Fairly overshadowed by his statements on combating the threat of ISIL and Climate Change, his meetings with world leaders who came to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama used his remarks to the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative to announce a Presidential directive mobilizing the U.S. Government to address the global crackdown on civil society.
These are “the men and women from around the world who devote their lives and, at times, risk their lives to lifting up their communities, and strengthening their nations, and claiming universal rights on behalf of their fellow citizens.”
President Obama expanded the United States’ commitment to Stand with Civil Society which he launched a year ago, by issuing a Presidential Memorandum to U.S. agencies engaged abroad.
“Across the globe, no country does more to strengthen civil society than America. And one year ago, here in New York, I pledged that the United States would do even more, and I challenged the world to join us in this cause. Working with many of you, that’s what we’ve done. And today I’m proud to announce a series of new steps:
“First, partnering and protecting civil society groups around the world is now a mission across the U.S. government,” he said. So under a new presidential memorandum that I’m issuing today, federal departments and agencies will consult and partner more regularly with civil society groups. They will oppose attempts by foreign governments to dictate the nature of our assistance to civil society. And they will oppose efforts by foreign governments to restrict freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and expression. So this is not just a matter of the State Department, or USAID. It’s across the government -— this is part of American leadership.
“Second, we’re creating new innovation centers to empower civil society groups around the world. And I want to thank our partners in this effort, including the government of Sweden and the Aga Khan Development Network. Starting next year, civil society groups will be able to use these centers to network and access knowledge and technology and funding that they need to put their ideas into action. And we’ll start with six centers in Latin America, in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East and in Asia. Oppressive governments are sharing “worst practices” to weaken civil society. We’re going to help you share the “best practices” to stay strong and vibrant.
“Number three, we’re expanding our support and funding for the Community of Democracies to better coordinate the diplomacy and pressure that we bring to bear. And this means more support for those who are fighting against the laws that restrict civil society. In recent years, we’ve worked together to prevent new limits on civil society from Kenya to Cambodia. And we’ve helped expand the space for civil society in countries from Honduras to Tunisia to Burma. And standing together, we can do even more.
“And finally, we’re increasing our support to society groups across the board. We’re going to increase our emergency assistance to embattled NGOs. We’ll do more to match groups with the donors and funding that they need. And in the coming months, our Treasury Department will finalize regulations so it’s even easier and less costly for your foundations to make grants overseas,” he said to applause.
“We’ll increase our legal assistance and technical support to those pushing back against onerous laws and regulations. And through our Open Government Partnership, we’ll help more governments truly partner with civil society. We’ll continue to stand up for a free and open Internet, so individuals can access information and make up their own minds about the issues that their countries confront.
“And through our programs to engage young leaders around the world, we’re helping to build the next generation of civil society leaders. And our message to those young people is simple: America stands with you.”
In his remarks to CGI, Obama lauded the importance of citizens who stand up for their communities, often facing grave danger and adversity, such as the health organizations caretakers battling the spread of Ebola.
“As we do every time this year, Presidents and Prime Ministers converge on this great city to advance important work. But as leaders, we are not the most important people here today. It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have the more lasting impact, because as the saying goes, the most important title is not president or prime minister; the most important title is citizen.
“It is citizens — ordinary men and women, determined to forge their own future — who throughout history have sparked all the great change and progress. It was citizens here in America who worked to abolish slavery, who marched for women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights. They are the reason I can stand here today as President of the United States. It’s citizens who, right now, are standing up for the freedom that is their God-given right.
“And I’ve seen it myself, in the advocates and activists that I’ve met all over the world. I’ve seen it in the courage of Berta Soler, the leader of Cuba’s Ladies in White who endure harassment and arrest in order to win freedom for their loved ones and for the Cuban people. I’ve seen it in the determination of Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg who speak up for rule of law and human rights. I’ve seen it the passion of advocates in Senegal who nurture their democracy, and young Africans across the continent who are helping to marshal in Africa’s rise. I’ve seen it the hope of young Palestinians in Ramallah, who dream of building their future in a free and independent state. I see it in the perseverance of men and women in Burma who are striving to build a democracy against the odds.”
