Four non-Americans receive prestigious US medal

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama awarded America’s highest civilian honour to 16 “agents of change” on Wednesday, highlighting their accomplishments as examples of the heights a person can reach and the differences they can make in the lives of others.

Recipients of the Medal of Freedom included Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh along with two other non-Americans, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of Britain and former Irish President Mary Robinson.

A White House statement on the selection of Tutu, who played a major role in South Africa’s transfer from government by minority whites to its black majority, referred to his “unflagging devotion to justice, indomitable optimism, and an unmistakable sense of humour.” The archbishop “has stirred the world’s conscience for decades” and “helped lead South Africa through a turning point in modern history.”

Of Cambridge University physicist and mathematician Hawking, the White House said he was “persistent in his pursuit of knowledge” and, despite being almost completely paralysed for years and communicating through an electronic voice synthesizer, he “unlocked new pathways of discovery and inspired people around the world. He has dedicated his life to exploring the fundamental laws that govern the universe ... and has contributed to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time.”

Yunus, whose Peace Prize in 2006 recognised his global pioneering work in “micro financing” to finance small projects for the world’s poor, “has altered the face of finance and entrepreneurship,” the White House said. “In the process, he has enabled citizens of the world’s poorest countries to create profitable businesses, support their families and help build sustainable communities.” Among Americans honoured were Sen Edward M Kennedy, absent because of brain cancer; film star Sidney Poitier, born in the United States of Bahamian parents; and former US Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“What unites them is a belief ... that our lives are what we make of them, that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person’s life is what we do for one another,” Obama said at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, overflowing with guests as well as White House aides who came to glimpse the celebrities in their midst.

Other recipients of the most prestigious award the United States bestows on a civilian are -The Rev Joseph Lowery, an icon of the 1960s civil rights movement.

- Tennis legend Billie Jean King.

- Nancy Brinker, founder of a leading popular organization that collects money for breast cancer research.

- Dr Pedro Jose Greer Jr, assistant dean of academic affairs at Florida International University School of Medicine and founder of the Camillus Health Concern, which treats thousands of homeless patients annually.

- Joe Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief, who fought in World War II wearing war paint beneath his uniform.

- Chita Rivera, actor, singer, dancer and recipient of two Tony Awards for excellence in the American theatre. -Dr Janet Davison Rowley, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, Illinois.

Obama gave posthumous honours to former Republican Rep Jack Kemp of New York, a professional US football player who served in the US House of Representatives and ran for president; and to San Francisco, California, politician Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978. Kennedy’s daughter Kara accepted her father’s award. Besides his illness, Kennedy was mourning his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died Tuesday.