South African Anglican Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu is one of 16 people receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House Wednesday. Before the ceremony, the retired archbishop and global peace crusader sat down with VOA's Michael Bowman, who has this report.
At 77 years of age, Desmond Tutu remains an energetic and outspoken man who tempers sometimes-sharp commentary with an aura of humility, a playful sense of humor, and an infectious laugh.
Last November, Tutu wrote that Barack Obama's election victory made him want "to jump and dance and shout." Now, he says he has a simple message for the president:
"You have done quite well up to now, man!" he said.
Months ago, Tutu urged Mr. Obama to apologize for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. No such apology has been made, and the Obama administration plans to maintain an American troop presence in Iraq for another two years. U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan has expanded under Mr. Obama, and some experts question whether the president will be able to deliver on his pledge to close the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by early next year.
Asked if he is disappointed with President Obama, the retired archbishop responded this way:
"It is you people, you Americans who make it so very difficult even for a good person with good policies to prevail," said Tutu.
Tutu had harsh words for Burma's conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"I am quite appalled," he said. "She was charged in a sham trial, a total travesty of justice."
The archbishop described Aung San Suu Kyi as the "[Nelson] Mandela of Burma" and called for Burma's trading partners to exert pressure on Rangoon to free the opposition leader and embrace reform.
"China and India, particularly, should be saying that this [situation in Burma] is a disgrace," added Tutu.
Tutu is chairman of a group of senior statesmen from around the world known as The Elders, which has traveled to Sudan to promote an end to conflict in the country's blood-soaked Darfur region. The archbishop expressed disappointment that most African nations have failed to take a stronger stand against the actions of Sudan's government, adding that President Omar al-Bashir should face legal consequences for his policies.
"The world should enable the International Criminal Court to go ahead with its proposed trial of President Bashir," said Tutu.
A champion of HIV/AIDS prevention, Tutu said the virus can be contained if people take precautions such as using condoms and limit the number of sexual partners. He said denial about AIDS and the HIV virus persists in some quarters in Africa and elsewhere.
The archbishop spoke passionately against any religious leader who portrays AIDS as God's punishment for what they consider to be sinful behavior, such as homosexuality.
"It is a lousy theology. It speaks about a God that I would not worship. The god that I worship is a God who says [that] all of us are God's children," he said. "All of us are of great worth. And when someone has fallen ill, we should be behaving like our Lord did [and] do all we can to heal."
The first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu rose to international fame during the anti-Apartheid struggles of the 1980s. His activism earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. Despite continuing conflicts in many parts of the globe, Tutu says he remains convinced that a world at peace is possible, and not just a dream.
"People are good. We have a lot of evil in the world, but we also have a great deal of good. And ultimately, the good is going to prevail," he said.
Asked how he wants to be remembered in future years, Tutu said as a man who loved, laughed, and cried.
Other notables receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom include Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, film start Sidney Poitier, and tennis legend Billie Jean King.