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The John S. McCain Freedom Awards: Honoring Democracy’s Heroes

October 25, 2021

It was a year for the people at the International Republican Institute’s annual John McCain Freedom Award Celebration in Washington, DC. IRI lauded the people of Belarus, Burma, Cuba, and Lithuania for their work spreading democracy and opposing authoritarian regimes. 

Tatsiana KhomichBelarussian political activist Tatsiana Khomich, whose sister, opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, is in jail after famously tearing up her passport in order not to be expelled from the country, accepted a Freedom Award. “Maybe you live in a free democratic society from your birth, you don’t know how much you have,” Khomich said, “the opportunity to vote for the one you want, to be elected, to openly declare that you don’t agree, to go to a demonstration and defend your rights—for many countries and people, this is a goal that we have been striving for, for decades, and for which we pay a very high price.” Khomich now lives in Poland and, she said, since she is cut off from her family and her normal work, she has become a political and human rights activist, working to unseat Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been the focus of large-scale opposition rallies.

Ambassador U Kyaw Moe TunBurmese Ambassador U Kyaw Moe Tun, whose people also won a Freedom Award, spoke of the impact of IRI’s work on the struggle for democracy in his country. IRI’s Youth and Women’s Leadership Training Schools have, he said, helped spread the growth of democracy. “Many beneficiaries of IRI are now in the forefront, fighting against the military dictatorship and for the restoration of democracy,” he said as he received his award. U Kyaw Moe Tun is currently serving in the United Nations as the permanent representative for Burma, also known as Myanmar. He was appointed by a democratically elected regime which was overthrown by the military in February of 2021. Like Afghanistan’s representative to the UN, he was put in place by a government that no longer exists.

Grammy-award winner Willy Chirino accepted the award on bLithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyteehalf of the Cuban people. “Please don’t let the cries of the Cuban people go unheard,” he said. “The time for Cuban freedom is now.” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte accepted her award from her office in Vilnius. Her country was honored for its support of dissidents fleeing Belarus. An award also went to the European Democracy Youth Network (EDYN) for its leadership in helping people get access to treatment, vaccines, and accurate information about COVID-19. 

IRI Chairman and Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan underscored the dangerous work of the night’s honorees. “These and others have rallied to break the chains of oppression in their countries and to provide a model, a light, in some of the darkest places in the world,” said Sullivan. Additional speakers at the event included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senators Joni Ernst, Lindsey Graham, and Rick Scott.

IRI President Daniel Twining reminded the crowd of foreign policy leaders and Members of Congress that those who support democracy all over the world are hard at work and, he said, it is a non-partisan issue. “My colleague at NDI, Derek Mitchell and I, and all of us at IRI and NDI,” Twining said in his opening remarks, “are very proud that that fight for freedom in the world is not a partisan, a Republican or Democrat cause, it is an American cause.”

Since 1995, IRI has presented the Freedom Award since 1995. Past recipients include President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, and slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

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