On the night of his historic and inspiring election as the first African-American president, Barack Obama spoke of the trajectory of history. He paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.—
These are hopeful words, and for those who seek justice and human rights, they are a reminder that we cannot simply stand by and wait for the arc to bend. We have a duty to use our power and influence to hasten its trajectory.
That is why two years ago my father, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), presented the Congressional Gold Medal to His Holiness the Dalai Lama with the wholehearted bipartisan support of Congress. This award, one of our nation’s highest civilian honors, was bestowed in recognition of the Dalai Lama’s unique moral stature as one of the most highly honored peacemakers of our time. At that time, Congressman Lantos said to the Chinese government, “Let this man of peace visit Beijing.—
Now, with great respect and confident optimism, we urge Obama to let this simple Buddhist monk visit the White House as well.
The Dalai Lama has waged a lifelong peaceful struggle for social justice for Tibetans and others around the world. Under his leadership, Tibetans have formed a democratically elected government in exile. The Dalai Lama has made numerous conciliatory gestures toward the Chinese government, recognizing the sovereignty of China and seeking only cultural and religious autonomy and basic human rights for Tibet and the Tibetan people. And yet China maintains an iron-fisted rule over Tibet and continues to demonize this gentle man of peace.
We regret that despite escalating human rights violations in Tibet, the White House has chosen not to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama while he is in Washington this week, preferring a time that will be less irritating to the Chinese government and after the president’s own trip to China. We are concerned that this time may never come.
In arguing against offending Chinese sensibilities, some assert that a foreign policy that intervenes, even symbolically, to help those whose rights are being violated is incompatible with a foreign policy that embraces non-imperialism.
The Buddhist tradition, which the Dalai Lama represents, offers a way to resolve this conflict through the wisdom of balance. In Buddhism, one is taught to balance compassion and faith with rational thinking and logic. Obama is a true master of such reasonable and fair-minded thinking, and he should apply this approach to American foreign policy principles as well.
Compassion and commitment to universal human rights call on us to help the most vulnerable members of our society, no matter what borders they dwell within. If we continue to delay addressing human rights violations, these issues will not rise to the top of the agenda until they deteriorate to the point where the world faces an intolerable crisis of conscience. History will judge us harshly if we permit this to happen.
We urge Obama to set a foreign policy agenda that includes human rights as a critical component while at the same time pursuing our important shared national interests with the government of China.
In the Tibetan fashion, this will be both the compassionate and logical thing to do.
Today the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice will honor the Dalai Lama with our inaugural human rights prize. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will make the presentation. We hope that in the near future the president will honor this humble yet great man with a warm invitation to the White House.
Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and daughter of late Rep. Tom Lantos, the first Member of Congress to invite the Dalai Lama to speak in Washington, D.C.