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Arthur C. Helton Tribute

Speakers: Peter G. Peterson, chairman of the Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations, Edward Mortimer, director of communications, Office of the Secretary-General, United Nations, and Michael Posner, executive director, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights
September 10, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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New York

(Peter G. Peterson)

Good Afternoon. I’m Pete Peterson, Chairman of the Council. I want to thank you all warmly for coming here, to help us pay tribute to our dear friend, and deeply respected colleague, Arthur Helton.

I told Arthur’s wife, that this is the largest crowd I think we’ve ever had in this room. And I think that in itself is a testament to the widespread affection with which your husband was held. Today we have here Arthur’s family including his mother, his sister, and his wife, Jacquie. We also have Arthur’s fellow members and the staff of the Council, as well as people from the wide variety of organizations he worked with throughout his luminous career, from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, to the Open Society Institute, Human Rights Watch, various bar associations, Columbia University, and more.

For Arthur touched so many people in so many ways, and always with the same goal, to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Be they Haitian refugees in Florida, migrants in the former Soviet Union, displaced persons in the Middle East, Arthur was always there to help. Arthur was a scholar to be sure, and most certainly he was a gentleman. But I think Arthur was something far rarer than either of those; he was a gentle mensch.

On behalf of the Council’s board of directors, and its members, I salute Arthur, his work and his legacy, and express our deep condolences to his family. We have a short program here today, just a few of Arthur’s friends and colleagues, who will give a brief glimpse of the many good things he did during his life. Jacquie Gilbert, Arthur’s wife, will be our final speaker. Afterwards please join us upstairs for a reception where we will have time to greet one another. Thank you again very much.

(Richard N. Haass)

I want to begin by reiterating Pete Peterson’s welcome to you all. I’m sorry only that it had to be under these circumstances. I am Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. As almost all of you know, I am new here. And I won’t pretend to stand up before you here today, to tell you I knew Arthur well. But I feel as though I have gotten to know him now somewhat through the words and reactions of others, including many of you. We’ve received in recent days and weeks letters and emails and phone calls from literally dozens of people; some famous, some unknown, some speaking for themselves, some for their organizations or government. What emerges from all this is a portrait of a remarkable man, someone of pronounced decency, and uncommon commitment. One such statement out of all of them I think captured it quite well: “He died as he lived, working indefatigably to help rebuild the lives of those who had lost their histories, homes and borders, as a result of armed conflict.” My predecessor, Les Gelb, had this to say when he learned about Arthur:

“Arthur Helton was a cherubic warrior. That nearly unique mix of gentleness, incredible knowledge, ability, commitment and persistence. Foreign policy is so much, alas, about words and political gains, and far too little about what its real aim should be: helping to make better lives for people. Arthur dedicated his talents to sad people, the least fortunate of us, and elevated the rest of us with his humanity. How I wish the terrorists, the avenging angels of the Bush administration, civil servants and foreign policy experts, would make more room in their lives for what Arthur was doing with his. If we followed more of Arthur’s path, we would be smiling more, just like Arthur.”

For myself, I take my cue from the title of Arthur’s most recent book, The Price of Indifference. It reminds us all that what we do not do has consequences. That acts of omission can be as significant as any action. I believe it was Edmund Burke who said, or at least is said to have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Arthur was the ultimate good man. One who acted against evil and suffering in order, as they say in my own tradition, “tikkun olam,” to fix the world.

I want to acknowledge here today those who worked most closely with Arthur. Eliana Jacobs, Marie Jeannot, Lilly Ladjevardi. And I suppose it will come as no surprise that Arthur took seriously his responsibility to mentor, and to develop talent. He was one of those who cared for people, not as some abstraction, but in the flesh. We here at the Council have been thinking about what we could do, what we should do, to honor Arthur and his work. We’ve been talking with Jacquie and with others and we’ve established the Arthur Helton Memorial Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to the issues to which Arthur devoted himself and his life, and details about this series can be found in your program.

There will also be a book in the marble hall upstairs during the reception, which I encourage all of you who have the opportunity to sign. Thank you again for joining us today; thank you again for honoring one of our own, one of our very best.

(Edward Mortimer)

My name is Edward Mortimer, I work in the office of the Secretary General of the United Nations. I knew Arthur, and like everybody who knew him, I thought he was a loveable and wonderful person. But I’m sure there are many people here who are better qualified to speak about him than I am, and I am really only here to deliver a tribute from the United Nations and in particular from Kofi Annan, the Secretary General.

