Remarks at the Independence Day Reception
As Prepared for Delivery
July 7, 2015
Ambassador Punke, Ambassador Harper, Ambassador Wood and I extend a fond ALOHA to all of you, our colleagues and friends, as we celebrate the 239th anniversary of the adoption of our Declaration of Independence. Welcome everyone!
I want to thank our Swiss hosts, especially those from the city and canton of Geneva and the Swiss Mission in Geneva, for all you do to facilitate our work here.
One year ago, having just arrived from California, I stood here and thanked all of you for the warm welcome you had given me during my very first week on the job.
Well, this week I think you’ve overdone it… it’s a bit TOO WARM of a welcome, and if you don’t scale it back I’m afraid I may have to turn this into a speech about climate change and global warming – which is probably the last thing you want to hear about right now – so instead, let’s talk about ALOHA.
We’re all shaped by where we were born, the places we grew up. It stays with us our entire lives. As many of you know, like President Obama, I was born and raised in Hawaii, and the President and I both believe this has shaped who we are today.
Michelle Obama once said, “You really can’t understand Barack until you understand Hawaii” and I know my husband feels the same way about me.
President Obama wrote that growing up in Hawaii offered him the opportunity to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect… that we all have obligations to each other… that we’re not alone. It formed his world view.
I believe that growing up surrounded by such incredible diversity… you quickly learn it’s about building relationships and breaking down barriers… that our diversity defines us rather than divides us.
As the State with the highest percentage of multi-racial Americans – including me – Hawaii is a true cultural melting pot, where people of all backgrounds strive to live together in harmony. There’s a common core value of courtesy, an absence of prejudice. And that’s the basic idea of the Aloha Spirit. That spirit is Hawaii.
Last year, I spoke about wanting to bring the Aloha Spirit to Geneva…and as you can see, I’ve succeeded…in the flesh! You’ve been listening to the beautiful music of Na Ohana Hoaloha, from the island of Moloka’i.
Moloka’i is recognized as the birthplace of hula, from which it has spread around the world,and I’m thrilled that we are also joined todayby a Swiss hula halau with dancers from Switzerland, Austria and Germany. I hope you’ll get a chance to meet these wonderfully talented musicians and dancers during one of their upcoming breaks.
I wanted to bring the “spirit” of Aloha to our work here in Geneva, because I believe this unique multilateral arena – where people from all over the world come together to strive for solutions to conflict; to promote trade and development, global health and responsible environmental stewardship; to defend human rights; to negotiate disarmament – this unique multilateral arena needs the Aloha Spirit if we are to truly make progress in our work.
We in Geneva need to build relationships and break down barriers – barriers like gender discrimination. I’m pleased to see Director General Michael Moller here today, because he’s a great partner of mine in this area. Just last week, he and I launched a new initiative called Geneva Gender Champions. Through this initiative, we are building a network of leaders, personally committed to breaking down systemic barriers that prevent women from reaching their full potential.
Already, the response has been overwhelming.
This leadership network will send a powerful message that the issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment must be prioritized in our work. I came here last year thinking that I should bring the “spirit” of Aloha to Geneva.
But you know what? It was already here! It’s always been here, right from the beginning. The UN Charter speaks of respect, friendliness, cooperation, and harmony – the very same words used to describe the Aloha Spirit.
When our Mission launched our Future She Deserves initiative a few months ago, we put those same words and principles at the center of our efforts. For instance: We need more kindness to break the cycle of violence against women and girls; We need unity and harmony to break down the gender divide, to allow women an equal seat at the table, in the workforce, in the boardroom, and to allow girls an equal seat in the classroom; We need understanding and acceptance so that adolescent girls can access the unique health services they require, and we need to show respect and empathy for this especially vulnerable population; And finally, we need perseverance, because although progress can sometimes be slow, we simply cannot give up the fight.
We needed the Aloha Spirit to bring this initiative to life, and it’s clear we’ll need the Aloha Spirit to further drive its success.
Another example of where the Aloha Spirit is alive and well, is through our collective response to the unprecedented humanitarian situation we are currently facing. With more people displaced as a result of conflict than at any point since the end of the Second World War – almost 60 million men, women and children – the humanitarian needs are immense. Many donors – led by the United States – have stepped up to provide increased assistance.
Last year, driven by compassion and kindness, generous support from donors totaled approximately $25 billion. And we must acknowledge the tremendous generosity and acceptance shown by refugee hosting countries, which have opened their borders to provide protection to almost 20 million refugees.
And let’s not forget what refugees and other migrants can bring to the countries that receive them.
This summer at the U.S. Mission, we have Gai Nyok who is working as an intern. Where is Gai? Gai will be joining the U.S. Foreign Service in September. He was born in southern Sudan, and was forced as a child to flee conflict multiple times to multiple countries. Last week, Gai and I had the privilege of meeting with Ger Duany another one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” – and it was one of the most inspiring meetings I’ve ever had. Ger, too, fled southern Sudan, at a time when children couldn’t be children, as they were surrounded by war and violence. Both of them resettled in the United States. After attending college, Ger became an actor and a model, and was recently named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Their stories are American stories – but with universal themes of extraordinary sacrifice, grit, and resilience. Of success through hard work. Gai and Ger are living proof of how the Aloha Spirit is reflected in the resettlement programs of the United States and other countries. These programs welcome refugees, show kindness and respect for differences, and provide a community of support. It’s also a story of the generosity of Gai and Ger, of their recognition of how fortunate they are, and of their desire to give back to others.
Their journey to the United States is especially poignant as we commemorate the 239th Anniversary of America’s Independence. This is exactly what our forefathers fought for… to build a nation where, as stated in our Declaration of Independence, all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For people like Gai and Ger, “the pursuit of happiness” is more than mere words written in the Declaration we celebrate today; it’s the reminder that we don’t have to accept the world as it is, but instead, view it as it could be.
On the day of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, President Obama reaffirmed that the United States was founded on a bedrock principle that we are all created equal. “The project of each generation,” he said, “is to bridge the meaning of those founding words with the realities of changing times.”
Yes, times are changing. But our spirit remains indomitable. Our Aloha Spirit remains strong.
It underlies the collaboration at CERN and the valuable data sharing through the WMO, it drove our collective response to the Ebola crisis, and it’s woven throughout our multi-stakeholder engagement in much of the work of our Mission here in Geneva.
So, as we listen to this beautiful Hawaiian music and enjoy the delicious food, let’s take a minute to reflect on the importance of our work here together.
Let’s work even harder to incorporate this Spirit into what promises to be an eventful coming year.
The Aloha Spirit isn’t a magic wand, there’s no Aloha fairy dust to sprinkle around town to drive change. Progress takes commitment and hard work.
The Aloha Spirit is a mindset, a way of engagement, and I believe by embracing it, we will be more effective, make better decisions, and together, have a greater positive impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.