Barack Obama photo

Remarks at a Roundtable Discussion on Civil Society in New York City

September 23, 2013

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.

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.

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 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 are 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.

[At this point, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson of the United Nations made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

President Obama. Thank you very much. Next, I'd like to hear from Mr. Arreola.

[Alejandro Gonzalez Arreola, cofounder and director general of the Mexican civil society organization GESOC, made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

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 Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Mongolia made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

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.

[United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

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.

[Khin Lay, founder of the Burmese civil society organization Triangle Women Support Group, made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

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 that 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.

[Otto Saki, former acting director of the Zimbabwean civil society organization Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

President Obama. The—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 have 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, 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's 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 set 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.

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you for convening us. And thank you for your passion and your authentic leadership.

[Mr. Walker's microphone malfunctioned.]

President Obama. Let's get that mike working. Do we have another one?

[Mr. Walker was given a new microphone.]

President Obama. That was not an instance of censorship——

Mr. Walker. Thank you. Thank you.

President Obama. ——simply a technical difficulty.

Mr. Walker. Thank you very much.

[Mr. Walker made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

President Obama. Thank you. Let's close out by hearing from Douglas Rutzen, who is the chief executive officer of the Center for Non-for-Profit Law, who's doing some outstanding work. Doug.

[Douglas Rutzen, president and chief executive officer of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, made remarks, but no transcript was provided by the Office of the Press Secretary.]

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's 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 when 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. Okay?

All right. Thank you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 3:02 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown hotel.

Barack Obama, Remarks at a Roundtable Discussion on Civil Society in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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