U.S. Democracy Support: 2016 and Beyond
Deputy Secretary of State
Thank you very, very much, and good afternoon to all of you. And Mark, especially good afternoon to you. Thank you for a very warm introduction, and much more important than that for the extraordinary work that you do are doing and that Freedom House is doing every day.
I think that we know too well that the ideals of democracy do not realize themselves. They are realized in the determination and the passion that everyone in this community and so many of you in this room brings to the defense of liberty, justice, and dignity around the world. Freedom House’s analysis and its advocacy set the yardstick by which we assess our efforts and hold ourselves to a higher standard.
And I have to say, it’s also good to be here with Sushma Palmer. Mark Palmer was a longstanding friend of my family’s and a tireless and an effective advocate for democracy and human rights.
But I also have to tell you that I very much appreciate your highly strategic approach to today’s event. I can tell you there is no better source of motivation than speaking ahead of a panel that I’m told is entitled “Priorities for the Next Administration.” So challenge accepted. I’ll do my best.
Just two weeks ago, Mark and I sat down together in New York with two individuals of tremendous courage—from Burundi and Azerbaijan—who risk their lives to fight for human rights. Both had faced threats so great they had to call for help, and that call was answered by something called Lifeline, a fund for embattled civil society organizations that Freedom House manages with support from a cross-section, quite literally, of the world, including the United States, Norway, Mongolia, and Chile. It provides aid in times of greatest need—literally paying for locks on doors, guards at the gate, cameras on roofs, and, if need be, relocation to a safe harbor when human rights advocates in their countries are under threat.
And as we know, they are under threat more than ever before. The space for civil society is shrinking in many parts of the world. It’s under attack through restrictive laws, arbitrary arrests, and sanctioned brutality. It’s under siege where power has become concentrated in the hands of a few and corruption a way of life. It is under threat by those who see independent media, free assembly, and an open society as a source of insecurity instead of a great reservoir of strength and stability.
Over the last three years, more than 50 countries have introduced or enacted measures to restrict civil society. China and Russia are at the front of this campaign, but they’ve found company around the world. Cambodia. Venezuela. Kazakhstan.
Some see in this tide of repression proof that societies have begun to reject democracy, when, in fact, it is very much the opposite. The crackdown on civil society is not a reaction to the disappointment of democracy. It is a response to its enduring and powerful appeal and indeed the recent success of democratic movements in many regions to raise the expectations of citizens and empower them to demand their basic rights.
Even as it has come under siege and increasing threat, civil society has also drawn strength from powerful new tools that are making governments more open, data more accessible, and citizens more informed and connected.
Just as repressive regimes copy-and-paste laws from one another, the democratization of technology has given citizens a platform to learn, create, engage their governments, and raise their voices together.
Now many who repress rights do so in the name of stability—their codeword for keeping entrenched interests in power. But I think we all know and believe that the best guarantor of stability is not control—it’s freedom. Nearly every major national security issue we face is at its core a failure of governance. The inability of governments to live up to the most fundamental of its responsibilities—to protect the lives and the rights of its citizens—can devastate nations, destabilize regions, and ultimately pose a threat to the United States.
So democracy is not only hard-wired into our values. It’s also the frontline of our defense. It serves as the bulwark against extremism and radicalization precisely because it gives all people the opportunity to express their rights, pursue their ambitions, and redress their grievances peacefully. By unleashing human talent and advancing human dignity, democracy strengthens the peace, security, and prosperity throughout the world in the long run.
Over the short-term, the picture is cloudy and in many places quite bleak.
“The march of human progress never travels in a straight line,” President Obama said to the nations gathered at the United Nations General Assembly just a couple of weeks ago in New York.
We know, you know so well that the work of democracy is painstakingly hard. It is marked by times of struggle and setback, when the results of our efforts do not meet our expectations and our actions fall short of our ideals.
Today, we face one of those times when our fervent wishes for the world seem to outpace our ability to realize them. At moments like these, the disappointment and frustrations are very, very real. That is true for advocates. That is true for policymakers. And it is mostly true for the people who are on the frontlines and living the challenges every day.
