To say you’ve had a banner year is an understatement. Who else can claim they ascended to the presidency of the United States, got a new dog, replaced the bowling alley in their new house with a basketball court and hosted house parties with Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder? Most people couldn’t imagine experiencing this in a lifetime, let alone in less than a year. Now add Nobel Peace Prize laureate to your list of achievements. This could be just the kind of accomplishment Arizona State University was looking for. Who would have thought that less than six months after ASU concluded your “body of work” was too anemic to justify an honorary degree, you’d win the Nobel Peace Prize?
But that is beside the point. After hearing about your award early Friday morning, I wanted to share some thoughts about your acceptance speech. I know the ceremony is about eight weeks away. I assume, however, that in the hours since your award was announced, someone has been tasked with preparing your speech. I offer some ideas for you to consider.
First, the fact that you are the third U.S. citizen of African descent to receive this prize is relevant, but not in a “yet-another-example-of-a-good-role-model” way. It’s relevant because the challenges the American people have entrusted you to address link you to Dr. Ralph Bunche and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ways less obvious than race. Bunche, the first person of color to win this award, received the 1950 prize for his efforts to broker an Arab-Israeli armistice. King, the second African-American laureate and the youngest recipient of any color, received his Peace Prize for his nonviolent assault on the injustices of Jim Crow. Bunche and King are exemplars of a United States human rights tradition that is both outwardly and inwardly focused. Each represents a different dimension of the human rights tradition on which your Peace Prize rests. By choosing to recognize your efforts to create a “new climate in international politics,” the Nobel Prize committee has put its imprimatur on an era your administration characterizes as one of both engagement and responsibility. Your engagement in Bunche’s world is captured in recent events such as our country’s successful bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council and serving our term as security council chair. These points of engagement come with the responsibility to lead by example. This is where the focus shifts inward. Indeed, your administration chose the Human Rights Council as a point of engagement fully “cognizant of our own commitment to live up to our ideals at home and to meet our international human rights obligations.” This includes an expressed willingness to use the United Nations system to support the efforts of those working domestically for the same racial justice for which the Nobel Committee honored King 45 years ago.
Second, make the most of the fact that you’ll receive your award on Human Rights Day. Established to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Day was first celebrated Dec. 10, 1950—the same day Bunche received his Peace Prize. You might consider capitalizing on the strong symbolism of receiving this award on Human Rights Day for having, in the words of the Nobel Committee, “returned multilateral diplomacy and institutions such as the United Nations to the center of the world stage.” As Human Rights Day and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights make clear, human rights are essential to the agenda that drives the United Nations that Bunche called “the greatest peace organization ever dedicated to the salvation of mankind’s future on earth.” I’d probably counsel against this kind of overstatement, but it stands noting that Bunche should be forgiven for his exuberance. In 1950, during the very heady days of the beginning of the United Nations, all things might have seemed possible. The clarity provided by 59 years of hindsight counsels you, in the interest of striking just the right tone, to admit to the institution’s shortcomings while echoing the honor expressed by Bunche for being “enabled to practice the arts of peace under the aegis of the United Nations.”
Third, reclaim your audacity. To this end, I’d suggest that you take a look at the “audacious faith in the future of mankind” Dr. King proclaimed when he accepted his award in 1964. Dr. King’s audacious faith led him to “refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.” By focusing on the implications of your award for the future, you give a nod to those who see your Nobel Peace Prize as rewarding your potential rather than your accomplishments. Riffing on Dr. King allows you to talk about how the domestic policy struggles mired in the partisan mudslinging of town hall meetings and tea parties require you, like Dr. King, to have “the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day [and access to affordable, quality health care] for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” King’s “audacity of faith” is a nice twist on your book title, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It might also go a long way to root both your “audacity of hope” and Dr. King’s “audacity of faith” within a particularly American human rights tradition that finds unacceptable “the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
Please accept these suggestions in the spirit in which they’re given. Like you, I think human rights are absolutely essential to the four pillars of engagement and responsibility you outlined in your speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September. I hope you will use your acceptance speech on Dec. 10 to recommit yourself and your administration to meeting America’s human rights obligations both at home and abroad.
Lisa A. Crooms
Lisa A. Crooms is a professor at Howard University School of Law and chairs the Steering Committee of the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda.