Assistant Secretary Posner’s Remarks to the U.S. – Russia Civil Society Working Group

Co-Chairman Surkov, Co-Chairman McFaul, distinguished fellow participants in the Civil Society Working Group (CSWG): Welcome to you all. It is a pleasure to see many of you again and to meet new colleagues. I hope our deliberations today will deepen and expand the discussions we held last year in Russia.

I would like especially to acknowledge Ombudsman Lukin and thank him for his principled and dedicated efforts on behalf of the rights of his countrymen and women. His valuable and constructive support of the role of Russian civil society is helping to establish the foundation for a democratic Russia in the 21st century.

The working group discussions last year included an exchange on experiences from both countries, set in the context of relevant international obligations and commitments. Today, I would like to build on those discussions and on the exchange of views that are taking place today and offer some thoughts on the way forward.

The working group best exemplifies what President Obama called for in his meeting with civil society activists at the parallel summit in July 2009—a reset not only between our two governments but between our two societies. He recognized that the reset needed to be broader than arms control and security, to focus on common opportunity and “the future of progress and prosperity that we build together.”

Each of the working group topics – child protection, corruption, migration and prison reform – is compelling and complex in its own way. None of these issues is unique to Russia or the United States; they are shared challenges. Yet, we know that every choice or model or measure that works for Russia is not going to work for the United States. But in the many meetings and discussions we have had over the last year on these subjects, we are demonstrating that we can learn from each other.

Moreover, by helping to facilitate partnerships between American NGOS and activists and their Russian peers, we are giving them the chance to show that the best ideas and solutions come from engaging at the grassroots level, with ordinary citizens who are involved in their communities and in their countries to mobilize change.

There are many other opportunities for partnerships and there are still many challenges that we should be meeting together.

Each of these topics is also relevant to the broader topic of security and human rights. We expect our governments and law enforcement to provide a basic level of security to our people – for example, to protect them from those who would do harm, such as terrorists or criminal elements. At the same time, many societies, including the United States and Russia, are grappling with the appropriate mechanisms and venues for detention, interrogation and prosecution of those suspected of national security violations.

In the United States, we have been engaged in a sometimes painful national debate about the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The Obama Administration remains committed to transferring or trying all suspects and eventually closing the facility at Guantanamo, but the process has proved much longer and difficult than we had anticipated.

In the post 9-11 world, we face other new challenges, as does every sovereign government. We seek to regulate migration into our country to ensure that it takes place legally, but also safely and in a manner that ensures the safety, dignity and human rights of migrants. That is a huge challenge for a country such as ours with long borders and one of the most open societies in the world. Our country has been enriched culturally and economically by migration. American families and businesses have extensive ties overseas. We strive to strike the right balance between security and our openness, which serves both our interests and reflects our values as nation.

As noted in President Obama’s National Security Strategy, we reject as false the choice between the pursuit of our security interests and our values. In all of the areas that our working groups are discussing today, we strongly believe human rights values and security interests are more likely to be effectively advanced when governments and civil society work together. Indeed, we believe that respecting and supporting human rights at home and abroad is integral to our domestic wellbeing and our national security.

Fundamental to our success will be sustaining vibrant and open civil societies. I believe the way forward — for Russia, the U.S. and other nations — lies in getting five crucial elements right:

First, consistent with our meetings here today, there must be an engaged and informed civil society. Governments must meet their responsibilities in each of these spheres, but governments alone cannot resolve all of these challenges. They must work in partnership with experts and advocates from civil society. Many of you here today can attest to the value of initiatives resulting from such interaction and partnership. We note with regret that even as U.S. and Russian activists are gathered in Washington to discuss these issues, a brutal attack took place in Moscow against Bakhrom Khamroyev, an activist of the highly-respected Memorial human rights enter. Mr. Khamroyev was badly beaten by unknown assailants in what appears to be a clear attack against him for the work he was doing on behalf of Memorial. We condemn this attack on Mr. Khamroyev. We call on the authorities to work quickly to bring the perpetrators to justice. Governments must take extra measures to protect human rights defenders when they come under attack.