But in the face of exactly these challenges, we must remain clear-eyed about our role and our responsibility. The United States cannot dictate outcomes, much as we’d like to. We cannot solve all the world’s problems, and we cannot fully solve any of them alone. But we also cannot retreat—or abdicate our unique capabilities to influence and shape change.
It is precisely at these kinds of moments—when more actually is demanded of us—that we have an obligation to try to come together as a global community to act in defense of our values and all of those who share them.
That is why we are helping develop regional innovation hubs through the Stand with Civil Society Initiative; training journalists to keep themselves and their information safe; deepening our diplomatic engagement through our presidency of the Community of Democracies;
easing the path for reformers through the Open Government Partnership; and promoting the new Sustainable Development Goal 16 which, for the first time, places fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, and accountable institutions on the global development agenda.
Sometimes even simply by shining a light in dark places we can make a difference. Just this past September, led by our Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, we featured twenty cases of women being unjustly detained for their beliefs or for the defense of the rights of others. And for twenty days, we told stories and showcased their courage. And recently we were able to celebrate the release of two of the women: Ta Phong Tan from Vietnam and Sanna Sief of Egypt. But of course we know that many, many more remain detained and the fight continues.
Across the world and against all headwinds, people are affirming their rights. They’re bringing a commitment to democratic reform that is proving stronger than the entrenchment of corruption, indignity, or oppression.
Tunisia. Burma. Ukraine. Nigeria. Sri Lanka. Vietnam.
While each of these journeys is far, far from complete, we have worked to give the champions of democracy the consistent support they need to translate their aspirations into lasting results.
Just last week, these voices were given a tremendous boost when a coalition of human rights defenders, lawyers, business owners, and labor union leaders in Tunisia were awarded the highest prize for peace. By preserving national unity and creating a peaceful political process from scratch, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet has chiseled the fragile foundations of democratic governance out of the rubble of dictatorship and revolution.
Four years ago, when Mohamed Bouazizi inspired the Arab Spring, the Tunisian people rose up in an act of defiance that reminded us that no one—no single country, no single culture, no single faith—has a monopoly on democratic ideals.
In the short years since, the Tunisian model of governance has shown how citizens across the political spectrum can come together to solve public challenges despite their profound differences. Secular and Islamist parties have united to undertake their own democratic experiment. It’s a powerful model in a region very much in need of one.
We’ve tried to match Tunisia’s commitment with our own—deepening the economic, security, and political support that it needs to make the most of this moment. We brought 60 organizations from marginalized regions together to form a civil society network, the first of its kind in Tunisia. We’ve extended almost a billion dollars in loan guarantees to help the government gain affordable financing from international capital. We’ve invested in Tunisia’s efforts to reform their police and justice system, and we’re helping their parliament and parities to institutionalize the democratic practices the nation’s leaders have started.
Of course, remarkably, Tunisia’s progress has occurred despite the savagery of those who seek to undermine it. The evil at the heart of the attack on the Bardo Museum in March and in Sousse in June has raised the specter of the violence that has torn apart other countries in the region.
Tunisians know that the reflex to meet extremism with extremism threatens to provoke a dangerous spiral of grievance and repression. That’s why we are working together to bolster their ability to counter threats without trampling on rights. By fostering an open society, Tunisia is proving that the best answer to an ideology of terror is a commitment to ideals of democracy.
Now, you all know this very well: experts say that on average, successful transitions from dictatorship to full democracy with rule of law take somewhere between 15 or 20 years in the best of circumstances. For Tunisia and the rest of the region, it’s been four-and-a-half years since the Arab Spring began.
Indeed, most places where we are now beginning to see progress, it took far longer and required great patience, perseverance, and engagement.
When President Obama took office, he sent this message out to those who ruled their nations by fear. He said, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Over the last few years, we’ve seen America’s commitment to engagement begin to coax results from Cuba, to Iran, to Burma.
And in the two decades since we established relations with Vietnam, it has integrated itself into the international community and its citizens are beginning to benefit from greater freedoms. We’re redoubling our efforts to encourage them to be a more positive and constructive global player.
The prospect of the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership has encouraged Vietnam to foster a more free and open society. As part of TPP, for instance, Vietnam will allow—for the first time—the creation of independent grassroots trade unions that can bargain collectively, organize, and lead strikes.