This kind of disaster has at once an awful deliberateness about it, and a terrible serendipity. We know that this time the United Nations was targeted. We all know the colleagues and friends that we lost. It was a sort of additional shock to discover that by such a dreadful chance, Arthur was in Sergio’s office at the time when this happened.

And of course, Gil Loescher with him. And I’m sure that many people here are friends of Gil, as well, and who thank god is still alive, but in a terribly injured state.

I will just read the message from the Secretary General:

“Our dear colleague and friend, Arthur Helton, had the misfortune to be in the wrong place, in the wrong time, on the 19th of August, in Baghdad. But it was only in character that Arthur was there, on the front lines, alongside the United Nations and others, working to relieve human suffering. Refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world knew him as their tireless advocate, someone who could cut through red tape, and rouse people from inertia and indifference. His students knew him as an uncommonly accessible professor, and one who could speak clearly about the issues, breaking away from academic prose. His fellow lawyers and human rights activists knew him, as a model of commitment, a creative problem solver, and a steady fount of new insights and ideas. And we at the United Nations knew him, as an exceptional ally and partner, one who always asked important questions, and did not flinch from ambitious answers. We recall with affection and with sadness his gentle manner and great energy. He made a vital contribution to our debates on humanitarian action, and his writings will continue to guide us in the future. Arthur’s luck ran out that awful day in Baghdad, but only after a lifetime of being in the right place, again, and again, and again. His example should serve as a source of strength to all or us who strive to continue his work. He was a tireless servant of peace. We shall remember him.”

Thank you very much.

(Michael Posner)

I first met Arthur in 1982. These were the Reagan years, and thousands of Haitian refugees were being detained in the Krome detention facility in Miami. When Krome reached capacity the INS transferred several hundred to New York, detaining them at a brig in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Stanley Mailman, a prominent New York immigration attorney, called to offer his help. Stanley brought his associate, Arthur Helton, to a meeting to develop a legal strategy. Arthur didn’t say much that day. In fact he was so reserved that when Stanley called later to say that Arthur was interested in a full time job at the Lawyers Committee, I was a bit surprised. But Stanley reassured me - Arthur is very smart, he’s tremendously hard-working, a great lawyer, and he has fire in his belly. Refugee protection is his passion. Needless to say, Stanley was right on all counts. Arthur became the first full time director of the Lawyers Committee’s Refugee Protection program, and in fact the first full time refugee rights advocate working at an international human rights organization. Refugees had no better friend and ally. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” Arthur and I shared a partnership predicated on a commitment to protecting refugees as a central part of the human rights agenda. Our work provided many places for Arthur to stand and to move the world, first in the United States, and later on the international stage. In the fall of 1982 we went to Miami, to help with the lawsuit brought by the Haitian Refugees Center. The suit challenged the prolonged detention of almost 2000 Haitians in 20 states. As that trial was nearing completion, the judge, Eugene Spellman, made it clear that he wanted assurances that if he released the Haitians, someone would find volunteer lawyers to represent each and every one of them. When we caucused that night Arthur said, “Let’s tell the judge we’ll find those lawyers so he’ll release the Haitians.” I was a bit wary. “Who’s going to recruit and train them?” I asked. “I will,” he said, in his matter-of-fact way. “Oh Arthur, I said, you must be kidding, it can’t be done.” But Arthur had found a place to stand, and he was ready to move mountains. So the next day I testified in the trial, under oath no less, that we had developed a plan and were prepared to recruit 2000 volunteer lawyers in 20 states. Fortunately the judge didn’t probe too deeply. Over the next year, Arthur criss-crossed the country, working tirelessly with global advocacy groups and bar associations, to convince lawyers to represent these Haitians the INS was trying to deport. And he made good on that promise.

Several years later our attention turned to Central America, where thousands of people were fleeing armed conflict, and seeking safe haven in the United States. More than 90 percent were being denied asylum. This hot Washington debate became another place for Arthur to take a stand. Working with our colleague, Alisa Massamino, he drafted legislation which he called “Temporary Protected Status” and then he announced he would get it through Congress. I guess I should have learned by then but I uttered the magic words: “Arthur,” I said, “you must be kidding. In this political climate it can’t be done.” But when Arthur put his mind to something, nobody, but nobody, was more determined, more tenacious, or a more effective advocate. True to form, he went on to craft the legislative strategy, and he became a one-man gang, lobbying Congress. TPS became law, and since its enactment more than 400,000 Central Americans and hundreds of thousands of others have been granted this status, an action that has literally saved thousands of lives. Arthur’s stand moved the world.

