July 4th Independence Celebrations

Lishonile and Welcome to all.

I want to start by thanking the talented young members of the Elangeni High School choir from Ezulwini who are performing for us this afternoon.  When I heard them perform at an Embassy supported program last year, I was inspired, as I always am, by the incredible talent and potential of the young people of this country.  Their amazing voices also carry the indispensable hope and vision for the future without which no country can develop.   I hope you are as uplifted by them as I am and as inspired to act to ensure they have the future they deserve.

Let me also welcome some very special guests who represent the diverse members of the disabled community in Swaziland.  We are so pleased you could join us today for this celebration and also to think and talk about a very important topic – how we embrace our common humanity and continue to expand social protections for all.

And so we are gathered on this beautiful, glorious Swazi winter’s day under the protection of this big tent, literally, to talk about the beauty of the big tent society and the promise it holds for including all people – men, women, children, the physically and mentally disabled, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young and old, immigrant and native born, gay and straight – in the process of building a strong nation and a more just society for everyone.  That goal is, at its core, the American story.  It’s the story of continuous efforts to make America more inclusive and to recognize the immense contributions of all its people.  From the African slaves who built America’s agricultural economy and their descendants who built its infrastructure in the north, the European immigrants who toiled in factories giving rise to the union movement that established fundamental worker protections, the women who fought for the right to vote, the civil rights marchers who paved the way for desegregation in schools, housing and jobs, and the ongoing movement to ensure equal educational opportunities for the children of Hispanic immigrants  — all these groups speak to the promise of America.  But we know that America’s promise remains a work in progress — to keep expanding the tent of justice and equality for all of its citizens.  I know this story from personal experience and believe that it reflects what people around the world most admire about the United States.  This past year in America has been filled with both tragic and inspiring examples of the challenges we face promoting equal justice for all and the long way that we still have to go.  But we continuously strive to be a beacon of hope and opportunity and a reflection that change is possible through the pursuit of justice and a commitment to action.

The First amendment of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights delineates several of the most fundamental rights that we believe government must protect.  In one brief, beautiful statement, the First amendment provides for freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition government for redress of grievances.  But these freedoms were not always interpreted as broadly and universally as they are now – the rights we now hold so dearly are the result of long struggles over more than two hundred years throughout which many Americans paid the ultimate price.  Today we celebrate not only the 239th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence – the birthday of the United States of America – but we also celebrate our path toward greater social inclusion and the trials and triumphs we have faced and continue to face as we press forward in that journey.  As President Obama recently asked in his speech at the 50thanniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March:

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment…what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfection s and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?… It is the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.”

And so we acknowledge today that our work is not yet done.  I think the events of the past year are a reminder that my country continues to struggle to make sure all Americans enjoy the protection of the big tent – to expand our social inclusion.  There is no doubt that, as a country, we are still grappling with a legacy of racial discrimination and injustice.  The tragic murders of African Americans, primarily young men, at the hands of law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Baltimore, Maryland; and the most recent hate crime that took the lives of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina as they prayed in a church, are disturbing and unsettling truths.  They remind us of just how far we still have to go.

But people haven’t given up on what our Constitution demands of us — pursuing “a more perfect union”.  Americans believe that it is their duty and obligation to push for the changes they want to see.  We know that peaceful protest and using traditional and social media to call attention to injustice can lead to legal and social changes that advance inclusion and basic human rights.  We use the courts to address inequality and discrimination and call on Congress to enact stronger laws to include and shelter more of our people under the big tent.

Last Friday’s Supreme Court decision that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all of the 50 states was an example of legal action pursued by American citizens who felt that did not enjoy “equal justice for all.” They sought redress from our justice system and with peaceful persistence and dedication to their cause, achieved a ruling from America’s highest court which has affected thousands of Americans.

Change brought about by peaceful means is not always quick or easy, but it is necessary and lasting.  As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion on the case:

“The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times”.   But even though citizens who take up the cause to push for change may not see the full effect of their efforts during their lifetime, history shows that their legacies will dramatically affect many other lives in the future and their sacrifices are worth it. “

Just as Americans fight for change, Swazis also have used the media and peaceful protest to make their views heard.  We are so pleased that The Nation Magazine editor Bheki Makubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko were released this week and are here with us today.  They too deserve to enjoy the protection and safety we want for ourselves and others seeking to build a more inclusive and just society.  Their release was a beautiful day for Swaziland.  It reminds us that we must speak up for what is right if we want justice for ourselves and others and that as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “no lie can live forever.”