We have been very clear with our Vietnamese partners that our relationship will grow only as Vietnam’s commitment to human rights does the same. Through genuine reform, Vietnam has become more connected to the United States—as we saw just this past summer when President Obama received in the Oval Office the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Over the last several years, the people of Burma have also undertaken their own journey, as targeted sanctions and consistent diplomatic engagement are empowering those on the inside pushing for change.
Our top officials, including President Obama, have engaged extensively with all parts of the government and civil society to support this transformation, through constitutional reform, helping to resolve ethnic and civil conflict, and through pressing for the release of political prisoners and an end to human rights abuses, and engaging more than 3,000 young people in President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.
We all know that significant challenges remain in front of Burma, where the military continues to retain 25 percent of all seats in the parliament. There are restrictions on free speech and association that continue. And of course we’ve seen the pervasive discrimination against the Rohingya and some of the results including just this spring the horrific images and reality of people fleeing that persecution—taking to boats, putting themselves in the hands of human traffickers.
True democratic change is a long-term process, and Burma still has a long way to go in building new political practices, cultures, and institutions that protect the rights and dignity of all people—regardless of race or religion.
And of course it is coming on very important elections
in November, and we’ll continue to press for the rights of all its people to participate and set a positive course for their future. There is no guarantee of success in this effort, but I think what is taking hold in Burma is the notion that very few people, if anyone, wants to go back to the old Burma now that they’re starting to see the potential of the new Burma.
So I think we have some reasons to be hopeful. And again, in the last year alone, besides the examples I’ve citied, we’ve also seen people, countries, affirm their commitment to democracy through historic elections in Sri Lanka and Nigeria.
Twice now, Sri Lankans have voted—as one nation—for a new path of hope and renewal and a return to good governance. For years, the United States has supported the democratic aspirations of the Sri Lankan people. This year, the new Sri Lankan government joined the United States and 25 other countries to cosponsor a consensus resolution that represented a shared recognition of the importance of truth and justice in Sri Lanka. By sponsoring a resolution they used to oppose, the Sri Lankan government has committed itself to the challenging process of accounting for the past, and we’re proud to stand with Sri Lanka as they work down this path.
In Nigeria, despite election delays and fears of fraud, almost 28 million voters stood in long lines for hours on election day with extraordinary resolve and commitment to the democratic electoral process. Thanks to the incredibly impressive work of the Independent National Electoral Commission but also critically civil society organizations—which ran parallel vote tabulations—Nigeria ushered in the first peaceful, democratic transition of power between two parties.
It was a result that many of us and many of you in this room worked to help make possible—from supporting that parallel vote tabulation to funding civic education drives to helping internally displaced people actually cast ballots. Together, Nigerians sent a powerful message to the region, to the continent, and indeed to the world that leaders are accountable to their people.
We have a number of elections that are now very close on the horizon, especially in Africa, where the world will be watching to see if leaders meet their nation’s demand for democracy and live up to the standards their fellow citizens expect and deserve.
No two nations are going to follow the same path to self-government, but what we know there are no short-cuts or half-measures. We also know that democracy is about more than campaigns, more than votes.
It is about preserving the rights of citizens who take to the streets in protest, or journalists who pick up their pens to report, or activists who speak their mind in dissent.
It is about delivering on promises and providing services. It is about building institutions that are transparent in their decisions and accountable for their actions.
And it is about respecting the limits of democratic power. When leaders try to stay in office or challenge the consent of the governed, they risk instability and strife. We have been very clear on this point: terms limits are not trivial footnotes in a democratic system. They’re fundamental. They enable peaceful transfers of power, they give new generations the opportunity to compete for political office and elect new leaders.
And we’re not alone in our insistence. The African Union agrees. And so do African publics. Afrobarometer recently reported that 75 percent of citizens they surveyed consistently favored term limits—a fact that those seeking re-election in 2016 would be wise to consider.
Across the globe, we can see both the bright lights of progress and also the dark shadows of struggle. All of us in this room who witnessed the surge of democratic experiments in the 1990s are anxiously watching places where progress is backsliding. There are days—too many days—when we have no good choices. When our short-term interests collide with our long-term goals and indeed our ideals.
Our job to figure out how to use the influence we have to navigate this complexity. And it is our responsibility to strive—to the best of our ability—to align our actions with our interests and principles and mobilize others to do the same.
