploit the ignorance and discontent of the dispossessed in order to return to totalitarianism. We still have, in the heart of our continent, the after-taste of the communist messianic dictatorship that maintained oppression and misery in the motherland of Jose Marti.

My friends, the growth of democracy in Latin America runs the risk of failure if we do not ensure that the basic needs of her people are satisfied. It is not enough that liberty of expression momentarily prospers, that we advance toward the full respect of human rights, and that there are free and pluralistic elections in almost all countries. We must succeed in extending, at the same time, the boundaries of social justice. Latin America has learned that peace and liberty have a price and that it is necessary to incur great sacrifices in order to preserve them. Moderation in the striving for material wealth is a virtue that all societies can practice, but stable democratic institutions will not flourish in the midst of poverty, ignorance and rampant disease.

The fate of Latin American democracy depends in great measure upon the cooperation and support of the wealthier nations of the world. Unjust economic relations that exist between rich and poor countries are the source of some of the gravest threats to our democracy. Unjust terms of trade, oppressive external debt of already economically weak nations and harsh protectionist barriers imposed by some of the industrialized countries all contribute to the poverty of our people. Excessive military spending of poor countries encouraged by the producers of arms is still another factor that both foments military dictatorship and repression as well as impoverishes the people of the region.

The rich democracies of the United States, Europe and Japan, hold in their hands the possibility of eliminating or diminishing these causes of impoverishment and these sources of danger for Latin America. To do this would be in their own interest. Four years ago, the political-military situation in Central America was threat to World Peace. The international community clearly expressed its concern over the crisis and resolved that it be promptly addressed. Thanks to our own regional efforts and our own political capacity, the war in Nicaragua was stopped and general process of democratization was begun in the area. In Nicaragua, we saw, for the first time in history, a Marxist government which had come to power through an armed revolution submits to the will of the people at the ballot box. All this constituted, without any doubt, an example for other people absorbed in similar processes of democratic resurgence throughout the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, the people of Central America, in particular those in Nicaragua, have not received from the international community the support necessary to achieve economic stability. Its development has been checked, in spite of democratization. Such hardship inexorably erodes the faith of citizens in these young democracies. If the world ignores a country such as this, that suffered half a century of military dictatorship, more than a decade of Civil War, and a failed Marxist experience, it is possible that very soon peace in Central America and in the world at large, will once again be in danger.


Friends: 
We commemorate with happiness and optimism the independence of one of the greatest nations on this planet. Through the cheers and jubilations, however, I must listen to the voice of a small Central American country that cries for peace and liberty. I do not invoke this in the name of economic force or military power, but in the name of a moral force that is derived from being the oldest democracy in Latin America and from being the first country in the world to unilaterally demilitarize. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army. One year later this abolition was converted into a constitutional norm that prohibited the armed forces. With this determination we Costa Ricans call for world peace and resolution of conflicts between states through dialogue, negotiation and international law.

Once, we in Latin America associated our armies and weapons with freedom and independence. Once, we associated our armies and weapons with stability, with respect of public institutions, and with the creation of a community of free men. Once we had a Liberation Army. Over the years these military forces transformed our beautiful history into one of oppression, of tyranny, of disrespect for human rights, of corruption and of misery.

We need a new Liberation Army. We need the soldier to lay down his arms and take up a plough. Each elegantly marching soldier costs our nation one hundred empty stomachs. Each tank, each warship, each fighter plane is a sad testimony to the hundreds of thousands of hungry and homeless Latin American men, women and children.

In contrast to this sober reality, I have the pleasure to share with you the news that a few days ago, the National Assembly of Panama approved the proposal of President Endara to reform the Constitution of that country. It will now include an amendment to abolish and prohibit their armed forces. This is a step of great importance in the process of democratization in Central America. It is possible to speak now of a completely demilitarized zone in the heart of our continent. Here, two neighboring countries have decided to live without armies, a symbol of trust and vision. This small strip of Central America has taken a giant step towards the fulfillment of the ideals that were left to us by the founders of all the American nations.

I invite the citizens of the nation of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Adams to join in this new democratic adventure with the descendents of Bolivar, San Martin, Juarez and Marti. I invite you to participate in this initiative for lasting peace throughout our continent and to make a commitment to the permanent development and well-being of its people. Assist us in this mission, so that on your next day of independence, not just citizens of the United States, but all citizens of the Americas, may have the pleasure and peace of mind to celebrate with you.


Thank you.

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