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Remarks on Presenting the Medal of Freedom and the Presidential Award for Exceptional Service to United Nations Officials

December 12, 1991

The President. We are so happy, Barbara and I are so happy to be here for this very special pre-Christmas family occasion at the White House. The Vice President is here, and I salute him. Members of our Cabinet: Secretary of State; Secretary Mosbacher; Secretary of Labor; Tom Pickering, our able Ambassador at the U.N. And we all were just dying to come.

We're joined also by two gentlemen who represent the highest in humanitarian ideals. And I'm talking, of course, about Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary-General of the United Nations; and the Assistant Secretary-General Gianni Picco, who is right here. Let me also welcome to the White House the friends and the families of five special men returned to freedom. Finally, to Thomas Sutherland, Alann Steen, Jesse Turner, Joseph Cicippio, and Terry Anderson, let me simply say on behalf of our entire country, welcome home.

All over America people waited for the day your long ordeal would end. And all over America we share your joy, and we thank God that you are free.

Nothing says it better than, I think, the sign in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in Thomas Cicippio's front yard. For 5 long years that sign served as a constant reminder, with the name of each hostage and a number counting each cruel day of captivity. And then, one by one, the numbers gave way to a sign marked "Freed." And finally, just 9 days ago, came the moment the Cicippio family prayed for. And over Joseph's name, they nailed not another number but a sign that read, "Free at last." And that said a lot for all of us.

And all of you have survived an act of unspeakable, uncivilized cruelty. Hostage-taking is hell on a human scale, not just for the innocents held captive, but for the families, for the families that they left behind. And no power on Earth can give back the years that you've lost. And yet no one can take from you the strength of the spirit that sustained you.

The world is now learning the horrors that you endured. But we're learning as well, and this is the good news, the story of your survival, the miracle that you fashioned from the hope your captors could not take away.

We know now you used the language of the deaf to communicate from cell to cell to speak to one another in silence, how you managed to learn from one another, laugh with one another, help each other sustain a stubborn indignity. And you demonstrated each day in captivity a defiant faith. You believed in your country and your families and your colleagues and yourself. And you knew that one day you would go free.

Your triumph shines new light on a simple truth: The days and years apart burn away the trivial things we once thought had value to reveal what truly matters in life, family, faith, hope, and love. And seeing freedom through your eyes, even for a moment, frees us from the petty concerns that so often hold us hostage and distract us from life's larger joys, larger meaning.

The families here today are whole again. But for others the ordeal is not over, for two German citizens and their families, for the families of two courageous Americans whose duty sent them to Lebanon and who died at the hands of their captors. In the name of the civilized values that we hold dear, I call on those responsible for these crimes: Free Heinrich Struebig and Thomas Kemptner, and return the remains of Rich Higgins and William Buckley. And let the families of these innocent men find peace.

The truth is clear. Hostage-taking has failed. From the beginning in Tehran in 1979, hostage-takers sought to exploit our system's reverence for the individual. They sought to exploit that as a weakness. And your captors believed hostage-taking would tie our hands, and they were wrong. We remained determined to defend American interests in international principles in the Middle East. Through Desert Shield and Desert Storm we stood fast against aggression, and we showed the world that terrorism in all its forms can't succeed. And in the end, the hostage-takers did more damage to their cause than they did to America's resolve, certainly than they did to your resolve. And in the end, each hostage-taking, each heartless act against innocence announced to the world the inhumanity of the captors.

Tom Sutherland and Terry Anderson, you were right when you said no to negotiating with hostage-takers. This administration has followed a no-negotiation policy since the beginning. Bargaining serves only to make a currency of human lives and leads to more of the evil that it seeks to end. I am convinced that this course remains the world's best hope that no more innocent men and women will meet your fate, that no family will ever again be forced to endure your years in agony.

This policy was not without risk. Sticking with it wasn't easy, especially for a country that cares so deeply about every American held against his will. We've learned that it works. It helped end the agony, and I like to feel that it helped bring you home.

Yes, America did its part. Many men and women in this country and around the world, most of whom you'll never meet, worked to secure your freedom. And today, we want to go on. So many of the family members sitting behind you all and aside of you did their part, and boy, did they do it well. And it wasn't just spouses; it was sisters and brothers and plenty of others I might single out here.

But there are others as well. And today we want to recognize the selfless efforts of one man who, at great personal risk, helped bring you to freedom. And I might say parenthetically that one of the first words I heard from Terry Anderson was the suggestion that we honor the man we're about to honor, and the other one as well.

In his years as Special Envoy at the United Nations, Assistant Secretary-General Gianni Picco has sought always to serve peace and to resolve conflict. Today for his efforts in winning the freedom of our hostages, we honor Mr. Picco with the Presidential Award for Exceptional Service.

Would you come up here, please, sir? Very proud to have you here.