To me a more perfect union means working hard every day to ensure greater social inclusion.  It means ensuring that we have a society with a safety net and laws and norms that are comprehensive enough to provide equal protection and shelter to all who are under its cover.  In the United States, while we are far from perfect, we have increasingly moved toward bringing more people under the big tent.  We have amended our Constitution 27 times to create a stronger, more perfect union by ending slavery and extending greater rights and protections to African Americans, women, and young people, as well as enacting laws to ensure the rights of the disabled and immigrants, among other groups.

In fact, this year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of a remarkable piece of U.S. legislation – the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.  Passed into law on July 1990, the ADA is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.  It affords similar protections toAmericans with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act of 1964did on race,religion, sex, and national origin.  The law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including employment, education, transportation, and access to public and private spaces which are open to the general public.  And, although it was initially opposed by some people who felt it would place a costly or undue burden on businesses and other organizations, it has transformed the way Americans think about and treat people living with disabilities.

Since the ADA was passed in the United States we have had national leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, and others with disabilities who remind us every day that our talents are God given and that each one of us has something to share with the world if provided an opportunity to do so.  Can you imagine a world that did not make room for the immense contributions of Beethoven, Helen Keller, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Steven Hawking, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder?  I certainly can’t.

I am proud to share with you today two small but significant examples of how our Mission has contributed to improving the lives of people with disabilities in Swaziland.  One of our outstanding Peace Corps Volunteers, created the first ever SiSwati sign language manual for the deaf.  We hope that it can be supported by the Government and others and made available for Swaziland’s deaf community and their families.  The other is the brainchild of our Swazi Information Resource Officer in our Public Affairs Section who worked closely with the visually impaired community to establish computers and braille printers at the Mbabane Public Library.  We are proud of our collaborations and the opportunity to put our beliefs on inclusiveness into action.

Given this important anniversary, I am extremely pleased that so many Swazis living with disabilities, many of whom are also disability rights activists, have joined us in today’s celebrations.  I honor their ongoing efforts to lobby for legal protections for people living with disabilities in Swaziland and hope that, as an Embassy, we can continue to partner with them to help ensure that their rights and access to opportunity are protected under the law.  I also want to commend the Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland, through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, for launching Swaziland’s National Disability Policy in 2013.  This policy holds much promise for people in Swaziland, but it still needs to be implemented.  We, therefore, urge the Government to turn the policy into binding legislation to ensure that the rights of the disabled are protected both by the law and in practice.

I want to briefly mention some other important groups of people who must also be brought under the tent of social inclusion, one of which is children.  Children have their own set of unique rights and needs.  They have the right to participate in society, to be free from neglect and abuse, to receive an education, and to have a voice in their communities and country.  Unfortunately, they are often the ones who are the most adversely impacted by the world’s problems – every day the headlines in my country and yours remind us of this reality.  They are the most vulnerable to disease and poverty, and they often suffer the most as a result of armed conflicts, forced labor, and human trafficking.  And so we commend the Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland for taking the critical step of passing the Children’s Welfare and Protection Act of 2012.  That Act was a tremendous step forward in the protection of all of Swaziland’s children as was the government’s decision to become a signatory to the Hague Convention.  But there is much that remains to be done in order to fully implement these laws and bring Swazi children under the tent, to make sure they all have the opportunity to make the most of their lives and contribute to their communities.

Workers represent another often marginalized group.  We applaud the Swazi Government’s recent registration of the TUCOSWA labor federation, and look forward to seeing that workers’ rights are fully recognized and respected.  We hope that the registration of labor federations is just the first step in what will be a path toward more meaningful engagement and greater inclusion and equality to ensure the social protections of all workers.

