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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor > Releases > Remarks > 2002 > October - December

Challenges and Opportunities for Democracy Since September 11

Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Opening Remarks to the 2002 U.S. Agency for International Development Democracy & Governance (USAID D/G) Partners Conference
Washington, DC
December 5, 2002

Thank you for this opportunity to appear here today and speak with you about this Administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights. I also want to commend Roger Winter and his colleagues at USAID for your support for this important conference.

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) is celebrating a birthday – we’re 25 years old. It’s an important milestone that gives us a chance to reflect on accomplishments, but also to take stock of the lessons that we all have learned, and make sure that they are being put to maximum advantage in the months and years to come.

In these 25 years, critically important events have turned the tide of the threats posed to our world by various tyrannies. People in every region have come to understand that governments that reflect their will are governments that can ensure prosperity, stability and peace.

Never was this driven home more clearly to me than last month at the Community of Democracies Second Ministerial Meeting in Seoul. Representatives from more than 110 countries gathered to discuss concrete ways to protect and promote democracy and adopted by consensus the "Seoul Plan of Action," with a view to providing specific guidelines for the promotion, consolidation and protection of democracy worldwide.

That’s remarkable in and of itself. But here’s what really struck me:

  • Twenty-five years ago, the "Community of Democracies" would not have numbered 110 – in fact it would have been only about a third as large.
  • Twenty-five years ago, only three of the 10 members in the Convening Group, which organized the conference, were democracies -- India, the United States, and Portugal -- just.
  • One of the conveners, and the host of the first conference, was Poland. Twenty-five years ago, as we know well, Poland suffered under a Communist regime, martial law and the threat of Soviet invasion.
  • And 25 years ago, the host country, South Korea, was under military rule and its now-President was a prisoner of conscience.

Today, Poland and South Korea, two very different societies half-way around the world from one another, are not only flourishing democracies in their own right, they are working to help other, even newer, democracies succeed.

And we have reason to be optimistic about the power of such efforts. In the last 25 years, there has been an awakening of the idea that the values upon which a democracy is founded are rooted in the basic tenets of fairness and respect and human dignity. These values are not exclusive to those with wealth or prestige or fame. And perhaps most important, they are no longer American or Western values. They are universal, and countries in every corner of every region of the world have adopted these values as their own.

As more and more countries adopt democratic practices, the evidence continues to mount: democracy is not a foreign import or imposition, but an inspiration to men and women -- from Mongolia to Mali to Mexico -- who work for change within their own societies.

Today, we face a new challenge. Since I became Assistant Secretary in June 2001, America has been challenged by the severest consequences of disrespect for human rights, and by the impact of political institutions and organizations that look upon rights with disdain and disgust.

But I believe the new world we face also presents to us many opportunities to expand protections for human rights and democratic participation across the globe. We are working hard to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities. You only need look around this room to see that it is a worldwide task, one that must engage people in all countries, from Africa to Latin America.

The President’s National Security Strategy, released earlier this fall, provides the basis for expanding democracy in this new era. It explicitly commits the U.S. to work actively to bring democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world. As President Bush said in his State of the Union speech, "America must stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; respect for private property."

In this new era, there are a number of what I call democratic frontiers, places where we didn’t think much about human rights or democracy just a few years ago – just as we did not think about democracy in the Soviet bloc until the early 1980s. As then, if we are successful in meeting the challenge, it will be over the long term, for the challenges faced in these three regions did not come about, and will not be resolved, overnight.

The first area is the Middle East. While no one would have denied the deplorable state of human rights in the Middle East before September 11, 2001, it took those events to show many the urgent need to move from observation to action in addressing the region’s shortcomings.

Secretary Powell, who did understand the need for action before last September, has outlined a positive vision of the Middle East as "a region where all people have jobs that let them put bread on their tables, provide a roof over their heads and offer a decent education for their children. We have a vision of a region where all people worship God in a spirit of tolerance and understanding. And we have a vision of a region where respect for the sanctity of the individual, the rule of law and the politics of participation grow stronger day by day."

Throughout the region, political systems do not provide citizens an adequate say in how they are governed. They do not offer a way for people to peacefully work out competing needs and visions for their future. Helping to create new systems open to participation by individuals and a healthy civil society – and ensuring their success – is as important a task in countering terrorism as direct financial, diplomatic, and military measures.

After September 11, we – and I mean not just the State Department, or the Bush Administration, but all of us – took a new look at the Middle East. And we came to see and understand democratic differences in the region, differences that provide opportunities.

For example, over the past year, Bahrain has embarked on a series of political reforms that promise a more representative government and protect rights for men and women, and for workers. Bahrain’s commitment to its constitution and the rule of law has been renewed, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been legalized. Oman and Morocco, and soon Qatar, have also taken steps to expand political participation and to give elected representatives – including women – a greater voice in national and local affairs.

Looking elsewhere, we can see more difficult challenges. We are re-assessing how we address human rights issues in Egypt, and are now meeting frequently with NGOs, civil society representatives, and government authorities in gathering the knowledge we need to determine the best approach. As many of you know, we have already expressed our great interest in the case of Egyptian-American human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. This is not the only issue, of course, but he is symbolic of our determination to integrate democracy and human rights objectives into our relations with Egypt, and with other countries in the region.

