Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered remarks at the first ever Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society at the Department of State on February 16. Following her remarks, Secretary Clinton led the plenary session with senior Administration officials and civil society representatives from more than 20 countries, including Sherif Mansour of Egypt and Sima Samar of Afghanistan.
Secretary Clinton said, "We have a broad cross-section of global civil society here today, and we have thousands of others who are participating via interactive videoconferences at 50 of our embassies around the world. Even more are taking part in live online chats in Arabic, Russian, and Spanish. I want to start by acknowledging the many brave people who could not be with us today because they are doing what civil society does. They are fighting for human rights and dignity. In the last weeks, we have seen their courage on display in the streets of Tunis and the town squares of Cairo. We have watched with great anticipation as they have stood up for their rights and aspirations.
"For decades, Egyptian activists worked under a repressive system of official controls, including laws that required them to register before they could start work, the kinds of measures that impede the work of many of you here today and many more who are joining us by conference. But you are here because you have not been deterred. You have gone on with your work despite harassment and persecution. And we have seen the progress that can be made because of your commitment.
"The events of the past few weeks, which we never could have predicted when we began to plan for this months ago, makes our meeting even more timely and the issues more urgent. If we're going to take advantage of this historic moment, we have to tap the expertise, experience, and energy of civil society. Across the Middle East today, we see people calling on governments to be more open, more accountable, more responsive. They want a stronger voice in their own affairs. They want to be treated fairly and with dignity. As I've said before, it is in the interests of governments to answer these demands, to reflect the will of their own people. Countries with vibrant and representative institutions settle differences not in the streets, but in city halls and parliament buildings. That, in turn, makes them more stable, and they tap the potential of all of their people, which gives them the base for greater prosperity and progress.
"The United States supports democratic change. It is in line with our values and our interests. We support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent, and accountable. We uphold the universal rights of every person to live freely, to have your voice heard, and your vote count. And we want to work with all partners, governments, the private sector, civil society, the entire cross-section that gives us the chance to make real and lasting change.
"Now, of course, we recognize there are many paths to democracy, and we recognize that true and sustainable democracy is about far more than elections. Each society will work to realize its own democratic values and build its own democratic institutions in its own way, because we also recognize the uniqueness of culture and history and experience. But let me be clear, our support for democracy and human rights is not about siding for or against either governments or citizens. This is about standing up for universal principles and for those in and out of government who support them. So as our partners take steps to open their own political and economic systems, we will support those efforts. And we will urge others to follow that path. Governments that pursue democratic change, economic openness, will have a friend in the United States.
"We're also continuing to work with civil society and those who are outside of government to lay a groundwork for reform because, as I said earlier this month in Munich, the transition to democracy is more likely to be peaceful and permanent when it involves both the government in power and a broad cross-section of the governed. Civil society holds governments accountable, keeps them honest, and helps them be more effective. But you play an even more fundamental role than that. You help to strengthen the basic bonds of trust that are essential to democracy.
"We had a wonderful phrase that came to us from the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who talked about the habits of the heart. Because we understand that building trust is the glue that holds democratic societies together, and trust is often in very short supply. Working with others toward a common purpose, contributing to the life of your community, that's how we practice those habits through civil society.
"I've talked often about the three-legged stool that upholds stable societies -- a responsive, accountable government; an energetic, effective private sector economy; and then civil society, which represents everything else that happens in the space between the government and the economy, that holds the values, that represents the aspirations. If one of those legs on the stool is too short or too tall, the stool is not stable. And we've seen a lot of unstable stools that now no longer can hold the weight of their societies. And what we hope to do is to bring that into balance with you."
Secretary Clinton continued, "...Now, what consists of the individual actions of civil society joining religious organizations of your choice to pursue your spiritual fellowship, donating to humanitarian causes, working to improve your school or clean your street or provide other kinds of citizen activism may not be life-altering events, they may not change the world, but they serve a very important purpose. They ground people in the life of a community. They build that trust with neighbors and they remind us all that we have a stake in the future, that we can work with our fellow citizens in pursuit of a common good even when we disagree. Those are the building blocks of a healthy democracy.
"Both President Obama and I have deep personal connections to civil society. He began his career as a community organizer; I began mine as an advocate for women and children's rights. Both of us are committed to defending civil society. In Krakow last July, I spoke about how, in many countries, governments are trying to crush civic activism. Well, we will continue to stand up for you. And we are backing that commitment with action. I'm very pleased to announce we are more than doubling our financial support for efforts to respond to threats to civil society, to help human rights workers who have been arrested, activists who've been intimidated, journalists who have been censored. We have launched an international fund that will provide quick assistance, such as communications gear and legal support to NGOs affected by government crackdowns.
"We also recognize that new technology opens up new ways for governments to restrict civil society. And yesterday, I spoke at George Washington University about our commitment to Internet Freedom and outlined steps we are taking to protect and advance it.
"We're also using diplomatic channels. Last October, I asked every U.S. ambassador and embassy to engage with civil society as a cornerstone of our diplomacy. I've also asked every assistant secretary who travels overseas to meet with civil society groups in addition to governments. I've had that opportunity in my travels as Secretary. Students and professors at a women's college in Saudi Arabia, survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia, business leaders in Brazil. It's one of the best parts of my job. And I also raise these issues with government leaders. I recently wrote the foreign minister of Cambodia about proposed legislation that would impose burdensome reporting requirements on NGOs and prevent many small organizations from operating at all. They've now begun a dialogue with civil society about this law, and we are following that debate closely.
"Finally today, we are launching this new Strategic Dialogue. This is the first time we've held a strategic dialogue with any group other than a government, but we know very well the benefits that such dialogues offer. They help break down barriers across governments by creating a forum for regular contact between senior people on both sides. They build habits of cooperation, which increases understanding and helps translate that understanding into practical results. They make it easier for us to identify common problems, set common goals, and share what we are learning.
"In our ongoing dialogue with countries, we make progress in areas like nonproliferation, climate change, health and development, agriculture, and other critical issues. We're rolling up our sleeves and getting to work, and that's exactly what we want to do with each of you because our work together on women's rights, corruption, religious freedom, and other issues is just as important as anything we do with governments.
"Now, many of our current dialogues involve civil society, and that will continue. But we need to elevate our engagement beyond the discussions we're already having. We have a lot of ideas about what we might accomplish together, and we have many of our senior diplomats here who will be working on specific issues. Under Secretary Bob Hormats will lead a working group on governance and accountability. Assistant Secretary Mike Posner will focus on democracy and human rights. And Ambassador Melanne Verveer will lead a group focused on empowering women. Now, this is our initial plan, but we want to hear from you about what we need to do to be responsive to what you are facing and how we can build this project together over the next months.
"None of us can ever predict what will spark the kind of movements we've seen or even from the past, the firing of a Polish shipyard worker who inspired a democratic movement that changed the face of Europe. But we know that the power of human dignity is always underestimated until the day it finally prevails. So come with us on this journey, because that's what democracy is. It is a road traveled rather than a destination. We know where that journey begins, with the people here in this room and the men and women of civil society everywhere..."
You can read the full transcript here.
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