President Obama Holds a Civil Society Roundtable

President Obama Holds a Civil Society Roundtable


President Obama:
Thank you very much, everybody,
for joining us here today. And I want to offer
a few brief remarks in terms of the purpose
of this meeting. We’ve got
a wonderful panel here and some
extraordinary representatives — both heads of states,
members of civil society, people who have been
working on these issues for a very long time. The focus today
is on civil society, because it’s my strong belief
that the strength and success of all countries and
all regions depends in part on protecting and
supporting civil society. I want to thank Deputy
Secretary General Eliasson. I want to thank my good friend
President Elbegdorj of Mongolia, representing the
Community of Democracies. I want to thank Alejandro
Gonzalez Arreola of Mexico, representing
civil society members of
the Open Government Partnership. And I want to thank all of
you for joining us here today. The human progress has always
been propelled at some level by what happens
in civil society — citizens coming
together to insist that a better life is possible, pushing their leaders
to protect the rights and the dignities of all people. And that’s why the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the
right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” This is not a Western value;
this is a universal right. And civil society
led the fight to end apartheid
in South Africa. It led the fight to bring
freedom to Eastern Europe. It helped to heal places
divided by conflict, whether in Cambodia or Colombia. Here, in the United States,
civil society has been the catalyst for virtually every
major advance that we’ve made — from the abolition of slavery
to women’s rights, civil rights, the protections of workers
and the protections of the environment. And yet, still today,
in every region, we see that the fight goes on. We have citizens who are
leading the charge to expand opportunity,
to correct injustices, to shape their
countries’ futures. And it’s my belief that
strong nations recognize the values of active citizens. They support and
empower their citizens rather than stand in their way,
even when it’s inconvenient — or perhaps especially
when it’s inconvenient — for government leaders. Strong civil societies help
uphold universal human rights. They promote good governance
by making governments more effective and holding
leaders like me to account. And they’re critical
to economic development, because in our global economy,
trade and investment flows to countries that
give citizens the freedom to create and develop new ideas and that are
protected by rule of law. So, many countries,
including those in this room, are working in partnership
with civil societies. From Mongolia to Mexico,
Tunisia, Tanzania, governments and citizens are
working together to improve the rule of law,
reduce wasteful spending, organize public campaigns to
strengthen health and education. Unfortunately, though,
what we’re also seeing is a growing number of
countries that are passing laws designed specifically
to stifle civil society. They’re forcing groups to
register with governments, eroding human
rights protections, restricting NGOs from
accessing foreign funding, cracking down
on communications technologies that connect civil
society groups around the globe. In more extreme cases, activists
and journalists have been arrested on false charges,
and some have been killed. We’re also seeing new and
fragile democracies cracking down on civil society,
which I believe sets them back and sends a dangerous signal
to other countries. So, in recent years, the
international community has stepped up our support. Two years ago,
some of you recall, we came together to launch the Open Government Partnership
to promote transparent, effective and
accountable institutions in partnership
with civil society. Sixty countries and a broad
coalition of civil society and private sector
partners have joined. The Community of Democracies
is working to take aim at restrictive laws. The Human Rights
Council established the first Special Rapporteur on
the Rights of Peaceful Assembly and Association. And several governments
and foundations, including many in this room,
contribute to a “Lifeline” fund for emergency aid to civil
society groups under threat. So I’ve made a point to meet
with civil society worldwide. Virtually, every foreign trip
that I take I carve out time to meet with citizens
who are active on a whole range of issues. And, in part, it’s to lift up
the good work they’re doing and affirm that the United States
stands behind their efforts. Nevertheless, we have to
recognize that the crackdown continues and we
urgently need to do more to increase global attention
and spur global action. So that’s why we’re here. I’m challenging all of us
to use the next 12 months to make progress
in three key areas. First, we have to identify
specific steps that countries, including the United States,
can take to make it easier for civil society to do its
job and to encourage governments to embrace civil society
groups as partners. Number two, we need to do more
to stand against restrictions on civil society and better
coordinate our diplomacy when the government tries
to stifle civil society. I think it’s critical that
the international community should be working
together to ensure that there are
actual consequences. And number three, we have
to find new and better ways to support civil society
in difficult circumstances. Governments that
restrict civil society are sharing their
worst practices. We’ve got to make sure that
we’re sharing our best practices and doing all we can to
help civil society succeed. Many of you know that
I didn’t begin my career in elective politics. I began working in low-income
communities in Chicago. I was elected as President through the active
participation of citizens. And so I know what
active citizens can do. And the United States, as one of
I think our most precious gifts, has been trying to set an
example of how active citizens can make a country stronger,
that makes us deeply committed to protecting the rights of all
people who are contributing to our nation’s progress
or their nation’s progress. And as other
countries crack down, I believe we’ve got
to step up together — those of us in this room, but a whole lot of people
outside this room as well. So I’m going to be looking
for specific actions, specific follow-up steps. And with that, what
I’d like to do is turn it over to the Deputy Secretary
General for his remarks, and then we’ll make sure
