In Memoriam: Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010)

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Date: 06/23/2011 Description: Richard Holbrooke - State Dept Image“[E]nding this crime so monstrous is not a political issue; it is an American imperative, and a human responsibility. This is why there are still modern-day abolitionists. And this is why the rest of us should join them.”  – Richard Holbrooke, 2008

Late last year, the State Department mourned the loss of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a man who exemplified the best in public service. Many are familiar with his storied history in Vietnam, his service as one of the youngest Assistant Secretaries in history, his central role in ending the Balkan wars, his service as Ambassador to the United Nations, and, finally, his work as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But few people know about Richard Holbrooke’s heartfelt commitment to fighting modern slavery.

In 2009, while serving as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Holbrooke learned of a group of workers in Pakistan who were being held in debt bondage. He did not dismiss their plight as a local dispute or beneath his notice. He did not write them off to an entrenched social system in Pakistan, or fear that raising the issue would introduce a discordant note into his critically important discussions with the Pakistani government. Rather, Ambassador Holbrooke did what he did best – he cajoled, worked the phones, convened meetings, and energized the bureaucracies of two countries through sheer force of will. The result of this whirlwind of a week? Almost 200 people who had been held captive through force and threats are now free because of Richard Holbrooke.

This was not an isolated incident. Throughout his career, Ambassador Holbrooke saw not only the geopolitical stakes and the back and forth of negotiations, but the people that mattered, even in a hidden issue like modern slavery. His own words express it best:

“One must never forget that slaves are first and foremost people. Their lives are filled with sorrow and injustice – but also . . . they are touched with humor and joy. Just like regular people. Just like free people.”

Here at the State Department and at our embassies around the world, American diplomats strive to live up to his challenge, and his example. Whether it is engagement with the host governments, funding NGOs to provide front-line services, or even uncovering and responding to trafficking cases in the countries to which they are posted, our diplomats are making a difference. That’s how we strive to honor the memory of Ambassador Holbrooke. That’s how we try to live up to the expectations of the public we serve. We grieve for the victims, we mourn for the fallen, and through our reporting and diplomacy we recommit ourselves to be worthy of their example.