SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all very much. I have to say, it’s a little bit humbling to speak after Jason, who has been an extraordinary profile in courage, an extraordinary profile in absolute determination to move all of us to a better place on this issue that in so many ways is, for me, one of the most profound things that I have to deal with in my job. And I suspect Mélanie and my other colleagues feel the same way.
There are a lot of terrible things happening day out – day in, day out around the world. But there is something so profoundly callous and inhumane about this practice of ripping people from their lives, from their families, from their loved ones, to use them as political pawns. And I don’t know, just on a human level, sometimes I look across the table at a counterpart whose country is engaged in this and really ask myself how they sleep at night.
But we have a profound reality to deal with, and I take great inspiration from what we just heard from Jason. I’m really grateful to you. I’m grateful to Michael Kovrig – the two Michaels, in fact – for advocating on behalf of those who are being arbitrarily detained, standing up to governments engaged in these abuses.
To loved ones of those who have been or are still held hostage or wrongfully detained – including the Whelan, Foley, and Levinson families, who I believe are here with us today – your own resilience, your own extraordinarily tenacious advocacy, the love that drives it, is also incredibly humbling to those of us who are serving in positions of responsibility and trying to make good on this particular responsibility. It’s inspirational. And I know sometimes we’re on the receiving end of your advocacy, your encouragement, and more than encouragement. It’s so vital, it’s so necessary, and it’s so deeply appreciated even if it sometimes doesn’t seem like we appreciate it.
To my friend Mélanie Joly, thank you not just for hosting us but thank you for your leadership over – virtually from day one since we’ve been working together in combating arbitrary detention. Here in a room that, as I understand it, is named for Ken Taylor – who didn’t hesitate to shelter those six Americans in Tehran in 1979 – we are reminded that Canada’s commitment to this issue goes back for decades.
And I want to thank our co-hosts as well, Foreign Minister André and Foreign Minister Tembo, for their commitment, for their determination on this.
I just have to acknowledge quickly a couple of other people, one who is here and one who is not.
The one who is here is my friend and colleague Roger Carstens, who every single day is the beating heart of our administration’s efforts to bring home Americans who are wrongfully detained. Roger makes a card for me that I carry in my pocket every day. It has a list of those Americans who are being wrongfully detained somewhere around the world. I get no greater satisfaction in this job than the days when we get to cross someone off that list as we were able to do just this week. But that doesn’t just happen. It really is the product of extraordinary work, extraordinary engagement, starting with Roger, starting with a remarkable team of individuals that he’s built around him who I think demonstrate every day both their tenacity and their profound humanity. And I’m grateful, Roger, to you. Thank you. (Applause.)
I also want to acknowledge someone who’s not with us today, and that is a dear friend that we lost earlier this month, Bill Richardson. I’ve known Bill for decades. He was someone that inspired me when I first started in government service during the Clinton administration. You all know he had a remarkably storied career as a member of Congress, governor, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appropriately, secretary of energy. But I think the New York Times headline remembered him simply as “Champion of Americans Held Overseas.” And I suspect that Bill would be incredibly gratified by that headline summary of what was truly a remarkable career. He was doing this work right up until the very end, and I know how much he meant to so many people in this room.
And I imagine he would have been happy to know that we welcomed home this week Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi, two other Americans from their unjust detention in Iran. And I want to express my own gratitude to our partners overseas who helped make this happen – to our colleagues in Oman, in Qatar, in Switzerland, in the United Kingdom.
We’re also keenly aware that dozens of U.S. nationals are still wrongfully detained, still suffering, as are their families and loved ones. These are our fellow citizens – Americans living and working abroad, businesspeople, journalists, travelers – held without cause, without due process, merely to become a human bargaining chip. Which is why we will not stop our work to free every single one of them.
In this job, I have no higher priority than the security of my fellow Americans abroad. That’s why the United States Government has worked relentlessly to free Americans who have been unjustly detained. And I am very proud of the fact that during this administration, we have brought home 35 people over the past two and a half years from countries, alas, around the world.
But as this group appreciates especially, and as Jason said so eloquently and powerfully, we also have a profound responsibility to do everything possible to deter – to deter future instances of arbitrary detention.
Last July, President Biden signed an executive order to try to expand our tools and disrupt these practices, building off the experience of prior administrations and, critically, the 2020 Robert Levinson Act. This includes authorizing new financial and travel restrictions – like the ones we imposed just this week on the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and former President Ahmadinejad.
The most effective way, though, to make these regimes think twice is by acting together – amplifying the cost of arbitrary detention in ways that no country can achieve if it’s acting simply on its own. That would make all of our citizens safer.
That’s the spirit behind the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention, which the United States endorsed during President Biden’s first month in office. With Canada leading the charge, 73 nations have now committed to this initiative – plus several more who joined it today.
At this first ministerial since the declaration launched, we have a chance to continue this momentum and I hope, really, to build on it.
We can share best practices by enhancing our own countries’ efforts to free those arbitrarily detained.
We can align on what constitutes arbitrary detention, and do that for greater diplomatic leverage, so that it’s clear what merits a response from the international community.
We can grow this coalition to include more countries from every region.
More importantly, we can send a message. We can send a message that our people are not pawns. And that if a country holds any of our citizens, all of us will hold them accountable – whether that’s sanctioning perpetrators and their families, freezing their assets, or forbidding entry into any one of our countries.
Now, the bottom line is not many people want to travel somewhere where they could be imprisoned on a whim. Not a lot of companies want to do business in a place like that. Which means that countries engaging in arbitrary detention will succeed only in further isolating themselves – in becoming pariahs. By working together, we can maintain and strengthen global pressure, and continue to reinforce norms against these practices, and keep our people safe.
These norms are important. And I know that oftentimes when we come to a place like New York for the UN General Assembly, and you’ve got all these diplomats sitting around rooms and talking about norms and standards, it can seem kind of meaningless in the real world that we are also living in. But I have to tell you that over time, the more countries you can get behind a norm, a rule, a standard, a basic understanding, the more powerful it becomes, the more effective it becomes, the more aberrational the practices of countries that ignore these norms. So there’s real value in this work.
Nations like Iran and Russia may see our care for each other as a weakness to be exploited. But we know that our common humanity is actually – actually our most powerful source of enduring strength. And as we further our cooperation to counter arbitrary detention, we take inspiration from the humanity of those behind prison walls and the humanity of anyone agitating for their freedom.
Canadians marching 7,000 steps – in honor of Michael Kovrig’s daily walk around his cell.
Ali Rezaian, traveling 200 nights in a year, pleading his brother’s case to anyone who would lend an ear.
Evan Gershkovich still teasing his mom about the terrible food in Lefortovo prison and how it reminds him of her cooking. (Laughter.)
We owe it to our people to do everything in our power not only to bring them home, but to make sure that no one else lives their nightmares. By standing together, by amplifying this issue, we’re one step closer – one step closer to that future.
So I thank you all profoundly for your willingness to work together on this. We together can make a big difference. Thank you very much. (Applause.)