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Conscience and Charisma: Aung San Suu Kyi Receives the Congressional Gold Medal

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On Wednesdsay I had the extraordinary privilege of being present in the Capitol Rotunda when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to her by Congress in 2008. Daw Aung graciously told the audience that it was one of the greatest days of her life, and from the tears in the eyes of the Burmese human rights advocates, expatriates and international visitors who were with us, many of the women dressed in lavender, the signature color of "the Lady," it was quite clear that it was one of the greatest days in their lives, as well.

Daw Aung is graced with a charismatic leadership style that has focused world attention on her as the embodiment of the aspirations of her people. Yesterday John McCain, who certainly knows what he is talking about when he uses the term, referred to her as his "hero." It is interesting that one archetype of the human rights movement is just this -- the heroic and charismatic leader, imprisoned or exiled for his or her beliefs, who later emerges to lead a repressed people to a more free and open society. As one speaker noted yesterday, Daw Aung shares the qualities of self-sacrifice and personal courage with predecessors like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Focus on this charismatic individual articulating the universality of human rights norms as a reproof to a repressive regime has been a hallmark of the human rights movement since its inception. Beginning in the Reagan years, however, the left moved away from this earlier focus, favoring instead the creation of international tribunals -- like the International Criminal Court and International Court of Human Rights -- focusing on international jurisdiction to litigate atrocities and human rights violations. The right, reluctant to submit the U.S. to the jurisdiction of such tribunals, has continued to focus on individuals -- Li Xiabo in China and Natan Scharansky, a former Soviet dissident and now Israeli politician come to mind.*

There are exceptions. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, as First Lady she met with Suu Kyi and delivered to her a message of support signed by many of the delegates to the Beijing conference on women. Clinton and Vital Voices, the woman-focused human rights organization she helped to found, have steadfastly focused on charismatic leadership as a key element of the human rights struggle around the globe.

The pivotal role outside moral support provides to human rights advocates like Suu Kyi should never be underestimated. Letters smuggled into prison from supporters have been noted by human rights icons including Mandela and Andrei Sakharov as critical to maintaining their morale in the darkest hours of captivity. As Suu Kyi put it, to know that she was not forgotten was a great source of strength during her years under house arrest, including time when she was not able even to be with her husband as he lay dying. And the example of the United States is significant, too.

Secretary Clinton noted yesterday that the new Speaker of the fledgling Burmese Parliament informed her on her recent visit there that newly elected Members were studying old episodes of The West Wing to learn to govern. Clinton told him that we could provide better tools than old TV clips, and that's a message worth amplifying. One of the most touching aspects of Suu Kyi's remarks and Suu Kyi's struggle has been her enduring affection for the United States and for democracy. Democracy, she said in her remarks yesterday, is inextricable from both freedom and security. Her views come from long years of study of history, political theory, and philosophy in her years in captivity. It reminds us that the U.S. still has something unique to offer to the world, and that we should continue to offer it through the Voice of America, public diplomacy, and a vigorous program of international education and exchange. While the aspirations of the people of the Middle East and North Africa during and since the Arab Spring have never been embodied in a single charismatic individual on the order or Daw Aung, we can still hope for the emergence of a vision like hers. The presence of such leaders is a gift to the generation that witnesses their years on earth.

*This is not to demean the role of international courts, although the efficacy of nationally based tribunals -- such as the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda -- has a better record overall of efficacy than the multi-jurisdictional international bodies in moving forward the post-conflict life of affected nations.