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Sean Penn’s Peace Summit Award Acceptance Speech: Haiti, Systemic Moral Corruption, A Sacred Debt

Sean Penn's Peace Summit Award Acceptance Speech: Haiti, Systemic Moral Corruption, A Sacred Debt

On April 25, Sean Penn accepted the Peace Summit Award at the twelfth annual Nobel Peace Laureate’s World Summit in Chicago. The award was given to him by Nobel Peace Laureate president Mikhail Gorbachev and Mr. Udo Janz. His Holiness The Dalai Lama was also present. Penn’s acceptance speech is below:

Thank you President Gorbachev and Mr. Udo Janz.  I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Nobel Peace Laureates and the Permanent Secretary of the World Summit for this very special honor.  And thanks to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the people of Chicago.   Terry Mazzany and the Chicago Community Trust, my friend Kerry Kennedy and the RFK Center, Olivier Francois and The Chrysler group and all the co-chairs and sponsors.  I also must acknowledge the U.S. State Department, and my friends, Lieutenant General Ken Keen, US Army, former Haitian President Rene Preval, Dennis Kucinich, Jean-Max Bellerive and Council General Lesly Conde.

Most importantly, I want to thank my hero … my son Hopper and daughter Dylan, and my Mom and brother Michael who are here today.

I once travelled to visit with a Masai tribe off the beaten tourist track in Tanzania.  I remember being moved and impressed…even delighted, that such a wholly untouched and unchanged culture could still exist, and that I wished it to continue.  I also remember expressing that wish to my guide and his reply was “Don’t wish that for them.  Any culture that remains static…will die.”  Sometimes the truth is counterintuitive.  In a globalized world those of us who would assert our own intuition, conditioned by the luck of birth to a country of relative choice, freedom, security, comfort and for some…even luxury – is an assertion of intuition, not unlike that of a big game hunter, who boasts his love of nature with the mounted heads of once proud creatures on his wall.  In truth we are often blinded, both on the right and the left, by our own political and mono-cultural romance with endless struggle, and all too often the temporary luxury of our division and detachment allow and propagate that endless struggle to be lived out for us by vicarious assault on those less fortunate.  But here’s the good news.  When our self interested bickering and self righteous dismissal of compromise among ourselves are exposed, our failure to sacred human debts leave, in the case of Haiti, nine million ancestors of a singular and heroic slave rebellion on their knees, in a half-life of poverty, despair, corruption and death, we have an OUT.  An excuse. We blame Haiti.  We cry corruption.  We who watched Exxon post an $11 billion profit in just its first quarter of last year.

Never fear, these words are not intended to decry all those who work in the oil industry, nor one to put this speaker apart in consumption, but simply the acknowledgement of a stranglehold where both legal lobbying and systemic moral corruption from an industry whose poisons leak not only from tankers and rigs, but virtually paralyze the arteries of our own governments and leave us with little place to use the cries of corruption as excuse for inaction at home or abroad.

This summit in Chicago and the great expansion of Speak Truth To Power is a tribute to the belief that the Nobel Laureates and the RFK Center have in young people, in students.  Often pundits will say, what do students know?  What do young people know?  As they will say, what does an actor know?  What does a musician know?  Well…I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?  When I bought a full-page in the Washington Post to print a letter to then President Bush asking him to exercise wisdom prior to pre-emptive invasion of that country.  I was called a traitor.

So, I’m here to say, what do we know?  We know how to smell a rat.  And we know that relying on the credibility of The New York Times proved it couldn’t do the same.  And we know that without our action, no President no matter how brilliant, talented, courageous or well intended will ever succeed alone in pushing through health care and education policies to even civil results.  We know that we are citizens.

In the United States, only 25% of our fellow citizens have ever left our shores, visited another country or have the passports to do so.  Fewer and fewer have the means.  I have had the great privilege to visit many countries.  Most recently, a country and its people I have grown to love.  It would take a POET Laureate to describe for you the courage and dignity of its people.  When I am asked, why Haiti?  Why do you believe Haiti suddenly has a chance to break the endless cycle of its own self-destruction and the active cycle of its exploitation by others?  The war for quality of life can only be fought globally, and Haiti is a one and a half hour flight from Miami, one of the richest cities in the richest country the world has ever known.  Against incredible odds and decades of dictators, interventions and heartbreak, and even after a devastating earthquake that killed 250,000 people in ten seconds, the Haitians rose up and democratically elected a president of their own choosing, President Michel Martelly.  And now, as he and his Prime Minister to-be current Foreign Minister Laurent Lamothe, take on the enormous task of leading reconstruction in a way that will at once sidestep institutionalized political sabotage, demonstrating earned momentum for the people, and, AT THE SAME TIME build up the very institutions of government being side-stepped, to carry on the people’s will through future administrations.  Quite a task.  But a do-able one.  With investment in agriculture, education, healthcare, and housing.  With clean water solutions, and recognizing it’s a country of 9 million people, but also…ONLY 9 million.

