December 09, 2013

Note on the Passing of Ambassador Richard Williamson

By Richard Fontaine, and Richard Williamson

Today, all of us at CNAS mourn the passing of Ambassador Richard Williamson, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center and one of the country’s top foreign policy leaders.  Rich was an incredible public servant, an intellectual and a wonderful friend.  We at CNAS were greatly enriched by knowing him, and we will miss him very much.

Rich combined a deep record of public service with an abiding commitment to human rights.  He served three presidents in numerous foreign policy positions, including as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, Ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, and Special Envoy to Sudan.  He taught courses on human rights and U.S. foreign policy at Northwestern University and Seton Hall, and he served with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a landmark project aimed at translating the Responsibility to Protect into action.

Despite all of his many professional commitments, Rich always had the time for mentorship, friendship and deep conversation about world affairs.  I recall many long plane flights sitting next to Rich as he consumed a weighty tome on African history or moved through a volume on U.S.-China relations.  Occasionally taking notes on a yellow legal pad, an erudite article would often appear a few days later in a major newspaper.  He combined practical experience with the life of an intellectual, and those of us lucky to know him will not forget his words or his work.

Addressing the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, Ambassador Williamson in 2006 wrote, “Even if we do much, achieve a great deal, but turn our backs on the great moral challenges of our time, history will not be kind to us.  Nor should it be.”  This charge – to tackle, head on, the great moral challenges of this era – will perhaps be Rich’s most fitting legacy.  He will be deeply missed.