that this outstanding panel all has an opportunity
to make their contributions. Mr. Eliasson:
Thank you very much,
Mr. President. The fellow panelists,
and dear guests, and ladies and
gentlemen, and friends. First of all,
thank you Mr. President for taking this initiative
to support civil society. We know about your personal
engagement with this matter — with the relationship to civil
society and community life, which is really the basis
and vitality of a democracy. Also this initiative touches
upon so much of the work that brings all the leaders
to New York this week, and the message I’m delivering is on behalf of
Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who — it was impossible
for him to leave this afternoon. The science of cloning
isn’t advanced enough for him to be here. So his message and
mine is the following. We’re living in turbulent times. The relationship
between leaders and those they
govern is changing. There are new demands,
there are new expectations, there is new technology,
but one act, one approach, one human phenomenon has to be at the
heart of this relationship. Now that is listening. Listening. If leaders do not listen to
their people they will hear from them in the streets,
in the squares, or as we see far
too often, on the battlefield. There is a better way. More participation, more
democracy, more engagement, more openness. Now this means maximum
space for civil society. Free and independent civil
society is the foundation for a healthy,
responsive governance. Civil society is
crucial for human rights, by raising awareness and
ringing the alarm about abuse, inequality,
and authoritarianism. Indeed, civil society is central
to uniting the work of the United Nations
across our whole agenda, not only on human rights,
but also for peace and security, as well as for development. I would say that civil society
has never been more in the center and more
needed than it is today. And that is why the growing
pressures and restrictions facing civil society,
as the president just outlined, in country after country
are so disturbing. Legislation is often our target
in civil society organizations, make it practically impossible
for them to operate. We’re seeing a rise in laws that
restrict the activities of human rights defenders. We’re seeing new ways to
impede their work by sometimes overreaching anti-terrorism and
national security legislation, measures relating to public
morals or defamation, laws requiring registration of
and funding of associations, and new rules restricting
internet access. The assault on human rights
defenders and civil society groups is sometimes
matched with outright attacks in different forms:
smear campaigns, travel bans, harassment and intimidation,
illegal detentions, sometimes even
torture and death. Reprisals and intimidations
against people who cooperate with the United Nations
in unacceptable. Not only because the help us,
as I’ve seen myself all over the world,
to do the work that is — we are mandated to do
by the U.N. Charter and by the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, but because this
also discourages — scares others from
working with us and for us. We must take action
at every level to strengthen the voices of democracy. I would hope leaders and others in positions
of influence must — that they publically and
systematically condemn acts of reprisal and intimidation, and I welcome
ongoing discussions to
ensure a strong U.N. system-wide
response to reprisals. There should be impartial
investigations to bring perpetrators to justice,
and remedies for victims. And of course we must reinforce
the indispensable role of United Nations
Special Rapporteur in protecting all
aspects of human rights, including the rights
to freedom of association, assembly —
and Ms. [inaudible] here is monitoring
exactly that aspect of the human rights machinery. Mr. President, excellences,
ladies and gentlemen, in closing, people and civil
society groups often risk their lives to improve
the lives of others. They speak out
even when they know that they could
be silenced forever. They highlight problems
that others ignore and might not even think exist. They seek and they
connect with likeminded people across the world, but we all know that far
too often they are left at times to feel all alone. We must never — we must
never desert or forget them. They protect our rights. They deserve our rights. All of us have
a responsibility to respect fundamental human rights, and protect those
who advocate for them. When that does not happen,
all of us have an obligation to stand up and speak out,
and you have provided us with an opportunity to do that
tonight, Mr. President. Let us do that today,
and every day. Thank you very much. President Obama:
Thank you very much. Next I’d like to hear
from Mr. Alejandro. Mr. Gonzalez:
Thank you, Mr. President. I’m truly honored to be here,
to have this opportunity to represent
not only my country, but also the
Open Government Partnership, an initiative that
was launched by President Obama here in New York in 2011. As you know, I was born in a
nation where basic civil and political rights were described
in a piece of paper that we used to call our constitution,
but the reality: none of them, or a few of them, were really
part of citizens’ lives. A country that was not even
able to organize a democratic election in the ’70s. A county that limited the
ability of the people to speak their minds freely. A county where, for example,
transparency and accountability for government or free press
was merely an illusion. Even Mario Vargas Llosa,
the renown, as you know, novel writer, described my
country as ‘la democracia’ — perdón —
‘la dictadura perfecta,” the perfect dictatorship. However, in less
than a generation, the Mexican political
and civic landscape has changed dramatically. We’re still facing
a number of problems. We’re not quite
there yet, but I can tell you that we are no longer
‘la dictadura perfecta.’ We have been able to build
strong electoral institutions, transparent institutions,
economic institutions that were able to
give to the people — to make reality what
our constitution used to say: to give us our most basic
civil and political rights. And when I say that we
were the ones who built this, it’s not a [inaudible]. Change in my country
hadn’t been possible without a growingly independent
and vibrant civil society that at times
challenged government, and at the other times
collaborates with government, and by doing so this
held the government to higher standards. At this very moment,
for example, back in Mexico, civil society leaders,
