Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. I’m blushing. You just can’t see through the freckles.
It’s really great to be here and to see so many friends. This is a relatively small group, but an incredibly distinguished and accomplished one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many troublemakers in one place.
I say that because, as a rule, supporters of civil society don’t exactly get out of bed in the morning and think: “how can I support and sustain the status quo today?” Whether our focus is on the rights of minorities or the wrongs of corruption – social and political advocates are drivers of progress and progress is often viewed as a threat by leaders who are defensive about the legitimacy of their power and the integrity of their policies.
The times are always changing but, in our era, the velocity seems greater. The challenge for us here is to keep pace and to make our support for civil society more robust and more productive – outmaneuvering those who throw obstacles in our way. That’s why we’re here tonight and why you will spend tomorrow figuring out how to respond to the growing crackdown on civil society.
As background, we should consider how we arrived at this moment. It’s no secret the end of the Cold War was a watershed in the rise and globalization of civil society. In Central and Eastern Europe, electoral democracies replaced doddering dictatorships. In countries such as the Philippines, Argentina, El Salvador, and Nigeria, popularly-chosen leaders supplanted autocratic regimes. Across the globe, civil society began to blossom in all of its dimensions. Long-silenced segments of the population began to organize and find their voices. Compared to any previous era in human history, the world became far more open and free than it had ever been.
All that is to the good, but if we can recall anything from high school physics, it is probably Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And the reaction to the expansion of civil society has been formidable.
As we meet, democratic growth has stagnated and we are seeing a sophisticated, well-resourced effort to inhibit civil society’s right to organize, to speak freely, and to advocate peacefully for change. Many governments feel insecure, and so they’re emulating one another in the art of repression. Instead of best practices, these regimes are demonstrating – and sharing – the worst.
Some demand that NGOs be registered and then they delay acting on the applications.
Some impose overly burdensome reporting requirements.
Some use Soviet-style euphemisms to equate legitimate dissent with subversion or treason.
Some ban foreign NGOs from operating and then criminalize contact between a domestic NGO and a foreign funder.
Some use government-controlled media to vilify a whole sector of NGOs, such as those working on behalf of democracy, LGBT rights, women’s empowerment, or a marginalized religious or ethnic group.
Some see civil society as a convenient scapegoat, to be blamed when official policies fail to deliver.
And some governments simply arrest civil society leaders, fabricate evidence, rig the trials, and send innocent people to jail.
Within the past five years, literally dozens of countries have enacted new laws or regulations aimed at restricting the activities of civil society; just last week, the government of Turkey announced a plan to tighten controls on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s parliament approved legislation that would restrict freedom of speech and assembly, constrain independent media, broaden the definitions of libel, and hinder NGOs that receive foreign assistance. People familiar with the region will note that we have seen this playbook before, in neighboring Russia – and I’m honored to be here tonight with our Ambassador Mike McFaul – where the space for democratic activists, journalists, and reformers of all descriptions has steadily shrunk – and not by accident.
The question arises: How should we react to this reaction?
The answer is that we need to strengthen our networks, develop new strategies, and outthink our adversaries. That job begins with the very resilient people in this room. For we have come together as representatives of governments, foundations, and advocacy groups for the express purpose of defending civil society at this pivotal moment in history. That is a task of monumental importance.
It is also a task that the President of the United States is squarely behind. He gets it. And how could he not? President Obama is someone who thinks deeply about the causes of things. He is a student of history – including some recent history – which gives him faith in the ability of people working together to achieve the improbable. He has hands-on experience as a community organizer. And he has shown his eagerness to join all of us in searching for the answers to these very urgent questions.
These are questions about how to diversify our alliances so that advocacy groups and service-oriented organizations are better able to coordinate their actions. Questions about how to attract greater grass roots support, so that reform advocates are able to work with – rather than against – the grain of popular opinion. Questions about how to stop repressive governments from pursuing a policy of divide and conquer by rewarding the docile and punishing the independent. Questions about how to harness new technology to help citizens communicate more effectively with their governments and with one another. Questions about how outsiders can support worthy groups from the outside without discrediting them in their native lands.
And questions about how to expose puppet organizations that have been established to conceal, rather than reveal, the truth about democracy and human rights.
In asking these questions, we know we have to keep learning, especially from one another. As the many activists here tonight can attest, bold experiments in one country can readily become starting points in another. A prominent historical example was in Chile 25 years ago, when the anti-Pinochet movement conducted and broadcast a parallel vote count, foiling plans by the regime to manipulate the results. Parallel vote counts – along with international observers and ink-stained fingers – have since become standard practice.
Over the same period, America’s Freedom of Information Act became a model for many countries, including India, which – in 2005 – enacted what is probably the most far-reaching public information statute on Earth.
More recently, we have seen the development of anti-corruption hot lines and grassroots audits of government programs in such diverse places as Brazil, Indonesia, and Estonia. We must constantly be looking for the next breakthrough, the next idea that will shift the odds in favor of transparency, integrity, and truth.