The second area of opportunity is Central Asia, a region I just visited for the third time this year. Central Asia was an area for which many had great hopes when the Soviet Union fell. Those hopes were slowly extinguished through the 1990s, and by the end of the decade, through no fault of our own, our diminished relations revolved largely around economics, including oil and gas. Nothing good can be said to have come from September 11, but it has offered the opportunity of a second chance at relations with the region.

The nations of the region have many incentives to take advantage of this opportunity; we intend to pursue it to advance democracy and human rights in the region. Although we have seen some positive steps in particular countries, human rights observance as a whole could be nicely described as mixed, and in many cases remains downright poor.

In Uzbekistan, the earliest and in many ways the most important regional ally against terrorism, the first-ever human rights organization was registered, formal censorship was lifted, and law enforcement officials were sentenced to long prison terms after being found guilty of torturing prisoners to death. However, a second human rights group was recently denied registration; even more disheartening were the brutal deaths of two prisoners due to torture. Political pluralism will remain a distant goal as long as no opposition political parties are registered.

Tajikistan has made some notable gains this year; freedom of media was appreciably increased when the government licensed the first independent radio station in Dushanbe and dropped criminal charges against an exiled journalist. When the Tajik government lowered the fee for registering NGOs this spring, the number of such groups increased dramatically. Yet harassment of journalists and media outlets continues. And the government must reform election and party legislation to enable more parties to register and campaign freely during elections if pluralism is to flourish.

Unfortunately, other countries of the region have not fared so well. Government actions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan this year, which I won’t detail, are in the aggregate depressing. One could certainly not describe this as a year of overall advance for democracy in either country. Turkmenistan remains a country with an extremely poor human rights record; people there live without any fundamental rights, including freedom of assembly and speech.

It would be very easy for the President, the Secretary of State and Ambassadors to turn a blind eye to these tough issues and worry only about basing rights and oil. But as in the Middle East, we are determined not to sidestep these issues. Indeed, this Administration, from President Bush, to Secretary Powell, on down to each of our Ambassadors, has made it crystal-clear that expanded, broader relationships with the U.S. will depend on expanded political reform. Already, aid and other benefits are being withheld from some of them for poor human rights performance.

The third area I want to discuss is China, where the government suppresses political or religious groups that it views as a threat to its power. Unregistered church members, China Democracy Party activists, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners – all have been subjected to harassment or arrest. Conditions in China's prisons and labor camps are harsh and implementation of the laws that exist is frighteningly arbitrary. The government severely limits freedom of expression and information, including Internet content and access – most recently shutting down Internet search engines.

Human rights at its core is about human beings and we welcome the unprecedented number of Tibetans recently released from prison – including Jigme Sangpo and Ngawang Sandrol – whose freedom we had long sought. But we are also committed to the release of Xu Wenli, Rebiyah Kadeer, Jiang Weiping, and others, and will press for them as well as other issues of concern when I travel to Beijing next week to conduct the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue.

At the same time, there are seeds of hope, seeds that we are trying to nurture. While China continues to commit serious human rights abuses in violation of international conventions and agreements, it also is carrying out structural reforms in the areas of democracy and rule of law. Direct elections at the village level are now mandatory nationwide and momentum to move them to higher levels is growing. Economic reform has led to legal reform, generating pressure for judicial independence, consistency in the application and enforcement of law, and transparency. Individuals, especially workers, are increasingly demanding that the legal system protect their rights. Legislatures are experimenting with public hearings to incorporate public opinion into policy.

For the first time ever, the U.S. Government, through my bureau, is now working with non-governmental organizations to substantially assist these structural changes with numerous projects that seek to make the judiciary more independent, promote rights awareness, increase citizen participation in government and develop civil society. Our work in this area is an integral part of our China human rights policy.

The point is that, in China, we don’t need to choose between helping individuals, and supporting positive trends and structural changes that hold promise for improving the human rights of Chinese over the long term. We can do both.

I do not mean by highlighting these new frontiers in the Middle East, Central Asia and China to imply that DRL is ignoring other longstanding challenges in the rest of the world. DRL is working with AID to advance democracy in places like Zimbabwe and Angola, and is now working with the 14 African democracies to help them spread their standards to other nations on the continent. I got back last night – at around 11:00 – from Colombia, where DRL and AID are deeply engaged in trying to help a democracy under threat. Earlier this fall, I traveled to Guatemala to reinforce AID’s programs designed to help a faltering democracy. And both our organizations remain deeply engaged in bringing about reconciliation in Southeastern Europe.

We know from all this work that safeguarding democracy means working at home and abroad in partnership with other governments and non-governmental groups to create the conditions that make societies healthy, strong and vibrant – societies in which ordinary citizens flourish and tyrants and terrorists cannot thrive. And it means showing solidarity with courageous men and women all over the world who cherish democratic values and who work to advance them within their own countries.

Whether it takes five years or another 25, I look forward to seeing you on the front lines.

Released on December 6, 2002

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