In the years that followed, Arthur became more involved internationally, first leading a study on internally displaced people in El Salvador, then focusing on Indo-Chinese refugees, and later on the former Soviet states, Africa, and the Middle East. Arthur became a powerful advocate for refugee protection, within the office of the UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The most rights-oriented people in that office, people like Michel Moussali, Dennis McNamara, routinely sought his advice and counsel. Often they prodded him to hold the agency’s feet to the fire in fulfilling its protection mandate. Nobody played that role more effectively than Arthur.

Since the tragic explosion in Baghdad, I’ve reflected a lot on our professional and our personal relationship. I’ve spoken to many old friends, long time colleagues, and gathered details in broad strokes, that could sum up Arthur’s life. Three things emerged: the first was his great sense of humor -- understated, droll, sometimes caustic, but always right on the mark. No one could capture the absurdity of a situation with a quip better than Arthur. We’d be sitting in meeting and Arthur would get that look. I didn’t know what was coming, but I knew it was going to be very funny and put things in perspective. As his workload expanded Arthur accumulated lots of papers which he piled high on his desk. He was literally surrounded by eight or nine piles of paper, three feet high. Just for fun I would sometimes walk into Arthur’s office and I’d ask him about some obscure case or matter. Without hesitation, he would reach for the relevant piece of paper in one of those files, usually about a foot and half down. He would hand it to me with that smile of his, and he would offer to teach me the secrets of his filing system one day. I never did get that lesson.

The second aspect of Arthur’s personality was his amazing willingness to serve as a mentor and as a teacher. Arthur always found time to give guidance and wise counsel to colleagues, to his students at NYU and Columbia, and to those seeking to enter the field. The pro bono legal representation that Arthur built for the Lawyers Committee was based on a model of recruiting young law firm associates and training them to represent asylum applicants. Too often programs like this are short on training and support, and volunteers must fend for themselves. From the outset, Arthur was determined to make our program different. He developed extensive training materials, and he devoted literally thousands of hours to mentoring and advising young lawyers. Over the years, this program, which now serves over a thousand clients, has become a national model. For his unique skill as a teacher, he was recruited to travel to Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, to replicate the program with other public interest organizations in those states.

The third aspect of Arthur’s personality was his tenacity, and his tireless devotion to the cause to which he dedicated his life’s work. His determination and work ethic are legendary. He took to heart Thomas Paine’s admonition that those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it. No one worked harder than Arthur. If someone was working late in his office and wanted to know if others would be there, the axiomatic response was to check with Arthur. Arthur’s long hours enabled him to run the asylum representation program, serve as a national advocate for refugees, and to be intimately engaged on the international scene. Each of these was a full time job. But Arthur rolled them into one, managing to teach in his spare time. Remarkably, he maintained the highest standard of excellent professionalism, in everything he did. His passion meant that when he fixed his attention on a problem, Arthur got results. As many hapless INS officials learned from experience, Arthur could be a bulldog.

Today we gather with Jacquie and others in Arthur’s family, to honor his memory. Let us remember Arthur for what he was: a decent, caring, and modest man, who dedicated himself to helping some of the most vulnerable people in any society: refugees and the displaced. Let us remember him as a pioneer, who helped to create and build a field of refugee protection, as part of the emerging human rights movement. Let us remember him as a man who traveled in important circles, and met with influential people, but who never lost sight of the individuals whose lives he sought to make better. And let us remember Arthur as a man of good humor and wit, who was dedicated to his work, but never to busy to offer a helping hand to others. He touched all of us with whom he came in contact. I am proud and humbled by the fact that for twelve years, the Lawyers Committee was a place for him to stand, and move the world to a better place. We have all lost a special colleague and friend.

(Ellen G. Yost)

Arthur’s involvement in the International Law section of the American Bar Association began by chance, almost ten years ago. As chair of the Immigration Law Committee I was searching for the right person to add a refugee and asylum dimension to our discussions. One day, listening to Arthur, I realized the section had found its man. I had an “a-ha,” as Arthur might say. Would he help us and agree to co-chair the Committee? Reluctant at first, because he did not think that lawyers in international business practice would be interested in his ideas, unable to resist the opportunity however to influence the agenda of the bar, and convinced by my offer to help him implement his ideas within the section, he agreed to help. That was when our collaboration, our friendship, began.