We have a very short window in which to support THIS team of the Haitian people’s choosing.  In these coming four years from today, they must have the support to demonstrate their vision that will improve quality of life, which at the moment is at an inhuman standard, and when I say inhuman, take a look at Cite Soleil sometime, where 240,000 Haitian men, women, and children following every LIGHT RAIN sleep in a black water solution of sewage and harbor toxins, garbage and pigs, where rape and gun violence is a daily occurrence.  We have four years to solidify the seeding of institutions that can create sustainable democratic solutions.  Four years that without a reinvigorated surge of support will leave the people’s will up for grabs.

Now, you may begin to wonder about the emphasis that I’ve put on the support of outside governments and what the international private sector may give Haiti, and why I have not so emphasized how Haiti may support itself.  President Martelly has got them covered on that one.  He understands that the great majority of Haitians who support him have now had two years to rise from the immense trauma, the nearly biblical devastation and mourning.  And he understands that there are no people on earth more willing to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.  But we must understand that, as Martin Luther King said, “It is fine to tell a man to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, but evil to tell a man without boots to do so.”

In these coming four years, we can provide those boots and the materials, the training, the institutional support that will allow Haiti to be again, that shining symbol of independence that it began as, and that so many around the world have benefited from, and been inspired by.   You may also remember, that it was Haiti (motivations aside) to provide the deciding vote in the establishment of the State of Israel.  And also, Haiti joining the call, today, for a Palestinian state.

A sacred debt indeed.

So…what would failure look like?  And why does it matter to all of us?  Well, there is the human cost of poverty, but if, on its own, that is not compelling, note that the increased instability that attrition may bring, to a Caribbean island an hour and a half from our shores,  would well be an open invitation to a new explosion of narco trafficking, terrorist influence, and paramilitaries.  This is not a polemic from a pundit nor a politician, nor one from a bleeding heart liberal, only sympathetic to needs outside his own country.  I am a proud American citizen, an ever-aspiring pacifist, who nonetheless stands by my Commander-in-Chief’s support and leadership of the NATO mission in Libya, the US military and Central Intelligence Agency implementation of my Commander-in-Chief’s action against Osama Bin Ladin.  I’ve had the opportunity to travel in Pakistan just three weeks ago and see through both U.S. and Pakistani eyes, the delicate balances of countries burdened by their possession of nuclear arms, suffering sectarian violence, and a front row seat to the enormity of the task of governance.  All great cultural revolutions depend on great international partnerships.  See President De Klerk and President Mandela.  I’d like to join the Haitian diaspora in Florida in inviting Presidents Obama and Martelly to stand side by side in these next crucial months and years for both of our countries and the world.  And while I am just one voice, I am one among so many who is smelling a rat these days.  For the young people here today, I want to tell a quick story and then let everyone get on with their day.

[OFF SCRIPT: Story about the Haitian Police Officer who had stepped outside of his home for a brief moment and during those minutes, the earthquake hit and his entire house was leveled, with his family still inside. As he dove into the rubble, all he could find was his police uniform, which he put on and proceeded to guide emergency traffic and save numerous lives. Take moment to encourage audience that they too can find the opportunity to “guide traffic” in their own lives.]

What can you do?  Help guide the traffic of care and involvement, of peace with whatever means at your disposal.

I am honored to be among so many in this room and at this summit – honored that my friend, President Clinton, who has been such a great champion of Haiti, opened this Summit two days ago – and honored to accept this award on behalf of the Haitian people and all of those who on January 12, 2010 were lost, be they Haitian nationals, U.N. staff, NGO workers, or any in their families.  And those whose memory was lost under the rubble that it is our job to remove and revive.  And finally, to all those willing to do whatever it takes to make tomorrow just a little bit better.  To peace.  Thank you.

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