academics are involved in the policy process
of the most relevant reforms that are taking place in Mexico: education reform,
for example, transparency reform,
even fiscal reform. And in this context,
the Open Government Partnership has provided a positive
and practical framework to deepen this engagement, to have a structured
and critical, and at the same time
constructive dialogue between government and civil society. Let’s not forget that all
OGP countries have signed an Open Government
Declaration that states, “We commit to protecting
the ability of civil society organizations to operate in a
context that guarantees freedom of expression,
association, and opinion.” This is their commitment. Such an enabling environment
requires policies, policies that guarantee
the rights of citizens to organize and to participate. Unfortunately, just as Mexico
and other OGP countries are putting forward new ways of
openness and new ways of civil society to engage, there are
trends in the other direction, as President Obama pointed out. For example, according to
the latest Civicus report on enabling environment for
civil society organization, 57 percent — yep — 57 percent
of the world population live right now in countries
where the basic liberties and political freedoms
are curtailed. This trend to reduce the space
for civil society organization is not the matter
of South versus North. We have to be aware of that. It’s taking place in
a wide range of countries, even in some countries
that are part of OGP. That is why we need not only
clear principles on the issue, but we also need a strong
and rapid response. As a civil society member
of the OGP Steering Committee, I will work with my colleagues
to take up the challenge of identifying concrete ways
in which we can counter closing spaces for civil society
as well as for opening them. I propose that OGP shall
organize a plenary discussion on the topic of defending civil
space at our upcoming meeting in London at the end of October. We expect there nearly
one thousand government, civil society, and
private sector leaders from around 70 different
countries to participate. This will be an incredible
and formidable platform to discuss this issue. Even [inaudible] to put
in place a special task force to implement the ideas that might come out
from this meeting. Finally, let’s not forget that
the responsibility to succeed in this endeavor is not
only from governments, but also and mainly
from civil society itself. We need to be far better
organized across sectors, across issues, across
regions, across genders, across social class. The world needs, not
only more, but better, stronger civil society. Thank you so much. President Obama:
Thank you very
much, Alejandro. Next, I would like to turn to
President Elbegdorj who has done outstanding work in his
own country of Mongolia, but is also representing the
Community of Democracies. Mr. President. President Elbegdorj:
President Obama,
honorable guests, ladies and gentlemen, for the
two years Mongolia was honored to say it was President of
the Community of Democracies. During our tenure, we give boost
to the Asia Democracy Network, to say was an umbrella
organization in our region. We also included protecting
civil society as one of our five priority
areas during chairmanship. I’m proud of Mongolia’s record
while doing civil society. Non-government organizations
are widely important to promote peace, democracy,
environmental protection, and transparency in nations
throughout the world. Non-government organizations are
truly the soul of any nation. I was one of the founders of
the first non-governmental organization in our nation,
the Mongolian Democratic Union. It helped bring the democratic
transition to my great land. There are now over 6,000
non-governmental organizations are working in Mongolia,
supporting a variety of causes ranging from economic
transparency to saving wildlife, to promoting human rights. I am proud that non-governmental
organizations do not need permission and are not
restricted in any way in my country. Our civil society is vibrant. It’s part of the Mongolian soul. Sadly that is not
the case everywhere. Nearly 2.4 billion people
around the globe continue to live in countries where
they have little to no say in who leads their country
or how they are governed. Just the [inaudible], the Community
of Democracy has held its seventh
ministerial conference, a key component in
the Ulaanbaatar Declaration was our concern about
the restrictions placed on non-governmental organizations
in some countries. In our joint statement on
promotion and protection of civil society, we noted:
“The strength and vibrancy of nations depends
on the vigorous, unfettered role of civil society, robust engagement between
governments and civil society to at once share
the goals of peace, prosperity, and the well-being
of all citizens.” Civil society organizations
are vital to advance democracy. Governments that attack civil
society often repress freedom, curtail expression and
discriminate against minorities. Non-governmental organizations
protect those who need it. Civil society really
equals democracy. Active citizen involvement adds
most talent and capacity to national development. Myself and the former
U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, launched the LEND Network in
Ulaanbaatar in July last year to connect leaders from most and
advanced and new democracies through the digital platform
to share experiences. We can build on this success. We can advance their open
government initiative. And Mongolia fully
supports the establishment of a CD-united program. Civil societies
are our partners. All citizens matter,
whether rich or poor, majority or minority, disabled
or just out of the mainstream. Civil society protects their
interests and allows all citizens to engage in
their society in public policy. Human talent is the greatest
natural resource of all. Non-governmental organizations
and civil society are the means to harness that talent and
give voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless,
and hope to hopeless. Thank you for your attention. President Obama:
Thank you very
much, Mr. President, for the outstanding statement. Next we’d ask
the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom
of Assembly and Association, Maina Kiai, to deliver
his brief remarks, and obviously Maina has his
thoughts as well in his home country that has gone through
just a terrible terrorist attack over the last several days. And I want to once again
express publicly my sympathy for what’s happening
there and pledging continued U.S.