Second, progress requires a free media. Media freedom is essential to raising public awareness, identifying problems, opening discussion, and bringing problems to light so that corrective action can be taken. The role of a free and independent media is especially crucial — and especially challenging — in combating corruption and other abuses of power, whether on the part of elements of government or powerful corporate interests. I came of age in the Watergate era, a tumultuous time both socially and politically in this country. Two tenacious and courageous journalists and their newspaper exposed abuses of power at the highest levels of our government. And, in the end, our constitutional system of checks and balances allowed us to address official misconduct. The role of media as watchdog is not always comfortable for me or other government officials and for powerful private interests, but an independent media is essential to the integrity of any democracy, U.S. democracy included. The state needs to be in the forefront of protecting freedom of the press, providing a secure environment that ensures the safety of journalists who investigate corruption or criticize government officials or policy. When journalists die in war zones, it is a tragedy, but in some ways understandable, as they are placing themselves in harm’s way to report the story. But when journalists in a country at peace are nonetheless the victims of violence because of their work, it should serve as an alarm bell to governments.

This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that Russia has made measurable progress in addressing serious problems of impunity for violence committed against journalists. Senior Russian investigative officials reopened several unsolved cases involving journalists who were murdered. Prosecutors won convictions in the 2009 murder of reporter Anastasiya Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov. And last week’s arrest in the case of Anna Politkovskaya was an important achievement. But as civil society activists are advocating, there also needs to be progress in bringing to justice the perpetrators of the remaining unsolved murder cases, such as those of journalists Paul Klebnikov and Natalia Estemirova.

Governments must also protect those journalists working in new media. In this regard, as our colleagues here in the anti-corruption field can attest, the growth of the Internet has brought tremendous opportunities for journalists and bloggers to shed light on corruption and for governments to become more transparent. Increasingly, these bloggers develop a following, like Alexei Navalny, who has captivated Russia with his innovative approaches to combating corruption. But they also have suffered physical attacks as a result of their work, and there are far too many efforts by the state to harass or bring charges against them in an attempt to pressure them to stop their inquiries. Both President Obama and President Medvedev have embraced the potential of the Internet in connecting government with the public and in combating corruption. We share the challenge and obligation of protecting those journalists who criticize us.

Third, an overarching climate of respect for the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly is fundamental to a robust civil society and a free media. These principles are also firmly rooted in international human rights instruments, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Here in the United States we have a long history of citizens who assemble, sometimes in the face of brutal resistance, to press for their rights. Peaceful demonstrations were instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage, labor rights, civil rights for all, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and people with disabilities. And we have learned through our national experience — at times a painful experience — that our democracy is the better for it. Today, we have a vocal citizenry that consists of individuals who exercise their right to assemble and express their views, often in large numbers.

People in our country express passionate views on every conceivable issue, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to political figures and their agendas, to globalization, the environment, health care, migration reform, and tax policy. The overwhelming majority of these demonstrations take place without any significant incident or restriction. Police work to ensure that all demonstrators can exercise their rights in safety and that other citizens are able to proceed with their activities. In the relatively few cases where there are allegations that unreasonable restrictions have been imposed on demonstrators, or law enforcement has overstepped its authority, these charges are taken seriously and investigated.

Governments, including through law enforcement, must work to ensure an environment in which all citizens can exercise their fundamental freedoms. Our primary emphasis must be on the exercise of rights, not on the restriction of those rights. Of course, there are times when it is challenging for local governments to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly and make sure demonstrations can be held in a peaceful fashion. You may have read about the case of Terry Jones, a Christian pastor who has burned the Koran and who attempted to hold an anti-Sharia demonstration in front of a mosque in the city of Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large Muslim population. The city denied him permission to hold the demonstration in front of the mosque on the grounds that it could incite a riot, saying he could demonstrate elsewhere, and Jones is appealing a court decision requiring him to than pay a $1 peace bond. Civil society groups have held inter-faith demonstrations in support of the Muslim community of Dearborn, and civil liberties groups have defended Jones’ constitutional right to free speech even though many Americans deem what he is saying to be highly offensive. So Dearborn has been having a lively public debate and the media have been covering the story very closely.

