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Commencement Address -- Denis Halliday

Honorary Degree Recipient
2 June 2002

Mr. President,
Distinguished faculty and staff of Swarthmore College,
Extraordinary graduates of the year 2002,


It goes without saying that I am honored and delighted to be here today participating in this Commencements ceremony situated in this uniquely lovely garden. I am doubly pleased to be here and to have received this honorary degree from Swarthmore College because I understand that I was nominated by the graduating class. I thank you all. The challenge now is to say something worthwhile in 5 minutes — something consistent with the importance of this occasion for the graduates of the year 2002.

In 1999 and 2000, I had the privilege to take some classes here at Swarthmore. Before, during and after that challenging Swarthmore interlude, I have spoken on university campuses all over the United States, and also overseas. And apart from questions about the United Nations, Iraq, the concept of sanctions, international law, and US Foreign Policy and its consequences — inevitably one or two students would ask for my thoughts, or even advice, in respect of their own futures. The issue often being the complexity of career choice combined with the freedom to be who they wanted to be; to be free to speak to social and political issues important to them. And perhaps not simply address, but to be free to stand up conspicuously and be counted. To feel able to take a personal stand on the domestic and international issues of today and tomorrow such as: non-violence, human rights, civil liberties, true democracy, the environment and foreign policy.

Happily we have amongst Swarthmore graduates — young men and women who want it all — a brilliant exciting career in a chosen field, but yet able to be themselves. Free to continue good works, the courage to speak out, even when socially embarrassing, or possibly career threatening. To stand up when driven by outrage, by a sense of unacceptable injustice, by witnessing wrong yet knowing the capacity for right exists in abundance.

This issue is terribly important for many graduates: how to continue with political and social concerns, and yet be sufficiently mainstream to be accepted by the community at large — for it is hard to live in isolation. And to do so without personal compromise in regard to one's innermost values. To keep faith with oneself. To know in one's heart — it's the right thing to do no matter what rationalizations others can bring to bear. To be able to sleep at night with oneself easy in heart and conscience. It is a tough one!

People sometimes say to me how they envy my 30 year career with the United Nations — exciting travel, great purpose, etc. Well, the UN is indeed a wonderful opportunity to work internationally with many different nationalities and cultures, and to be employed to tackle issues to which one attaches great personal importance. However, looking back over those many years, I realize now more than ever that I compromised my own integrity by silence, by non-participation in important issues before the world during those years. I was an international civil servant — always living overseas as a guest in another country. Not free to vote, not free to speak out on matters of peace, justice and social equality. In my desire to serve the UN, I set aside for over thirty years my commitment to such issues; issues that preoccupied me during my own student years in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

Much of my time in college was spent in protesting the then Apartheid policy of white South Africa, or standing out side the French embassy in opposition to nuclear testing, or doing the four-day Aldermaston march from the US Nuclear Air Force base to Trafalgar Square in London. Issues of racism, non-violence, anti-semitism, injustice, poverty and war were my concerns. Sounds rather similar to our concerns of today — progress is sadly very slow.

Now, freed by my resignation from the UN, I can look at these issues anew. Now I am free to say what I want to say and due to a certain notoriety — can often do so in the media, providing sound bytes to meet their needs consistent with my own personal beliefs and commitments. However, I do not recommend a similar career path to my graduate friends here this morning. You will not want to wait 30 years to properly address issues important to you.

For those who want to accomplish it all, or attempt to do so, I believe that above all else, there is a requirement to be true to oneself. That is perhaps the toughest assignment, but critically important. I have never forgiven myself for rejecting a request in 1964 from Amnesty International to report on Savak, the notorious secret police of Iran when I was a brand new UN official serving in Persia. Savak tortured thousands until it came to an end when the Shah was overthrown years later. Likewise, as a UN official, I was not free to speak out on the overthrow of Allende, the horrors of secret wars in Central America, the Viet Nam tragedy, or more recently the Gulf War, the outcome of which later swept me up and led to my own resignation. With hindsight — that was too little, too late.

To be true to one's self requires a path through life that allows one to combine what is most important together with life's essentials — a good partner, perhaps children, the resources to live without constant financial worry — these are important. To grow in one's chosen profession to positions where authority allows you to have influence and make a difference — that is important. Must one pay an unacceptable price? I do not think so. The cost may be the big question for some of you graduating today. It is less about compromise, and more about choice. And it can be all about satisfaction and the rewards of making a difference.

Sounds easy — making a choice, but we all know it is not. You have many forces pulling at you. And you must listen to those who love you and will continue to do so. You have to listen to your own hearts and minds. You have already begun the balancing act of going through life — decisions — right and wrong; the possible and the impossible; and as I mentioned already — the demands of living with oneself.

Some of you may join large corporations, and maybe do invaluable pro bono work. Others can go into an NGO and make a difference in that way. Others may want to teach, do social work, or serve the poor, the marginalized. Others can join the State Department or get into Congress, and determine to make positive change from within. Others of you may determine to be activists, and accept the pain, but satisfaction of protest, and maybe even prison terms in order to demand political and social changes from without. Each of us has a unique path to take. You alone can determine what is the appropriate path. Only you can decide what counts most.

Therefore, my advice is to try to be the best you can be. To endeavour to make the difference, whatever that may be, to which you commit yourself. To do what will make it possible for you to love yourself. For to love others, to change the world, to make a difference — you need to be content with yourself. You are undoubtedly your own most demanding critic. Try not to be too harsh. You need to live in some degree of harmony with your own performance as you endeavor to meet the standards that you establish, and in reaching for the challenges created by your own goals, whatever you determine them to be.

I wish you all possible success.

Thank you.