support in response. Mr. Kiai:
Thank you very
much, Mr. President. Presidents, prime ministers,
the Deputy Secretary General of the U.N.,
ladies and gentlemen. Would your permission,
Mr. President, could I please ask everyone to
join me in a moment of silence in respect of those
who lost their lives in — and got injured in the despicable
terror attacks in Kenya. Thank you. I am honored to have been asked
to address you on this — on the issues that
I deal with every day, not just as
the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom
of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, but also as
an active human rights defender. And I’d like to especially
thank President Barack Obama for hosting this event. My mandate was created with
unanimous support in October 2010, and I extend
my appreciation to the core group
that put forward the resolution creating it. It comes up
for renewal this week at the Human Rights Council, and we hope that it will
be adopted unanimously again. The mandate was established
against a backdrop of concern about the shrinking space
for civil society globally. It came into sharp focus in
early 2011 with a series of protests in
the Arab region and beyond, but it also came at a time of
unprecedented opportunities for civil societies’
participation in governance. Today’s citizens have much
more information available about issues that
affect their lives. Information technology allows
them to organize themselves to make sure their
voices are heard. The protests helped remind
us the freedoms of peaceful assembly
and associations are essential to democracy and development. They’re indispensable to the
enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social,
and cultural rights. Without civil society, we would
not have brought an end to slavery, got women the vote,
or liberated people from dictatorships, nor could we
provide the effective disaster response in
the way the Kenya Red Cross has so ably done these
last few days in Nairobi. But sadly,
challenges have increased despite rhetorical
commitments from states. Civil society and
those voicing dissent face some of the most
significant challenges, unlike those
who support official policies. In Laos, for example,
Sombath Somphone was disappeared
last December for his advocacy of land rights of peasants, never to be heard from again. and there are similar
challenges for WOZA in Zimbabwe, the opposition in Venezuela, human rights
defenders in Russia, those who walk to work
in Uganda, SUARAM in Malaysia, anti-capitalism protesters
in western countries, and activists in Nigeria,
Bahrain, Belarus, China, Cuba, and Sri Lanka,
to name but a few. Repressive legislation,
often shared between states is becoming a threat to civil
society as member states make laws criminalizing
or restricting this work. Tolerance of others
must be earnest. We don’t have to agree
with what people do, but as long as it’s done
peacefully and does not incite violence and hatred,
it should be allowed. Or to use
President Obama’s words, “We need to learn to
disagree agreeably.” At no time is this more
important than during elections. Elections are a unique moment
in the life of any nation, determining the direction
of policies and priorities. No other event
better exemplifies the
right to public participation as I will report to the U.N.