During a four year period as co-chairs of the Immigration Committee, I watched Arthur as he conceived ambitious programs, conferences, and events. In his quiet, soft-spoken way, by force of his intellect and observations, he made us aware of the international dimension of refugee protection, the importance of immigration to foreign policy considerations, and the obligations of states, especially the United States, to provide due process rights to non-citizens. In 1996, in response to the first bombing of the World Trade Center, Congress made draconian amendments to U.S. immigration law, permitting the indefinite detention of non-citizens without the right to counsel at government expense. Lawyers and civil rights groups were troubled by this apparent threat to due process rights. Generous sponsors funded an ABA pro bono project to not only provide representation to indigent non-citizens detained on immigration charges in INS detention centers, contract facilities, and county jails, but also to make lawyers aware of due process concerns. With all that he had to do, Arthur encouraged and guided me to apply for the ABA grant for New York State, to set up a pro bono project where in a novel compromise between the administration and the bar, lawyers have full access to an INS detention center. That project continues four years later. Arthur’s influence in the ABA grew enormously. He was asked to join the Council of the International Section, and convinced that Council to approve a resolution later passed by the board of governors of the ABA, opposing the incommunicado detention of foreign nationals in undisclosed locations and urging protection of the constitutional and statutory rights of immigration detainees.

At the annual meeting of the ABA this August in San Francisco, Arthur visibly enjoyed the fruits of his efforts in various areas. First, he was elected to serve as the Goal VIII officer whose purpose it is, on behalf of the section, to advance the rule of law in the world. Second, in San Francisco Arthur ran 16 miles in training for the New York marathon, and returned exhilarated and surprised that he hardly felt tired. Third, Arthur moderated a program, “International Law and Foreign Policy: A Future Agenda,” with Mary Robinson and Ruth Wedgwood as speakers. Matters addressed included authority for the use of military force, balancing national security and human rights imperatives, new accountability mechanisms for rights abuses, the application of humanitarian law to a war on terrorism, and the future of multilateralism. At Arthur’s suggestion, the International Section gave Mary Robinson an award at its gala dinner. Her acceptance speech, urging the United States to reform its prison system, startled many. Arthur beamed in his impish way. After the dinner, he said how happy he was, that he really enjoyed his work with the International Section, that he had become so very fond of so many friends he had made there, and that he looked forward to the next year. I could not resist suggesting that he was mellowing in his old age, since gala dinners and after dinner speakers had never so obviously pleased him before.

A few days after San Francisco, he went to Baghdad. The quickly spoken “see you in a few weeks” became a never to be fulfilled wish, droning with a sense of indefiniteness. Arthur shamed us by working out two hours a day, eating well, becoming a scuba diver, and most annoyingly for his armchair friends, a marathon runner. He amazed himself and commented that he didn’t know how long his body would allow him to keep in such good condition. Not at all an armchair journalist, Arthur was always going places that were too hot, too uncomfortable, too dangerous, or just too this or that for most of us, so that he could see for himself how refugee policy was working. He concluded that the current system for humanitarian action is in disarray, and in his book, The Price of Indifference, tells the recent refugee story, explores the implications for decision makers, and proposes specific reforms to prevent or mitigate future humanitarian catastrophes. While writing the book, Arthur was amazed that his writing flowed, delighted by the critical assistance of his colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations, pleased by Kofi Annan’s blurb and praise and by the book’s favorable reception. Most recently he was busy raising funds and turning his ideas into the international organization he proposed.

I have been overwhelmed, though not surprised, by how many companions and colleagues considered Arthur their best friend and mentor. So many said they had recently spoken with him, or met with him. We all learned of projects we didn’t know he was involved in, and wondered how much he did. We will miss his advice and counsel, and the ability to touch base with him on a regular basis. We will remember what he taught us, and in our own ways try to carry on part of his work, part of his ideas. We, Arthur’s colleagues and friends, are devastated by his loss, and struggle to imagine a tomorrow without his presence. Arthur, a titan in the field of forced migration, refugee and asylum law, passes away, and our world is diminished. He was brilliant, passionate, impossibly articulate, and a fountain of new ideas. He was not just a thinker, but an active humanist as well. Generous with his talent and time, he took an enormous interest in the work of others, and always was ready to bring young lawyers along and to help with even the most minute details of a project. He was the best of company, someone we count having known as a gift. It is as a mentor and as a friend that we will miss him. Arthur, I remember all that we did together, I am privileged to have known you, and to have been one of your sounding boards. I loved your enthusiasm, and was honored by and grateful for your friendship. I am sad, and angry that you have died. I wonder, the price of whose indifference you have paid.