And he singled out individuals at CGI: Miriam Canales, who operates outreach centers for youngsters fleeing the violence of Honduras; Sopheap Chak, of Cambodia, an activist for justice; Walid Ali of Kenya, helping young people without jobs; and John Gad of Egypt, help women and girls recover from violence and sexual assault.
“These citizens remind us why civil society is so essential. When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective. When entrepreneurs are free to create and develop new ideas, then economies are more innovative, and attract more trade and investment, and ultimately become more prosperous.
“When communities, including minorities, are free to live and pray and love as they choose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people -— including, perhaps especially, women and girls -— then those countries are more likely to thrive. If you want strong, successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies. When citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make our communities healthier, our environment cleaner, and our world safer, that’s when real change comes.
“And we see this spirit in the new commitments you’re making here at CGI to help the people of West Africa in their fight against Ebola.”
President Obama pointed to the success of the global campaign against anti-personnel landmines, with the announcement that the US will not use anti-personnel landmines,”outside of the unique circumstances of the Korean Peninsula,” and will begin destroying stockpiles.
“The point is this started in civil society,” he said. “That’s what prompted action by President Clinton and by myself. And promoting civil society that can surface issues and push leadership is not just in keeping with our values, it’s not charity. It’s in our national interests. Countries that respect human rights -— including freedom of association — happen to be our closest partners. That is not an accident. Conversely, when these rights are suppressed, it fuels grievances and a sense of injustice that over time can fuel instability or extremism. So I believe America’s support for civil society is a matter of national security.
“It is precisely because citizens and civil society can be so powerful -— their ability to harness technology and connect and mobilize at this moment so unprecedented -— that more and more governments are doing everything in their power to silence them.
“From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive. In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate. From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society. And around the world, brave men and women who dare raise their voices are harassed and attacked and even killed.
“So today, we honor those who have given their lives. Among them, in Cameroon, Eric Lembembe; in Libya, Salwa Bugaighis; in Cambodia, Chut Wutty; in Russia, Natalia Estemirova. We stand in solidarity with those who are detained at this very moment. In Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez; in Burundi, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa; in Egypt, Ahmed Maher; in China, Liu Xiaobo; and now Ilham Tohti; in Vietnam, Father Ly. And so many others. They deserve to be free. They ought to be released.
“This growing crackdown on civil society is a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy. And what’s needed is an even stronger campaign to defend democracy….”
But the Obama pointed to the realities that compel working with governments that do not uphold human rights, and said he won’t apologize for doing so.
“We live in a complicated world,” he said. “We’ve got imperfect choices. The reality is sometimes, for instance, for the sake of our national security, the United States works with governments that do not fully respect the universal rights of their citizens. These are choices that I, as President, constantly have to make. And I will never apologize for doing everything in my power to protect the safety and security of the American people. That is my first and primary job,” he said to applause. “But that does not mean that human rights can be simply sacrificed for the sake of expediency.
“So although it is uncomfortable, although it sometimes causes friction, the United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms. We will not stop doing that, because that’s part of who we are, and that’s part of what we stand for.
“And when governments engage in tactics against citizens and civil society, hoping nobody will notice, it is our job to shine a spotlight on that abuse. And when individuals like the one I introduced are being held down, it’s our job to help lift them back up. When they try to wall you off from the world, we want to connect you with each other. When your governments may try to pass oppressive laws, we’ll try to oppose them. When they try to cut off your funding, we’re going to try to give you a lifeline. And when they try to silence you, we want to amplify your voice.
“And if, amid all the restrictions, and all the pressure, and all the harassment, and all the fear, if they try to tell you that the world does not care and that your friends have forsaken you, do not ever believe it. Because you are not alone. You are never alone. Your fellow advocates stand with you, and your communities stand with you. Your friends around the world stand with you. The United States of America stands with you, and its President stands with you.
“The reason we support civil society is because we have seen in this country of ours that it does, in fact, bend toward justice. But it does not do so on its own. It does so because there are hands of ordinary people doing extraordinary things every single day and they pull that arc in the direction of justice.”
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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