General Assembly in October. But the international community
has effectively narrowed this space by focusing simply
on the casting of the vote. Public participation
must be seen in the context of what happens with all
rights, before, during, and after casting the
vote; and increasingly, we are seeing violations of the
rights of peaceful assembly and association in the context of
elections as politicians seek to retain or gain
power at all costs. Indeed, so central are elections
that I believe no other moment requires more space
for civil society. The right to freedom of
association includes the right to seek, receive, and use resources
from domestic, foreign, and international sources. Restrictions
of funding have become a major existential threat to
associations across the world, as we see in Ethiopia where new
laws restricting funding were introduced in 2009. States are obliged to
facilitate, no restrict, access to funding so that
associations can effectively take part in democratic and
developmental processes just like businesses and governments. This calls for a change to
a human rights-based approach instead of a results-based
only approach. Finally, intimidation has
been dramatically elevated by an abusing social media, especially focused
on those calling for democratic change
and accountability. In Kenya, for instance, some
in the social media have turned civil society, evil society,
inciting people to attack those supporting the International
Criminal Court. Just a few days ago,
the Kenya Police had to provide my
elderly mother with protection because a group threatened
to torch her homestead. This was clearly
in retaliation for my work fueled by Internet abuse. And across the world,
state and non-state actors cleverly stalk the Internet
in the new war on civil society. Let me now suggest how we can
reverse these emerging threats to civil society. First, we must provide public
recognition and political support to civil society,
recognizing that assembly and association are central
to democracy and development. Denying these rights often
leads to social unrest. We must give as much attention
to human rights and civil society issues as we do to
issues of trade, security, and other strategic interests,
and we need to refocus development and governance
paradigms away from results-based approaches and
emphasize human rights and space for civil society, including
strengthening the demand side of governance and development. It is not enough that states
have made progress on the MDGs. They should also make
progress on human rights. We need to provide political
support to the Human Rights Council Special
Procedures Mandates, including extending
standing invitations to all U.N. Special Procedures. More than 30 of my
requests of invitations have gone unanswered,
for instance. And we need to ensure
that civil society takes part in decision making processes,
particularly for policies which affect their work. Civil society should be
key in the ongoing discussion on the post 2015
development agenda, which should include substantive
endorsement of human rights. And let me conclude
by welcoming the engagement of
the Open Government Partnership, and the Community
of Democracies, and other multilateral bodies in
supporting the consistent work of my mandate of highlighting
good practices and norms for member states so as to advance
international law and standards. Thank you very much. President Obama:
Thank you, Maina. Next I’d ask Khin Lay, a Burmese
civil society activist to speak. And obviously, there’s enormous
significance hearing from her, given the transformation that’s
beginning to take place in Burma, in Myanmar. It is not something
that is complete yet, but I think it testifies to the
power of civil society to bring about change even in some of
the most difficult situations. So, please, Khin? Ms. Lay:
Thank you very much,
President Obama, U.N. Deputies,
Secretary General, and other distinguish guests. I’m honored and humbled by your
invitation to speak here today. To put this in perspective, until 2011 I’ve
never even left Burma. I would like to
thank President Obama for initiating
this very important discussion. I also appreciate the efforts of
the countries around the world that have helped to facilitate
the transition and are working to deepen the reforms
in my country. I also appreciate Freedom House
support for arranging various meetings in
New York and Washington, D.C., during my visit to the U.S. Although I will focus on Burma, I believe our experience
are likely shared by others. I respectfully salute
those civil society actors in this room
and around the world for their dedication,
sacrifice and courage. My name is Khin Lay,
and I’m a founder of the Triangle
Women’s Support Group, an organization
that works to empower women to be decision makers
and leaders at home, in their communities,
and in politics. When I was young,
I was also involved in Burma’s democracy movement. That’s why I,
like thousands of others, I was arrested and jailed for my non-violence
democratic movement. Today, Burma is
finally changing, but the struggle will
be long and difficult. Civil society at the best still
continues to face traditional forms of repression, such as
imprisonment and harassment. Fifty years of military rule and
economic mismanagement will not be ended overnight,
but as part of the reforms, the government has begun
revisiting the country’s law, including those
that were previously used to control society. In July, the government has been
drafting a new association law. The first draft included many
limitation on civil society including severe
penalties and a prohibition on information associations, which are the principal way
that citizens organize in Burma. In response we mobilized
a broad coalition of civil society
organizations including environmental
groups, [inaudible] rights advocates,
women’s groups, and [inaudible] to push for a better law. We also sought the advice of
the international community, including groups
here with us today, to ensure that the revisions
met international norms. We shared our recommendations
with the government and members of parliament. Today, I’m happy to inform you
that the revised draft law is satisfactory and it’s now before
