Former President Mary Robinson is to receive America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama today.
British scientist Stephen Hawking, film star Sidney Poitier and tennis legend Billie Jean King are also among those to receive the US’ highest honour for a civilian.
Others include Senator Edward Kennedy, who has been battling brain cancer, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, a leader in global anti-poverty efforts who pioneered “microloans” to provide credit to poor people who lack collateral.
Mr Obama, awarding his first presidential medals, also will make a posthumous award to gay rights activist and San Francisco, California, politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978.
The recipients have diverse backgrounds and achievements in fields ranging from sports and art to science and medicine to politics and public policy. The White House has said the individuals were selected for their work as “agents of change”.
President Harry Truman established the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognise civilians for their efforts during the Second World War. President John F. Kennedy reinstated the medal in 1963 to honour distinguished service.