Remarks to The Brookings InstitutionErica Barks-Ruggles, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
June 11, 2008
Thank you, Hady and thank you to the Brookings Institution, for your fine work here in Qatar and for sponsoring such thought provoking discussions. I am grateful for this opportunity to share the views of my government about human rights and reform, here in Qatar and across the region. As you may know, I have just come from Dubai and subministerial discussions of the Forum for the Future – a joint initiative by the G-8 industrialized nations, and governments and civil society representatives from this region to promote political, economic and educational reform.
Let me begin by saying that my government’s support for human rights and political reform here in Qatar and the Middle East in general is integral to our global efforts to do the same. At the center of these efforts is our conviction that every human being has intrinsic and equal value and that it is the birthright of every person to live in freedom. As President Bush has said: “Freedom is the non-negotiable right of every man, woman, and child, and the path to lasting peace in our world is liberty.”
U.S. support for the worldwide advancement of human rights and democratic freedoms reflects the core values of the American people and continues to enjoy broad-based bipartisan support in our Congress and by successive Administrations, both Republican and Democrat. We see the growing calls from the people of this region for greater personal and political freedom as part of an increasing worldwide demand for human rights and democracy, and we believe that this demand derives fundamentally from the powerful human desire of men and women everywhere to live in dignity and liberty. We believe that, wherever they may live, people want to be free to follow their conscience and practice their culture and religion, to speak their minds without fear, to select their government, to hold their leaders accountable and to obtain equal justice under the law.
Many nations, with different histories and cultures, facing different circumstances, have successfully incorporated these core principles of human rights into their own systems of governance. These principles help to shape my government’s bilateral relationships and our foreign assistance. They also guide U.S. words and actions in international bodies.
We do not think that there is a single formula for advancing human rights and political reform. Each country ultimately must find its own solutions. That said, as we see it, there are three essential and mutually reinforcing elements of a truly free country: free and fair electoral processes and contested elections at all levels of government, accountable institutions under the rule of law, and a robust civil society, including non-governmental organizations and independent media.
Allow me briefly to comment upon each of these elements.
With respect to free and fair elections and participation in the political process: Democratic elections are milestones on a journey of democratization. They can help put a country on the path to reform, lay the groundwork for institutionalizing human rights protections and good governance, and open political space for civil society. My government awaits with interest the setting of a date for upcoming national elections in Qatar. We would be pleased to help you in a non-partisan manner to further the objective a free and fair elections here, just as we do in many countries all over the world.
Beyond a free and fair elections process, countries must have representative, accountable, transparent institutions of government, including political parties based on ideas, not just personalities or tribal or ethnic identification, and independent legislatures and judiciaries that can act to ensure that leaders who win elections democratically govern democratically once they are in office. The rule of law made by democratically elected representatives must prevail over corruption. The goal is the development of responsive governmental institutions that protect individual freedoms, rather than restrict them. Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee Secretary General recently stated that “there should be more co-operation between the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) and the authorities concerned, so that the protection of human rights becomes part of the country’s culture.” The United States could not agree more with these comments.
The third critical element is a vibrant, independent civil society, including unfettered political parties, NGOs and free media. An open, resilient civil society helps keep elections and those elected honest, democracy-building on track and citizens contributing to the success of their countries.
Here in Qatar, and it is also the case with your neighbors, we note that women are taking a more active role in participating and engaging in the public life of the country, and my government strongly supports that hopeful trend. An excellent example is Sheikha Mozah, Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation, who is helping lay the groundwork for the future development of Qatar's education and health care sectors. The partnership between the Qatar Foundation and U.S. universities makes us especially proud.
Qatar has a remarkable record of advancing women through education – I understand that women make up almost three quarters of the student body at the University of Qatar. The world is interested to see what the future brings for this country with so many talented, well-educated young women. It also is clear that Qatar already has capable female leadership engaged in civil society.
If an open, robust civil society contributes to a country’s dynamism, restricting the political space of civil society members, such as non-governmental organizations and the press, constrains a society’s long-term political and economic development. In the recent past, Qatar’s law did not allow for NGOs to register. The modest change to Qatar’s NGO law in 2006 has made the registration process easier and we look forward to seeing an increase in the number and variety of organizations seeking to register and being active in civil society here.
At the subministerial meeting of the Forum for the Future in Dubai that I attended on Monday, there was broad enthusiasm among all the government and civil society participants for greater collaboration of civil society groups both with each other and with governments to tackle the challenges the region faces. The participants in the meeting affirmed the essential role NGOs play in the reform process. This reflects a growing recognition that in today’s increasingly interconnected and networked world, the problems confronting states are too complex -- even for the most powerful countries -- to tackle alone.
Along with civil society, independent media is also crucial for the development of a free and successful society. It has been our own experience in the United States that the free flow of ideas and information are crucial to addressing a host of contemporary challenges.
Al-Jazeera has helped put Doha on the map for many Westerners as it has become known as one of the most important media outlets in the Arab world. We respect diversity of opinion and watch Al-Jazeera carefully, hoping it will continue to strive for balanced reporting of regional and world events.
Now, let me focus for a few minutes on an issue on which I think that government, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, the independent media, and the international community can agree: we must all work together to advance the cause of human dignity. All of us, individually and together, can and must work together to end exploitive labor practices and the abomination of human trafficking. This is a worldwide problem and it is one that is especially difficult to tackle in our increasingly globalized world. It requires a concerted response at all levels of government and society within countries and among countries. My own government has many offices within our bureaucracy working to tackle this problem inside our borders. We recognize, however, that we must reach out and cooperate with other governments if we are to seriously address it – and we do so.
In recent years, Qatar and your neighbors, too, have begun to come to grips with the dual problem of forced labor and human trafficking, and my government is ready to work in cooperation with you on this important issue of human dignity. Representatives from my office and the U.S. government have recently toured the government trafficking shelter of the National Office of Combating Trafficking in Humans here in Doha; a shelter working to alleviate the plight of exploited workers. We laud the establishment of this shelter, which is in keeping with Islamic values and the wise words of Khalifa Umar, who said: “When did you start to make mankind slaves when their mothers gave birth to them as independents?” I believe that the independent media can play an important role in raising awareness of and combating the problem, as they do in my country and in many other countries around the world.
The abuses workers suffer range from not receiving their full salary to being denied the right to leave the country. Sometimes, the conditions are even more brutal: workers endure physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Workers who have come to this region seeking a means of supporting their families back in their home countries sometimes are subjected to forced labor instead.
In contrast, some companies in this region have managed to engender worker loyalty - and higher productivity for it - by providing a decent wage and healthy working and living conditions instead of keeping workers on the job through coercion. In the long run, socially responsible policies and actions by business, along with reform and implementation of labor laws by governments, will go a long way towards solving the region’s labor issues. Increased government collaboration with labor-sending countries to screen, train, educate, place, and protect workers through the whole cycle of employment and repatriation also would be extremely helpful.
I wish to leave you with these thoughts as a context for what I hope will be a lively discussion. Human dignity and human rights are indivisible. Personal, political and economic freedoms reinforce each other, and lasting security can only be built on a foundation of freedom. My government looks forward to further cooperation with your government and civil society here in Qatar to advance human dignity and increase awareness of the benefits of reform here and across the region. As President Bush has said: “…the best way to defeat the extremists in your midst is by opening your societies, and trusting in your people, and giving them a voice in their nation.”
Thank you – I would be pleased to take your questions.
Released on June 13, 2008