parliament for consideration. The fact that Burma’s draft
association law is now significantly improved
is a testament to not just a strong domestic response,
but to the valuable support of the international community. I would like to share my ideas
about kinds of the international community’s support that
have been proven to be useful to our efforts to bolster
the reform process, not only in Burma,
but also in other countries. First, we have
learned enormously from
other countries’ experience. Groups like the World
Movement for Democracy and the International
Center for Not For Profit Law facilitated the exchange
of experience and knowledge with advocacy efforts
in other countries as well as the information about international
laws and standards. Second, international groups
such as National Endowment for Democracy and others quickly
responded to our request for support to convene
a series of meetings among civil society groups,
and with the government and the MPs to
discuss the draft law. Third, political support from
the international community has been critically important. Sometimes coordinated responses
from the diplomatic community is more important that financial
support, like sometimes [inaudible],
sometimes [inaudible]. Together we have made progress. If the association
law is passed, it will provide a foundation upon which civil
society can flourish. However, unless the government
recognizes the value of this and strengthens independent
institutions to enforce the law, the benefits of the vibrant,
independent civil society will never fully realize and the
country will suffer as a result. The rule of the civil society is
crucial to build the democratic society and to implement the
global issues such as global warming, poverty alleviation,
and public health. However, today, in too many
countries governments seek to limit and restrict civil space
by means of strong bureaucratic control, weakening protection
mechanisms, et cetera. With support from members of
the international community, I firmly believe we
can make progress. Together we can build democratic
and open societies where individuals have the opportunity
to live with dignity free from repression
and deprivation. Thank you very much. President Obama:
Thank you. We have enough time to take some
brief comments or questions from some of the
civil society organizations that are represented here today. There are two in particular
I want to call on. First of all I’d like to hear
from Otto Saki from Zimbabwe so that we can get
a sense of the work that’s being done there, and then I’d like an opportunity
to take a comment from Darren Walker
of the Ford Foundation, because the
philanthropic community can play a very important
role in supporting civil society groups, and I know
that Ford is looking at ways in which it can make
an even greater commitment in the future. So, Otto, let’s start with you. Mr. Saki:
Thank you, Mr. President, for the event and we hope
that it’s not going to end as an event, but it’s
going to be sustained in systematic
engagement around issues affecting civil
society globally. Just a couple of points
that I’m going to make. The first is that we’ve
noticed that increasingly the use of the law
and it becomes rule — not rule of law,
but rule by law. And, you know, the phenomenon of these laws
being passed globally is concerning and alarming. So we need to really work around
how to address that phenomenon where countries and saying, “We are operating
in terms of our laws, and we are sovereign
nations, for that matter.” That is the first. The second is that
we’ve noticed that it’s — what we have terms strangulation
by regulation, you know, slowly suffocating civil
society groups by coming up with a number of administrative
barriers to their operation. And again, this is a phenomenon
that is on the increase. And, you know, persecution
through prosecution where repeatedly
groups are arrested, arraigned before the courts, and maybe subsequently
acquitted, but the time that you have spent
going through the court process, appearing and reappearing,
in order to be acquitted. The last and most
important, you know, issue that has to be
brought to the fore: I recall that on your
maiden trip to Africa, soon after your election, you mentioned that
we need strong institutions and not strong individuals. Sadly, we’ve noticed
that many of the institutions that we are tending to rely
on are severely compromised, and it would be
key to have groups such as the African Union, SADC, ECOWAS,
East African Community, taking up a leadership role in
respect to these various issues. I thank you. President Obama:
Let me just comment on a couple
of points that you just made. Number one, it is true that many
countries that are trying to restrict civil society may pass
laws and then they’ll argue that they’re observing the
law and civil society groups are not observing the law. But this is why
I think developing institutional structures that
constrain what government can do is so important. And you mentioned the trip
that I took to Africa. I specifically met with the
chief justices from a number of countries, because an
independent judiciary that is properly functioning
and properly financed can serve as an important
protector of civil society. Unfortunately, what we
see in a lot of countries is that the resources
for a judiciary, for the proper
application of the laws are often
significantly compromised. And one of the things
that I think all of us as heads of state can do
in supporting these efforts is make sure that when
we look at our aid programs, when we look at our
diplomatic efforts, that we are not ignoring some
of those institutional bodies that offer some measures of
relief or potential protection for the civil
society organizations that are taking place. It also means, though, civil society activists
have to think strategically about what is it
that they’re promoting. And if you have an
environmental organization, a human rights organization,
an economic cooperative — on the surface, their issues
may be different, but they’ll all have an interest
potentially in fighting a registration law
in the country that makes it more difficult
for them to operate. And I think creating coalitions
inside those countries that focus on laws