So this means we must continually question our assumptions and premises. It means recalibrating our engagement when the situation on the ground changes. And it means doing our part to see that our resources match our commitment.
Both Congress and this administration recognize that American security is strengthened by political freedom and pluralism worldwide. And in recent years our financial support to this vital component of our foreign policy has been far outstripped by that need. So we are working very hard to increase funding for democracy, human rights, and governance programs in Fiscal Year 2016 and that is what we proposed in our budget request. And we need Congressional support to achieve that.
Let me conclude with a couple final thoughts. This is also an important moment because what we’re seeing is an old alternative ideology re-emerging—an ideology that targets not only the tools of democracy but also its very norms. It suggests democratic values lead to violence and disorder, and people are better off and societies are more stable with the strong-arm of centralized power and the safety blanket of control.
The people who profess this idea would have us believe that encouraging political competition, supporting changes in leadership, allowing people to write and say anything they want destabilizes fragile societies.
They would have us believe that the democratic movements of the Arab Spring were responsible for disorder in the Middle East—rather than the dictators who spent decades hollowing out their countries’ institutions, priming sectarian divisions, and meeting peaceful calls for change with barrel bombs.
They would have us believe that the separatism in eastern Ukraine was a real phenomenon, rather than an invention—a reverse Maidan engineered by President Putin to justify the brazen occupation and violent rule of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine and undermine the right of Ukraine’s citizens—and no one else—to determine their country’s future.
We don’t hear these arguments just from bullies standing on the dais of the UN General Assembly, but from proxy regimes and local leaders across the world who sow distrust, fear, and hate masked as legitimate skepticism and debate.
And this is not just an academic dispute. Those who are acting on these ideas are actually upending the international order. When tens of thousands of Russian citizens took to the streets chanting “We exist! We exist!” President Putin blamed it on the international community—giving the U.S. Department of State credit we don’t deserve.
When students, business owners, veterans, and grandmothers endured the freezing cold on the Maiden to demand an end to corruption and insist that their leaders make good on promises, President Putin invaded their country to make their democratic experiment fail because it was a threat to his own experiment.
And now in Syria, we see that Russia has gone to war to bolster an authoritarian regime that is brutalizing its own citizens and attracting the world’s worst terrorists—ensuring more suffering, more refugee flight, and more space for Daesh.
In the face of such acts, it is tempting to want a grand American solution that imposes freedom and order overnight. We should and we must debate our strategies and consider all options. But we cannot deny the lessons we’ve learned over a decade of sacrifice about the effectiveness and sustainability of large-scale, open-ended military interventions.
We also know this: dictators can start wars, they can marshal support by muddying the truth, they can provide short-lived order by imprisoning their own people, they can compel some growth through centralized planning.
But what they cannot do is maximize the true wealth of their nations.
If you asked an academic or a historian, 50 or 100 years ago, what defines the wealth of a nation, they would say, well, it’s the size of its population, the expanse of its land mass, its abundance of natural resources, the power of the military.
Of, course, those things still matter. And here in America we are blessed to have an abundance of all of them.
But I think all of you know, better than anyone, that what really matters in the 21st century, what really constitutes the wealth of a nation is it human resource, and the ability of that resource to creative, to innovate, to think, to argue, and to even, if necessary, to fail.
That is the strength of nations. That is the wealth of nations.
And systems that do not cultivate this potential—and indeed that work to destroy it—will not flourish in the 21st century. They do not protect minorities from oppression by the majority. They do not foster broad-based growth, value truth, or respect the dignity of their own citizens. They steal trade secrets because they must. They invade other countries to distract from problems at home. They repress civil society because civil society is stronger than they are.
And they won’t succeedin this century any more than they ultimately did in the last one. But that doesn’t not mean we should sit back and wait for them to confront their fatal flaws. We can take action in defense of our values and those who share them. We can build the capacity of our partners—civil society leaders foremost among them—to tackle the challenges they face with our strong, but also smart support.
As we do, authoritarians and extremists will find that their politics of division and ideologies of hate will have precipitated exactly what they hoped to destroy: a world of renewed unity, repaired peace, and a resurgence of faith in our shared democratic ideals. But only, only if we keep working to make it so.
Thank you very much.