And as the Dearborn example shows, in our country it seems that each generation rediscovers for itself the value of the freedom of assembly – the universal right of people to gather together, voice views, share ideas and urge change. And each generation learns that this freedom is essential to a strong society that taps the talent and creativity of its people. We have been following the Strategy 31 demonstrations held in various Russian cities, so named after Article 31 of the Russian Constitution which protects freedom of assembly. Like others in Russia and in the international community, we have observed that authorities in Moscow are allowing some Article 31 demonstrations, while disrupting others. Freedom of assembly takes on even greater significance in this pre-election season. We echo serious concerns expressed by many members of Russian civil society that last week’s demonstrations in St. Petersburg and Moscow were broken up by police. We also noted that last month, for the sixth year in a row, Moscow authorities refused permission for an NGO to hold a parade for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender pride. We believe these and all individuals have equal rights to hold peaceful protests and see no legal justification for denying such a request. We also share concerns about reports of and attacks by private security guards, police, and other parties on activists associated with the Khimki Forest environmental campaign. Whether in Dearborn or Khimki Forest, our governments have the obligation to protect peaceful demonstrators, even when they are critical of government or expressing unpopular views. Freedom of assembly is integral to freedom of religion. We share concerns about police raids on places of worship and subsequent detentions of minority religious groups.

The fourth essential ingredient for progress is adherence to the rule of law. Within our society, we frequently see that the rule of law, including an independent judiciary, is a powerful recourse for the most vulnerable, including the people that many of you work with — children, migrants, persons in confinement and minorities of all stripes. The rule of law and an independent judiciary help protect their human rights, obtain justice, and redress grievances.

For example, a few weeks ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a court order mandating a state prison population reduction in California. This was necessary to remedy violations of persons’ constitutional rights resulting from overcrowding in California’s state prison system. The court ordered the prison system to reduce the number of prisoners held by 55,000 within three years. This court decision made the front pages of our major newspapers and headlined newscasts on our leading television networks. It underscores the fact that an independent judiciary can and does protect the human rights of all individuals. This is an important corrective mechanism.

We applaud President Medvedev for speaking out in support of the rule of law and judicial reforms and for creating an atmosphere that has permitted progress in some areas. We hope the Russian media and Russian organizations and institutions, like their American counterparts, will continue to scrutinize the justice system, support improvements and speak out about challenges. For example, we continue to be concerned by the lack of progress in the investigation into Sergei Magnitsky’s 2009 death of deliberate medical neglect in a Moscow prison. We join President Medvedev’s in calling for justice in Magnitsky’s death, when he said last month that there “should be an objective, thorough and comprehensive investigation conducted quickly and its findings must be presented to the public.”

The fifth requirement for countries to succeed in a 21st century world is transparent, accountable, responsive government. By this I mean governmental systems with built-in checks on abuse of governmental power, independent oversight structures, and free and fair contested election processes that permit a free airing of issues of concern. The run-up to elections is always a season of heightened civic awareness and activism. Media and public interest in social and political issues intensifies. This is a good thing – it connects people to their governments and prompts politicians to respond to the issues their voters care about, and that is precisely what makes democracies work better for their citizens. Free and fair elections renew and reinvigorate the compact between citizens and their government. In this country, we already see the parties, the political hopefuls, the public and the press organizing themselves for our Presidential elections in November, 2012. We welcome international attention to our elections and international monitoring of them.

When the five elements that I have just described are present – a robust civil society, media freedom, respect for fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and accountable government – we are convinced countries tend to be more resilient, adaptive and capable of addressing tough issues, including the challenging ones on which all of you are working. Citizens feel the system will treat them fairly, and that gives them a stake in its success. Investors feel the legal system will treat them fairly, and they are more inclined to invest and reinvest. But where civil society is weak, government is unresponsive, corruption corrodes the rule of law and undermines citizens’ trust in authorities and institutions, and marginalized populations have little expectation that they will be treated fairly, citizen have less stake in the success of their own societies. And these countries tend to be less able to cope with change, less stable and ultimately, less successful.

Of course these five elements of sustainable democracy are much easier to describe than to put into practice. Even under the best of circumstances, progress on these complicated issues will take years of concerted effort by governments and citizens alike. But as Secretary Clinton has said: “Democracies demonstrate their greatness not by insisting they are perfect, but by using their institutions and their principles to make themselves… more perfect.”

President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton all have expressed their strong support for a democratic, modern and successful Russia governed by the rule of law. Expanding the ability of Russian individuals and groups to exercise their basic rights will help Russia become the strong, rules-based, peaceful and prosperous democracy we all desire.

And now, I look forward to hearing from you.

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