that across the board impact civil society rather
than focusing on just a few sets of narrow issues I think
can make a difference as well. But I very much
appreciate your comments. Now, one of the biggest
challenges that we’re seeing when it comes to civil society is the issue
of financial support. Historically,
we’ve seen support, including from institutions
based here in the United States. That then becomes an excuse
for governments who say, well, civil society is being funded by
outsiders and is in some fashion undermining our sovereignty. And this is where I think
philanthropic organizations can make an enormous impact. And so I would be interested
in hearing, Darren, the kinds of steps that you
at Ford and some of the other philanthropies not just
here in the United States, but around the world,
may be looking at. Mr. Walker:
Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you for convening us, and thank you for your passion
and your authentic [inaudible]. President Obama:
Let’s get that mic working. Do we have another one? That was not
an instance of censorship. Mr. Walker:
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. So, Mr. President,
thank you for convening us. Thank you for your passion,
and thank you for your authentic leadership, because you
understand the importance of civil society at the ground. So I’m here this afternoon with
my colleagues from Open Society, Omidyar, McArthur,
and other philanthropies because we believe
deeply in civil society. In fact, our missions cannot
be accomplished without strong robust vibrant civil
society and so we invest. We invest in people, leaders,
we invest in institutions that are necessary in societies
to hold government accountable. So our mission
can’t be achieved, and the challenge that you’ve
put out is not a hollow one. What we do not want is to have
another meeting with a lot of great presentations and
conversation, and no follow up. And so what I think my
colleagues and I are here today to say is that we are
ready to follow up. We are ready to
commit, recommit, and in the case of
the Ford Foundation to increase our support for civil
society around the world. So I thank you for
your call to action. My colleagues and I thank
you for your challenge to us, and we look forward to following
up this fall at the meeting for actually putting
in place a concrete plan and strategy for action. Thank you. President Obama:
Thank you. Let’s close out by hearing
from Douglas Rutzen, who is the CEO of the
Center for Not-for-Profit Law and is doing
some outstanding work. Doug? Mr. Rutzen:
Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for hosting us today. Thank you also for your personal
engagement on this issue. It’s exceptionally important, but it’s also
exceptionally appreciated. And when I reflect on next steps
in your opening comment about the role of civil society in
the civil rights movement, I was reminded of a speech
by Dr. Martin Luther King at Oberlin College in 1965. You know this speech. He told the tale
of Rip Van Winkle, and he said the storyline
is known to most of us. Rip climbs a mountain,
he falls asleep, and he wakes up 20 years later. And Dr. King tells the students
the most interesting thing is not the fact that he slept for
20 years, but as he left town, the village inn had
a painting of King George and when he returned, it was a painting
of George Washington. And he said
that there was this quest for dignity, for freedom — and Rip Van Winkle
had nothing to do with it. He was sleeping. He was snoring. So what I would say to all of
us here is let’s not suffer the fate of Rip Van Winkle. Mr. President, you said
there’s a historic contest over civil space. Countries around
the world are passing laws restricting civil society. These countries expect
that the international community will respond with epic slumber, but we must respond with
vigilance and vigor instead. And I know that challenges
abound, but I’m an optimist. I’m an optimist, again, because
I think of that speech back in 1965 and Dr. King
said there are three elements to an alert response. And listening to the discussions
today all three elements are with us today. First you know he said we
need a world perspective. We heard from the three
multilateral platforms today that are specifically focused
on safeguarding civil societies: the Community of Democracies, the U.N. Special Rapporteur, and I would include
the Lifeline Initiative. And there are this sort of host
of multilateral platforms that are addressing
sort of broader issues: Open Government Partnership. We also have to engage with the
Financial Action Taskforce to ensure that
our counterterrorism measures don’t unintentionally undermine what we’re
trying to do today. And of course the Post
2015 Development Agenda. Second, Dr. King said we need
a coalition of conscience. And it’s really interesting
when you look around this room, and I great all my
friends watching online, we come from
different countries, we work for different sectors,
but we share a common vision. Whether we spend out days
providing humanitarian relief in Syria, working on
disability rights, or work for an
environmental group, we share a common vision in
which people can work together to make the world
a better place. And it’s now up to
us to build the base. Let’s build the base together. We need to include as
you said, Mr. President, members of the judiciary,
the private sector, parliamentarians, and let’s not
forget the person on the street. We just can’t talk
to the policy elite. Third, Dr. King said we need
tireless and persistent efforts to achieve progress,
and as we move forward, let’s figure out what
we can do together. For governments, imagine what
would happen if we were all committed to coordinated,
diplomatic action. We funded civil society law
reform and if there were an executive order or a policy
directed letting everyone in your government know that civil
society is a national priority both domestically
and internationally. Wow, we’d make
a lot of progress. But we can’t just
rely on one sector. We know in civil society we
have an obligation as well, and so we need to get together,
coordinate, map activities, identifty gaps, and
enhance our impact. And it — I see and now we’ll
try and to our part as well. You spoke Mr. President about
