In August 1987, as Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I visited communist Bulgaria along with then-Rep. Bill Richardson – later U.N. Ambassador, Secretary of Energy, and Governor of New Mexico – and Amb. Richard Schifter. Dick was, at that time, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, a position that saw him regularly lifting up the Iron Curtain and aiming a spotlight into the Eastern Bloc’s darkest places. The region of Bulgaria bordering Greece and Turkey was one of those places.
As the bus carried our delegation from the capital of Sofia to the border city of Kardzali, Bill, Dick, and I watched as our Bulgarian escorts waved other vehicles off the narrow, winding road ahead. A few narrowly missed being pushed into a ditch, a stark reminder of the value of citizens’ lives under a police state.
When we arrived, we went door to door together to speak with locals. Dick and I had a shared history in local Maryland politics – his in Montgomery County, mine in neighboring Prince George’s. As we knocked on the doors and listened to the concerns of those who invited us into their living rooms, we remarked to each other how much it felt like we were back home in Maryland engaging in a political canvass. But this was a canvass like no other.
We had come to Karzhali to meet firsthand with those who were suffering under the ‘Bulgarization’ policy of General Secretary Zhikov’s regime. It was essentially a forced assimilation of the country’s ethnic Turkish minority. Military forces had been sent in to Turkish-speaking areas and enforce draconian policies, including requiring those with Turkish names to change them for Bulgarian ones. The media attention we brought to Karzhali and the light we shone into that dark corner of the Eastern Bloc helped put pressure on the Bulgarian government in the waning days of the Cold War.
It was not lost on me at the time how personal this kind of mission was for Dick. As a teenager, he had fled from Nazi Germany after the Nuremberg Laws brought discrimination and dehumanization. Forcing someone to give up his name, Dick reminded us, was a form of forcing one to give up his humanity. That was what made his work so personal, his convictions so ironclad – Dick’s recognition that the work of protecting human rights was essential to the security and liberty of every human being. His passion for working to ensure that international organizations like the United Nations always stand up for human rights and align with American values reflected that conviction.
I will never forget the many occasions Dick and I worked together – both during and after the Cold War – to stand up for the principles he carried so personally in his heart and to urge the United Nations to treat Israel fairly and equally.
The world and our country are better because of Dick Schifter. Those of us who knew and worked with him are better people because of Dick Schifter.