Statement by Ambassador Erica J. Barks-Ruggles on U.S. Independence Day

Ambassador Erica J. Barks-Ruggles
Independence Day Speech, July 9, 2015

Minister Mushikiwabo – thank you for joining us this evening to celebrate the 239th anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America.

Honorable Ministers, Members of Parliament, Permanent Secretaries, other colleagues from the Government of Rwanda, fellow members of the diplomatic corps, leaders in civil society, business, education, health, media and technology and all the distinguished guests who are here today, I know that I will forget to acknowledge someone, so I would like to lean on my favorite phrase I have learned here in Rwanda:   “All Protocol Observed.”

It is such a pleasure to welcome you this evening as we celebrate not only the anniversary of our independence, which was on July 4th, but the shared anniversary of Rwanda’s Liberation on the same date.  I think our common celebration of July 4th is especially symbolic as our two countries enjoy a strong shared partnership built on mutual respect, mutual accountability, and plain hard work to get things done. That is worth celebrating this evening!

On behalf of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry – and on behalf of the entire American people – we thank you for your partnership and your friendship, and for celebrating America’s Independence Day with us tonight.

This year, our celebration falls during the holy month of Ramadan.  I had the honor to host an interfaith Iftar dinner at my home a week ago to break the daily fast observed during Ramadan with some of Rwanda’s most prominent Muslim and religious leaders.  It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with representatives from all religious traditions here in Rwanda, and was important to me personally as this is a tradition I have carried out for years.  I appreciate the warm reception I have received from the Rwandan religious community, and wanted to say to all of you who are also celebrating Ramadan this evening, Ramadan Kareem.

I would also like to publicly acknowledge the dedicated staff of the U.S. Embassy, Kigali.  Comprised of a diverse collection of over 300 Americans and Rwandans working as one team, I am honored to lead this extra-ordinary group of professionals who every day put their own ideas and hard work into improving our partnership and the future of both our countries.   They have worked very hard to make this evening a success. Thank you for making me and both our countries proud every day.

In addition, and not least, I want to thank the American companies who are supporting tonight’s event.  Land O’Lakes from my home state of Minnesota, Sorwarthe Tea our longest term investor in Rwanda, and others who have contributed to making this event possible, and special this evening.   Thank you!  As Rwanda continues its upward trajectory of growth from development partner to investment destination, from recovery to stability and prosperity, the American business community is strongly contributing through investment and creation of jobs– and we are proud of the role you are playing in Rwanda’s future.

–I would also like to thank our terrific jazz band The Ambassador’s Combo, from the United States Air Forces in Europe Band.  Their presence here tonight is symbolic of our strong – and continually growing – partnership through culture, music and the arts.  We are truly honored to host you here tonight, and appreciate your music which is a celebration of America.

While July 4th is a celebration of United States Independence, the gathering tonight with our Rwandan friends and partners is a symbol of our common goals.  This event is a gathering of individuals committed to improving the lives of every Rwandan and our shared vision of a stable, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Rwanda.  A Rwanda that never forgets its tragic history scarred by genocide, but also a Rwanda that is building – at lightning speed – a brighter future.  The United States is very proud to be Rwanda’s largest bilateral development partner – with over $180 million (or over 126 Billion RWF) – in programs to ensure a good education, health, economic development, and opportunity for all Rwandans.  And we are working together on peacekeeping operations around the continent, and increasing regional energy integration, entrepreneurship and economic growth.

I would now like to spend a few minutes on sharing with you some thoughts on the significance of July 4th to Americans.

We Americans celebrate on this day our Independence, our liberties, our freedoms.  Our country is made up of the contributions of and diversity of our citizens.  Citizens from all races, religions, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, skills, life experiences, and talents.

Our strength as a nation of immigrants has always come from this diversity – as reflected in our National Motto “E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of Many, One” – which is our theme for tonight.

We are made stronger by the weaving of the rich tapestry of many cultures into the American fabric.  Americans believe that as a diverse nation, it is our individual responsibility – as citizens – to ensure that our democracy is constantly working to extend our rights and liberties to every person in our society.  We believe – as our Declaration of Independence says – that “all men [and women] are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.”   Every American carries this responsibility – to protect the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.  Americans share with Rwandans a strong belief that we are all in this together, and that together we can build a better future.

So today is a day of affirmation.  It is a day when Americans ask ourselves – is this the country we want for our children?  Americans, like all people, do not want to live in a country where some suffer from poverty while others are wealthy.  Americans, like all people, do not want to live in a country where discrimination and racism can lead to events like the police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and the recent vile attack on people praying together in a church in South Carolina.  These events were reminders that our work as citizens is not yet finished.

This is the true story of American democracy.  It is not perfect — but we are motivated to constantly improve – to strive for “a more perfect union” as stated in our Constitution and highlighted by President Obama ten days ago in Charleston.  And we have made progress.

It is undeniable that The United States of America is a much better country today than we were 239 years ago when we declared our Independence.  We are more united, more inclusive, and more diverse. However this change did not come easily.  Every step has been a struggle – a struggle between individuals who wished to continue to oppress and those who fully grasped the ideals of our founders and fought to extend basic rights to all people.  The banners you see around the grounds tonight give examples of a few pioneering Americans who have broken down barriers.

Throughout our history, we have consciously worked to advance toward a more equitable society.  While our country was built by individuals, we formed a government with institutions to protect each citizen’s rights.  These institutions have helped end segregation, restore full rights to our Native Americans, and advance equality for women.  I am proud that 25 years ago this year our Congress passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which ensures inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of our society.  The process of becoming a society in which our fellow citizens enjoy more rights and opportunities is never finished, however.  Just two weeks ago our Supreme Court affirmed the extension of health care to millions of our citizens who had gone without it, and expanded civil rights to ensure every American can now marry the person they love.

In the America we would like to build for ourselves, we are all equal – one nation, forged from all our divergent experiences, and identities.  In the world we would like to build for all of our children, every person should have the chance to live without war or injustice and grow up with dignity and equal opportunity.

As Robert F. Kennedy said – while speaking in Africa nearly 50 years ago – “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”

In the United States we continue to find strength in our diversity.  Each woman and man, according to her own strength, skills and ability, owes a duty to her fellow citizens to help build a better future.  Each must strive to be that tiny ripple of hope, that together, out of many, we become one.  E Pluribus Unum.

Thank you all again for joining with us to celebrate tonight – I hope that as we enjoy the evening, each of us will take a moment to pause and think about what we can do in partnership to build a better future for both of our countries and all our citizens.

Thank you.

[PAUSE/take glass for toast]

I would now like to propose a toast.  As we raise our glasses tonight in celebration of the 239th anniversary of American Independence, we honor our friends and partners here in Rwanda, with whom we strive to build the world we all want for our children – prosperous, healthy, free, and with opportunity and dignity for all.  Let us all strive for that in the years to come.  Cheers.

It is now my great honor and pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague, Her Excellency, the Honorable Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, to grace us with some remarks of her own.