enhancing domestic policy reform, and forming coalitions. That’s what we do. We’ve done it in 100
countries, and we will commit to do more of it thanks to
the visionary donors in Sweden and the United States
and the foundations here. We’ll offer
assistance to any country including those in this room,
because we must lead by example that wants to reform
its legal framework. Second, we know there’s this
great third for international information so later today
we’re going to launch the world’s largest collection
of civil society legal materials thanks to the Gates Foundation, 3,000, 60 languages,
all 198 U.N. member states. It’ll be online for free
immediately after this meeting. And finally,
we’ll work with you. Let’s work together with
multilateral platforms, with governments, with
international organizations, and civil society to
take concrete actions. I agree with Darren. What we’ll do is we’ll not
only help organize meetings, we’ll help fund them too. We’ll bring money to the table. So in conclusion,
I thank you Mr. President for convening us today and giving us the gift,
the gift of momentum. We have a historic opportunity
to shape the future of civil society,
and as we leave this room, let us be inspired by
the words of Dr. King. Let us adopt a work perspective,
let us create a coalition of conscience, and let us work
tirelessly and together to make the
world a better place. Thank you Mr. President. Thank you all. President Obama:
Thank you. Well, first of all, I
want to thank all who spoke for
their outstanding contributions. Let me just make
a few closing remarks. Number one, the fact that
I’m here I think indicates the degree
to which the United States takes this very seriously. The work is hard, and sometimes
you take a step back for every two steps forward. Certainly, that was the history
here in the United States; Dr. King has been
mentioned several times. The restrictive laws
that were put in place, the challenges to funding
from outside groups, the threats and the
intimidation and the violence and the jailings — these were all things that the early
Civil Rights Movement here in the United
States went through. And yet, because justice
was on their side, they ultimately prevailed. And I have confidence that,
in the words of Dr. King, “The arc of the moral
universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And it’s a matter of
us staying with it. And the United States, as a
matter of government policy, stands behind civil
society organizations. Now, those of us who head
up governments in this room, I think we have to recognize
that we’re interacting with our colleagues from
other countries that may not have as much respect
for civil society as we do, that we have a lot
of business to transact — and there are security issues
and there are trade issues and there are energy issues. And I recently spoke with some
civil society groups in Russia, and I was very honest with them. I said, as President
of the United States, I’ve got to take all
those issues into account. I can’t only talk about civil
society and human rights issues in a bilateral meeting; I’m going to have to talk
about a whole range of things. But what is also true is, me making a statement
that this is important, bringing it up in a bilateral
meeting makes a difference. It gives other countries pause. It makes them reflect on whether
or not they are doing what they should be doing. And so I would just urge those
of us who have that capacity to make sure that this
is on our agenda. It’s not the only agenda,
but it is an important aspect of the agenda, and us bringing
it up does make a difference. I would also say
that it’s important, as has already been noted,
that we don’t just issue strong pronouncements, but
we also have action behind it. And a number of specific things
have already been mentioned: Making sure that we’re sharing
best practices effectively. What Doug talked about in
terms of gathering model laws, essentially, that then could
empower Otto and others who are in the field to say, this is what would help us in
terms of providing protections. That’s something very
specific that we can do. Making sure that we find ways
to adequately fund civil society groups in ways that are less
easily characterized as being tools of the United
States or Western powers — I think that’s an
area where philanthropy can make a big difference. And I’ve talked to my team about
are there ways in which we could internationalize
funding for these efforts so that they’re
less easily caricatured. I also think it’s going to be
important for us to continue to shine the spotlight on the issue
and publicize these issues in more effective ways,
particularly at a time when much of the efforts that
we’ve heard about have to do with restricting access to the
Internet — are there ways that we can use the Internet
more effectively to open up space rather
than to see that space closed. So the instructions to my team
and my government are that we are going to put our full
support behind these efforts. What we want to see
is concrete outcomes, not just window-dressing. We will continue to try to
mobilize as many countries as possible to get involved
in this process. And we do so because,
ultimately, we believe that governments that
are representative and accountable to their people
are going to be more peaceful, they’re going to
be more prosperous, they’re going to be
better partners for us. It is not just charity;
it is something that we believe is in our national interests
and our security interests. We’ve all observed, I think,
some of the convulsions that have been taking
place in the Arab Spring, and I think it’s
a reminder that things are not always a smooth path. But I want to
affirm that over the long run 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,
or that ethnic minority or that religious minority, if they have
a voice and their dignity is respected, that’s what
will preserve our dignity and that’s what will ensure our
security over the long term. That’s why we’re
invested in this. That’s why I’m very excited about all the
work that we’re doing. And that’s why I want to say
thank you to all of you who participated. [applause]

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