PHILADELPHIA – Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair received the Liberty Medal on Monday for his global human rights work and commitment to international conflict resolution.
The Philadelphia-based National Constitution Center gives the medal annually to individuals or organizations whose actions strive to bring liberty to people worldwide.
Blair was honored for his work with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which promotes religious tolerance; for his initiative to improve governance in Africa; and for advancing peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, among other efforts.
After accepting the award from former President Bill Clinton, Blair said that liberty is the result of "ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things in the midst of Earth-changing events."
"Liberty is not acquired by accident," Blair said. "It's won by endeavor."
The tribute comes amid a publicity tour for Blair's best-selling memoir, "A Journey," which was released Sept. 1. The autobiography re-energized British and Irish anti-war protesters, who continue to blast Blair for supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A hostile crowd threw shoes and eggs at him at a book-signing in Dublin this month, and he canceled a similar event in London for fear of disruption.
Blair, who led Britain from 1997 to 2007, received a much warmer reception at the Constitution Center, where a friendly crowd of about 1,250 watched the outdoor ceremony within sight of Independence Hall.
Clinton, the center's chairman, recognized Blair for his work both during and after his leadership of Britain's Labour Party. He noted Blair's support for intervention in Kosovo in 1999 to prevent ethnic cleansing, and for his current role as a representative in the Middle East peace process.
If a Middle East accord is reached, Clinton said, it would help "drain the swamp of hatred in that region and undermine the siren song of terrorists all across the world."
"I'm very grateful to have him working there, and I know he is making a difference because the American secretary of state told me so," Clinton said, referring to his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The former president thanked Blair for being a "wonderful world citizen" and "living a life worthy of this award."
"His faith foundation is promoting religion as a powerful force for good and reconciliation," Clinton said. "Tony Blair believes that people of faith can be people of peace."
Blair spoke of what he called the "seven lessons of liberty," which included that liberty needs optimism, it needs guardians, and it requires people to respect each other's differences.
"I want to see a world — and strive for such a world — in which people are free to follow their religion without fear or favor, and respect those of a different faith than themselves," Blair said.
The ceremony featured performances by The Irish Tenors and Israeli-Palestinian singer Mira Awad, representing regions where Blair has worked for peace. In a video tribute, the Irish rock star and humanitarian Bono — who received the medal in 2007 — praised Blair for his work securing the Good Friday accord in 1998 to end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
"Tony Blair understands the word 'compromise' better than most," Bono said.
The medal, first given in 1989, comes with a $100,000 cash prize. Blair will donate the money to his faith foundation and Africa Governance Initiative, which works in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia to improve the quality of life and political leadership.
"It is the serious, sustained involvement of ordinary citizens that makes the difference between poverty and promise, between despair and democracy, between hopelessness and hope," said David Eisner, the center's president and CEO.
Previous winners have included filmmaker Steven Spielberg, former South African President Nelson Mandela and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Six winners have subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The ceremony kicks off nearly a week of events leading to Constitution Day on Friday. The U.S. Constitution was adopted in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787.