Remarks at Human Rights Defenders Award Ceremony for Ms. Hanadi Zahlout

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
November 15, 2013

Thank you very much, Uzra. Good morning. It is a privilege to be with all of you to honor a truly remarkable, courageous, and inspirational defender of human rights, Ms. Hanadi Zahlout.

Every year we recognize those who protect and promote human rights in the face of extreme adversity. Every year we are humbled anew by their audacity to stand up to injustice and stand on the frontlines of the march of human dignity. And every year we reflect on our own obligations, both as heirs to the struggles and sacrifices of prior generations, and also as stewards of what they have achieved.

Hanadi Zahlout’s courage reminds us of those solemn responsibilities.

In the spring of 2011, after suffering too many indignities and too many lost hopes for too many years, the Syrian people took to the streets. They were met by an iron fist.

In the face of the Syrian regime’s efforts to conceal its crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, Ms. Zahlout documented the regime’s abuses, using social media to bring them to the attention of the Syrian people and the world. Hanadi’s images and testimonies from the frontlines of the Syrian Revolution shocked the world’s conscience and rallied international condemnation of the Assad regime.

Despite multiple arrests, the detention and torture of her fellow activists, and repeated threats to her life, Ms. Zahlout was not deterred. Working with Local Coordination Committees across the country, she continuously risked her life to expose the regime’s brutality and promote reconciliation and peace.

Ms. Zahlout’s irrepressible spirit gained her the admiration and respect of fellow grassroots activists, leaders of the Syrian opposition, and human rights activists all over the world.

While in jail, Hanadi took up the cause of political prisoners, demanding improved conditions and the provision of medicine in the women’s section of the prison. In exile, she continues to link grassroots activists inside Syria with international media, promote dialogue among the opposition, and mentor young Syrian journalists.

As a woman, as a proud Syrian, and as a member of the minority Alawite community, Ms. Zahlout serves as a powerful symbol of both what is possible and what is necessary for Syria’s future. She did not suffer or sacrifice for sect or tribe, but for a Syrian nation where the rights of all -- Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Druze, Muslim and Christian -- are protected. So while the regime and extremists work to tear Syria apart, Ms. Zahlout and her peers work to repair its social fabric and build a new, democratic, and tolerant Syria.

We recognize Hanadi today knowing that her vision of a new Syria seems distant and at times out of reach. But we know from her own story, and from the stories of the Human Rights Defenders recognized in years past, that a just cause is ultimately a winning cause.

Nearly three decades ago today, when the workers in Brasov, Romania walked out of their factories in protest, they never imagined that their uprising would lead to the fall of a dictator and the end of their country’s decades-long isolation.

And when the students in Daraa led peaceful vigils nearly three years ago, they too did not imagine that their actions would inspire a revolution. I am confident that when their dream of a new Syria is ultimately realized, they will recognize the role of Ms. Zahlout and her peers. And they will recommit – as generations did before them – to do their part to accelerate the march of human dignity.

And so on behalf of Secretary Kerry and the American people, it is my great privilege to present Ms. Zahlout with the Human Rights Defender Award for “her tireless commitment to a peaceful democratic transition in Syria, at great personal cost. The creativity, determination, and bravery demonstrated in her work are critical to the reconstruction of Syria’s social fabric and process of reconciliation.”

Thank you.