(Jacqueline D. Gilbert)

These are tough speeches to follow. First of all, on behalf of Arthur’s family, we would like to thank all of the people who have worked so hard these past few weeks to plan and organize this lovely tribute to Arthur. The Council has been terrific, and in particular we would like to thank Richard Haass, Mike Peters, Jeff Reinke and the Meetings staff, Lisa Shields and her team, Jan Hughes, and Bob DeVecchi. We are also aware that other organizations have assisted in compiling lists of people to be invited to this memorial, and so we thank - and I know I’m going to miss one, please - the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Columbia University, Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association, the Center for Migration Studies, International Social Services, and the United Nations. Our thanks go to the people who have volunteered to speak here today, and of course, we thank all of you for attending and paying tribute to Arthur’s memory. Finally, I would like to thank personally Eliana Jacobs and Marie Jeannot, and Lilly whom I haven’t met yet, who have been Arthur’s research assistants and secretary for many years. They were Arthur’s treasured assets, and secret weapons, in Arthur getting accomplished all that he did.

We have received dozens and dozens of communications, from Arthur’s friends and colleagues, and they truly have been wonderful to read. Through the efforts primarily of Arthur’s sister Pam, and niece Emily, and fiance, Dan, we have created a memorial web log, or “blog’—what a terrible word!—for Arthur, and the address is provided in today’s program. The comments that have already been posted on the site are inspiring to read. I visit the log several times a day, and take comfort from the very personal and loving tributes that have been written. So if you are willing to share a memory of, a reflection on, or just an anecdote about Arthur, please visit our “blog.’ Another reason to visit that site is that you can view photos of Arthur taken over the years. Unlike the photo on the cover of today’s program, a majority of these photos are candid, and were clearly taken by non-professionals.

In reading all of your notes and letters, I have appreciated the variety of ways in which Arthur has been described. I would like to share some of them with you, some with attribution: “One of America’s leading advocates for people displaced by war and tragedy” - Secretary Tom Ridge. “He dedicated himself to transforming Iraq into a peaceful democracy”—Secretary Colin Powell. “All who know him were aware of his deep dedication to individuals everywhere”—former Secretary Madeleine Albright. “His wise counsel has been invaluable to the cause of refugee protection”—Senator Ted Kennedy. And some without attribution, but equally important: the essence of the humanitarian; he made refugee work human rights work; mentor; professor; a wonderful source of advice and counsel; a visionary; a role model; one of the gentlest, kindest men; modest and self-deprecating; a wonderful dry sense of humor; trim, fit, a confirmed jogger; a true hero. And my own personal favorite, which Richard Haass has already mentioned, “a cherubic warrior.” I love that one. What lovely descriptions of who, and what, Arthur was. And now I’d like to share some information about Arthur that those of you who knew him only in his professional capacity may be surprised to learn.

Arthur loved music. He not only listened to the all-news radio stations but to the all-music ones, as well. But even in his appreciation of music, Arthur was ever the scholar. Several years ago, we attended a concert at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, and heard a most moving symphony that we both thoroughly enjoyed. Subsequently, I went out and purchased every recording I could find of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Number Two, and I listened to the CDs over and over. Arthur went out and purchased a biography of Mahler, so that we could not just listen to, but fully understand what went into the composing of the Resurrection Symphony. True story. So I thought it would be appropriate to end this program by playing what had of late become Arthur’s favorite song. Those of you who knew Arthur in his younger days might think this song must surely be among those written by Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Doors, or maybe Jefferson Airplane. I think the Council is grateful that Arthur’s musical tastes changed over time, and he began to listen to and appreciate jazz, new age, classical music. Within the last few years, Arthur developed a preference for this new song. It may have been the result of too many Sunday nights spent in front of the television set, but in any event, it became his favorite. We thus conclude this program with that song, prophetically entitled, “Time to Say Goodbye.” And as you listen to this lovely melody, we would like you, who worked with him, consulted him, advised him, encouraged him, admired him, or loved him, to remember what Arthur’s mother Marjorie recently said: “Arthur was living his dream.”