Women continue to face tremendous discrimination the world over.  We know that one in three women globally is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused.  One in three women around the world – that’s an astounding statistic.  But the incidence in Swaziland is even higher with nearly 8 out of 10 Swazi women experiencing gender-based violence at some point in her lifetime.  In addition to the devastating effects of gender violence, the economic, social, and political disparities facing women and girls are huge.  American and Swazi women have much higher rates of unemployment than men; they earn less than their male counterparts, and are severely underrepresented in government and political life.  I think by now many people are aware as well that women are also disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS, in large part because of the prevalence of gender-based violence.  For all of these reasons, we urge the government representatives here today to do everything in their power to see that the recently tabled Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Bill, which has languished far too long in political limbo, is passed into law as quickly as possible.  Because every day’s delay in the passing of this legislation means that a woman who feels threatened by an abusive relative or neighbor cannot get the help that the law should provide.  Every day’s delay means one more day in which women are left outside the tent.

In each generation, we are challenged to better understand and protect the universal human rights which are our common birthright.  In this generation, we must confront the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people to live free of violence and discrimination as critical to ensuring the protection of human rights for all of us.  The principle that all people are born equal in dignity and rights has long been at the center of the struggle for the recognition of fundamental human rights and that does and must include the LGBT community.

And I know that for some people in your country and mine, the topic of LGBT rights is sensitive and difficult.  But we all have a moral responsibility to speak up against violence and discrimination against anyone because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, their gender, or who they love.  That obligation is something that our common humanity demands of us.

In Swaziland, with the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, there are even greater reasons to fight for equal rights for the LGBT community.  LGBT people face a number of barriers to accessing health care, many of which can be traced to discriminatory laws or policies which promote stigma and discrimination.  Such practices are not only morally unjust, but also profoundly dangerous from a public health perspective.  And we all remember a time when there was no room under the tent for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, but through education, compassion, and action, your country and mine have together made tremendous strides to include those affected by HIV/AIDS in building a stronger, healthier, and more just society.

I hope by now most of you are aware that the U.S. Government’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is the largest international public health initiative aimed at a single disease that any nation has ever undertaken.  PEPFAR funds help alleviate suffering from HIV and other diseases in Swaziland and around the world.  Since 2007, Swaziland has received over $185 million dollars to support its national HIV response and the U.S. Government has worked closely with the Swazi government, as well as civil society and the private sector, to support comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment.  We are working towards an AIDS free generation, but it will take all of us continuing to pull together and leaving no group outside the tent.

In every country the world over, certain groups – whether it be women, children, illegal immigrants, foreign nationals, or some other minority – face barriers that prevent them from fully participating in their nation’s political, economic, and social life.  These groups are often branded by stereotypes, stigmas, and superstitions.  They often live with vulnerability and insecurity.  And such disadvantages not only preclude them from capitalizing on opportunities to lead a better life; they also rob them of dignity.

This social exclusion comes with profound social, moral, and economic costs.  Societies are strongest when all citizens, whether in the majority or minority, can participate fully and without fear of reprisal in the full range of civic life.  The United States Government believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to stand up for the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

President Obama said in his remarks at Madiba’s funeral that “… we…must act on behalf of justice.  We…must act on behalf of peace.  There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.  There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.  And there are too many of us [sitting] on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard… The questions we face today — how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war — these things do not have easy answers… But Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done… South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes.”

Finally, I want to note that, by this time next year, we hope to have moved into our New Embassy Compound in Ezulwini.  We’re all watching its progress with anxious anticipation.  A tremendous amount of care and planning has gone in to making sure it is one of the safest and most environmentally sustainable buildings in all of Africa.  It will truly represent American values and capitalize on the best of American talent through innovation and technology.  If we stay on schedule we will be celebrating next year’s Independence Day at that location!

So as I conclude, I note that moral courage is called for in defending the human rights of all people.  There is more than enough room under the tent.  Let us all work to defend the fundamental human rights with which every person is born.  And, as we celebrate America’s independence, let us be reminded of the universal values for which we stand and what it is we want for both of our countries.  As partners and friends, let us work together to support one another in achieving the freedom and equality we desire for all of our citizens, no matter who they are, how they look, how they worship, or who they love.

Now may I ask that you join me in a toast:  to His Majesty King Mswati III.