I will ask the Major to read the citation please. Please be seated.

The Major. "The United States honors Mr. Picco in recognition of his distinguished role in facilitating the release of hostages held in Lebanon. His skillful diplomacy with Middle Eastern governments and officials and representatives of the hostage holders has resulted in freedom for many individuals held in the region outside the due process of law, including six Americans.

"His personal courage in the face of danger and his dedication to the mission represent the best tradition of international civil service."

The President. We also honor the man who made your release his personal responsibility, a man whose life work in service to humanitarian ideals has won him honor the world over, Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Before asking the Major to read the citation let me just say this: He made peace among all nations his mission. He's taken the principles of the United Nations Charter as a personal code.

He was present at the creation as a delegate to the first General Assembly of the United Nations back in 1946. And we first met in 1971 when each of us received the singular honor of serving our countries as Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

My distinguished colleague went on to represent Peru in the Security Council, and then, of course, as we all know, for the past 10 years he has served the cause of world peace as Secretary-General.

His tenure has marked the rebirth, literally, the rebirth of the United Nations, its emergence as a force for peace. Cooperation now replaces cold war conflict. And across the globe the U.N. now leads the international effort to resolve conflicts that have caused so much suffering. Peacekeeping missions have proliferated. Eleven are underway right now; five begun in the past year alone.

And, Mr. Secretary-General, I am personally grateful to you for your strong stand against Iraq's assault on Kuwait, your tireless work to sustain the coalition. In large part because of your leadership, the United Nations now stands closer to its founding ideal than at any time in history.

And today then we honor this architect of peace, a man we are all proud to call friend, that Barbara and I especially treasure the friendship for the Perez de Cuellars. Mr. Secretary-General, with great pride I now present to you the highest civilian honor this country can bestow, the Medal of Freedom. And I will ask the Major to read the citation.

The Major. "Javier Perez de Cuellar. For 10 years of exceptionally distinguished service as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar presided over the rebirth of that institution. With wisdom, vision, diplomacy, and skill, he forged a U.N. where cooperation in reaching common goals is replacing rhetoric and division.

"His tireless dedication to conflict resolution, and economic and social concerns has contributed to a better world and ensured a strengthened U.N. more capable than ever of fulfilling its Charter.

"His service has been marked by a singular devotion to humanitarian interests, including the life, security, and safety of individual people throughout the world.

"The United States honors a servant of humankind who has advanced the cause of freedom and hope."

The President. Congratulations.

The Secretary-General. Mr. President, Mrs. Bush, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is a tremendous honor for me to receive the Medal of Freedom, an award that I shall value all the more highly because it has been given to me by my old and very dear friend, President Bush.

In my view, it is really more appropriate that this tribute should be paid to the United Nations as a whole rather than to me personally. Today, as never before, the organization is being called upon to fulfill the responsibility entrusted to it by its founding fathers nearly half a century ago. The circumstances in the international arena that have made it possible for the United Nations to carry out this role are deeply gratifying. And much credit is due to President Bush himself, who has a profound understanding of the organization and its goals.

Mr. President, it gives me special pleasure to attend this ceremony after having been greeted by a group of brave and wonderful men who, at this moment, understand more fully than we possibly can the true meaning of freedom. That these former American hostages have, at long last, been reunited with their loved ones and especially during this holiday season makes the efforts that I and my efficient and loyal assistant, Mr. Giandomenico Picco, have undertaken these many months all the more worthwhile.

At the same time, Mr. President, I cannot but mention with sorrow an American who was kidnaped while serving the United Nations, namely, Colonel William R. Higgins, who was, at the time of his abduction, chief of a peacekeeping observer group in south Lebanon. It is tragic that the life of this innocent man was lost. I am doing everything possible to see to it that his body is returned promptly to his family.

As I prepare to leave office, I would like, once again, to thank President Bush for the cooperation and support he has extended to me as Secretary-General, and to the organization more widely; and particularly in helping to ensure that the United Nations may fulfill the enormous expectations that today exist for greater peace, stability, and respect for human rights to all the world. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. I know some of us are going over to light America's Christmas tree across the way, but Barbara and I just have to say hello to the families. So what we'll suggest is, we'll go out here in the hall, and you all come wandering out. You've got to do that; that's mandatory. You have to say hello to us. And then, please take your families and browse through this winter wonderland. The work on all these decorations was done by volunteers from all over this country, and I think you'll feel, as we do, that the White House is blessed by this wonderful dedication, and the gift from the American people.

So, it's a fitting time that you all are here. And I think we'll just wander on out now and ask you to come, and please, all of you just come by and say hello. We'd love that.

Note: The President spoke at 5:03 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. Maj. John Wissler, USMC, military aide to the President, read the citations. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this exchange.

George Bush, Remarks on Presenting the Medal of Freedom and the Presidential Award for Exceptional Service to United Nations Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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