In addition, we have to be relentless in diversifying the tools that we have.
That’s why, in 2009, the Obama Administration helped establish a Community of Democracies Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society. We’re honored here tonight to have both Tomicah Tillemann, who is our civil society champion at the State Department, and the Secretary General of the Community of Democracies.
In 2010, we joined a cross-regional coalition – led by the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Lithuania, the Maldives, Mexico, and Nigeria – in creating the first-ever UN Special Rapporteur who would monitor curbs on freedom of association and assembly.
In 2011, we came together with Brazil to launch the Open Government Partnership and – with the help of the Ford Foundation – we’ve unveiled a multilateral “Lifeline” fund that has already provided emergency aid to more than 200 civil society organizations around the world.
Just as important, with guidance from President Obama, we have injected support for civil society into the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy. Each day, American diplomats make known our backing for the right of people to organize peacefully for change. This is seen in the reports we publish, the remarks we make, the meetings that senior U.S. officials arrange when we travel, and the diplomatic pressures we seek to bring to bear. Some of our initiatives are quiet; some are broadcast at a high volume; and many are magnified by social networks – and your networks. None are designed to advance some hidden or Machiavellian agenda; all are exactly what they purport to be: a fundamental expression of our belief in democratic values.
And the campaign continues. At the UN last fall, amid the craze of the gathering of the world’s heads of state and amid all the intense discussion of Iran and Syria, President Obama insisted that we carve out time for him to meet with the representatives of governments, prominent foundations, and civil society to talk about what we could do to contest the current crackdown. In the process, he issued a call to action and spoke in personal terms about our collective stake in the need to preserve a healthy and growing civil society.
“Over the long run,” he said, “we will all be better off if that small shopkeeper or that small farmer, or that young student or that disabled person, or that gay or lesbian person,” has his or her dignity respected.
As the President’s words suggest, the fight to defend civil society is not a struggle we carry on in support of some abstract principle; it is a fight waged on behalf of people – men and women just like us in cities and towns across the globe.
Indeed, the human reality behind this campaign can be found today:
In Belarus, where acclaimed human rights activist Ales Bialiatski is serving a multi-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges.
In Cuba, where Sonia Garro of the pro-democracy Ladies in White Movement was picked up immediately prior to the Pope’s visit in 2012 and remains in prison, along with her husband Ramon Muñoz.
In Iran, where authorities have detained an estimated 500 or more human rights defenders, subjecting many to torture, abuse, and violations of due process, and where a growing number of voices are calling for the release of all those imprisoned for expressing their political and religious beliefs.
In Egypt, where many hundreds of democratic activists, journalists, and bloggers face harassment and the constant threat of imprisonment under the government’s new security laws.
In Nigeria, where gay people have been intimidated, jailed, and beaten following the passage of a law that criminalizes homosexuality.
In Bahrain, where civil society groups have experienced an increasingly restrictive environment on freedom of association and assembly, and where senior opposition leaders are facing charges and are subject to travel bans.
In Khartoum, where members of the Sudan Change Now movement have been arrested and held incommunicado despite their commitment to nonviolence.
In China, where an estimated 160 peaceful activists have been arrested in the past year.
And in North Korea, where there is no legal civil society at all – and where a UN panel recently reported on the existence of at least four fully operational prison camps, where people face torture and starvation for the crime of gaining access to foreign media or of professing faith in God. For most North Koreans, it is illegal to leave the country and a living hell to stay.
These examples barely scratch the surface, as you all know. We are well into the 21st century, but we still live in a world where the majority of people fear their own police, the poor are more likely than the rich to pay bribes, and a teenage girl can be shot in the head for trying to attend school.
Civil society matters not because it will always validate the opinions we hold, but because it has the capacity to test, prod, and stretch our way of looking at the world so that we will understand more tomorrow than we do today. That is how civilization progresses. It is how we alleviate the immense pain we see around us. And it is how we translate the abstract promise of democracy into a world constantly renewed by lively debate, innovative ideas, and accountable government.
So this is our collective challenge. Tomorrow, and in the months to come, we must study history for its lessons, harness technology for what it will enable us to do, anticipate and rebut the strategies of our adversaries, strengthen the bonds among us, and defend one another absolutely. And I can assure you that – at the direction of President Obama – we in the U.S. Government will be focused squarely on this challenge, finding ways to spur productive partnerships between governments and their citizens around the globe and putting pressure on those in power who seek to cut off free expression and contain freedom of assembly.
Looking around this room full of leaders from New York and Scandinavia, South America, Russia, Africa and Asia, I am reminded that “solidarity” is a beautiful word not only in Polish. It is a beautiful word in any language, and I am convinced that together, we will respond to the needs of this moment and envision a new paradigm for a far more civil future.
Thank you so much.
- Cross posted from U.S. Mission to the UN